Question d - Fulfilling Ministry

Site: Equip PC(USA) Training
Course: Coming Alive in Christ: Training for PC(USA) Ruling Elders and Deacons based on the Constitutional Questions
Book: Question d - Fulfilling Ministry
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Date: Thursday, June 20, 2024, 7:17 AM


W-4.0404 d.—Will you fulfill your ministry in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions?

Is it me?

W-4.0404 d.—Will you fulfill your ministry in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions?

Presbyterian churches across the country include in their worship materials or print in church directories and on their signs: “Ministers: All members of the church.” If one were to pause and think about its meaning, it would pose a challenge to the understanding of call for each person sitting in worship—whether they are sitting among the congregation or in the chancel area. From the congregation, worshippers often see themselves as passively engaged in the “action” during the service. From the chancel, leaders often seem to embrace a hierarchy of religious importance.

Our theological confessions challenge this division: “In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’” (BOC, A Brief Statement of Faith, 11.4,  Lines 72–76). It is important to note that the writers of A Brief Statement of Faith, approved at the reunion of the northern and southern streams of the Presbyterian church, intentionally said, “we,” without distinguishing between role and responsibilities within the church. Too often the pastor of a congregation is seen as the only one who has a ministry. They’ve been educated at a seminary, taken the necessary exams, and passed through the oversight of a presbytery committee to be ordained. They’ve made service to the church a professional vocation. Many who have not gone through this process see it as a higher calling to which they, themselves, cannot commit.

It is important to remember that all people are called to be a part of the body of Christ, serving as valued members of the whole with the gifts and talents bestowed by God. We believe that each member is necessary to the body; we simply cannot function without each part working together, no matter the supposed hierarchical value that is placed on one’s contributions.

With this in mind, what would it look like to focus time with church leaders on deepening one’s own spiritual journey and continued discernment of call: a focus on the journey thus far? How might this kind of reflection allow ruling elders and deacons to think about their whole life as a journey, bringing them to this place and time to serve the congregation and communities around them? Would this reflection encourage continued, individual growth as they fulfill their vocation?

Discernment is a lifelong process, one that is often illuminated through hindsight and reflection on what has been, in order to see where God has called us in the present as well as where we might be heading in the future. Training congregational leaders in discernment allows them to hone in on the gifts and experiences God has bestowed, and will bestow, to make them the servants that God calls them to be. An investment in leadership allows deacons and elders to see their work as ministry, first and foremost.

For Reflection and Discussion:

In what ways have you engaged in practices of discernment; listening for the ways in which God is calling you? How might your community of faith assist you in beginning or continuing this practice?

What are some ways that your session of board of deacons can engage together in strengthening your spiritual lives together as you serve?

What does it really mean to obey Jesus Christ?

A church outside of Seattle experienced a break-in the week before Christmas. The individual shattered the glass at the front entrance and found their way into the main office, which prompted the security alarm to go off. The intruder fled empty-handed to avoid a confrontation with the police.

It is easy to imagine that the church leadership took the typical responsible steps: arrived at the church, assessed the situation, swept up the glass, boarded up the windows, and considered how to better protect their building. Perhaps they even grumbled about the non-budgeted expenses that they would now have to incur because of this “outsider.”

But on Sunday morning, the pastors approached the communion table with a vase full of broken glass and said, “This past week, someone broke into our building. Someone needed something that we had here and was desperate enough to push their way in. So now they are a part of our community. They are a member of this church.”

That Sunday, as well as many Sundays that followed, the congregation prayed for their newest member. The vase of broken glass remained on the communion table as a reminder of who the congregation was called to be.

A few years after the incident, one of the pastors said this, “… nothing more came from that specific situation—other than a decision to change our alarm company. However, it did launch us into an all-church, and all-neighborhood, intentional discussion to support houseless folk. It’s been a rough year trying to change culture, both in the church and in the community. For example, it all came to a boil when we allowed a guy to live in his RV in our parking lot. But because of that, we have an even stronger relationship with our police department who send people to us who we can support. We also created a Community Assistance Plan, which includes a team and a designated fund. Best part—we got some non-churchgoing neighbors to be on our team with us!”

The Confession of 1967 compels us to consider a life that eagerly seeks transformation: “With an urgency born of this hope, the church applies itself to present tasks and strives for a better world. It does not identify limited progress with the kingdom of God on earth, nor does it despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. In steadfast hope, the church looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God” (BOC, The Confession of 1967, 9.55). This call was as central to Christ’s ministry as it is to us today: he ministered to the sick, poor, outcast, marginalized, and forgotten people around him. While he had a fair number of followers and admirers, he also had critics who did not like the ways he bent the rules to embrace love. Yet Jesus did not allow the negative responses to persuade him to turn away from the neighbors whom he saw as the most in need.

This suburban church possessed an unrelenting response of abundant, boundless love in the midst of challenge. The willingness to remain open when someone broke into their space, bearing a response that illustrated the wideness of God’s mercy, is the same kind of upending love that we are called to reflect in our own lives. Obedience to Jesus Christ shows our willingness to get out of our own way, letting go of what we believe to be possible, right, or lawful, for a reality that God knows to be true.

For Reflection and Discussion:

While your congregation may not have experienced the trauma of a break-in, what experiences have you had together that have led you to look at your life in ministry together in a transformative way? What are some ways that you can move forward in transformation together?

Why does the past matter?

During the celebration of the 100th anniversary of a congregational women’s guild, the pastor called the children up during worship and began describing a time when women could only serve churches in guilds or were resigned to the traditional female roles of hospitality, running socials, and cooking.

But a young boy sitting in front of the pastor interrupted and shouted out, “WHAT?! Why did they stay? Why didn’t they just go down the street to another church?”

It sounded ridiculous to him that women would remain with a church that did not allow them to fully serve in the ways that he was so familiar. He never knew a world where women couldn’t be elders, deacons, or pastors. He couldn’t fathom a space where women would resign themselves to stay and fight for equality because, in his eyes, they could do anything their male counterparts could.

Photo of an open windowThis story is a reminder of the significance of knowing and sharing history from one’s congregation, the denomination, and the Christian traditions from which Presbyterians draw their roots. The blessings of the church are to be celebrated alongside the challenges and hard-won victories of life together. The confessions represent pieces of the church’s history and responses to the contextual needs of people of faith at that time. When we claim these documents as an important part of the story of our faith, it doesn’t mean we affirm or condone the social circumstances in which they were written. Instead, we are to be guided by the confessions as a means through which we can understand where we came from and where we strive to go.

The word order of this ordination question is just as important as what it requires of its respondents. The ordained are to be obedient to Christ, standing under Scripture’s authority, and then guided by the confessions. Jesus was continually criticized for not following the mandates of his faith found in the Hebrew Scriptures and yet he continued to act in seemingly contradictory ways to show a life lived with compassion and love. In this way, we should be familiar with the Old and New Testaments, but not let a strict interpretation result in actions that exclude, ignore, or hurt others. Finally, the confessions act as windows into our faith: reflections of who the church believes itself to be and the injustices it has overcome to seek the kingdom of God in its life together.

For Reflection and Discussion:

Keeping in mind that “the confessions represent pieces of the church’s history and responses to the contextual needs of people of faith at that time,” what confession are you interested in learning more about?

What Scripture passages have been foundational in your faith journey?

* The Presbyterian Historical Society, the National Archives of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), provides access to the widest historical collection of the PC(USA) and its predecessor denominations.


Called to lead: But, where?! How?!

Rachel Held Evans was a Christian writer and blogger who said, “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.”[1] What a wonderful challenge as churches seek to minister to the community, neighborhoods, nation, and the whole world around them. The church is one of the places in people’s lives where they should be able to fully be who they are. It is a sacred space where everyone should be able to bring their strengths and brokenness, struggles and triumphs, all without fear of judgment. This is certainly a gift in a society that regularly tells people to act, dress, and be a certain way. The outer pressures are mounting and yet, Christian sanctuaries should be a relief from the worldly pressures as well as laboratories to explore who we are called to be.

Healthy congregations today are able to adapt to the needs that are around them. Congregations often reminisce about the mid-twentieth century heyday of American Christianity: a time when the doors would open, and people simply walked in wearing their Sunday finest. It was a time when denominational ties were an important identity marker and, for the most part, everything shut down when Sunday morning worship took place. Perhaps these easy successes led to the complacency to equip leaders, gauging relevancy and vitality simply by annual membership and attendance numbers rather than discipleship and ministry.

This changing Christian landscape requires an expanded understanding of ministry—one that makes use of the unique gifts, talents, and possessions bestowed to each person. The church will be led to new places when they are willing to follow the Spirit, hearing the voices of all God’s people (including those who share visions that seem impossible, improbable, and outright crazy), and responding with trust to God’s call in their life together. If anyone can make the impossible possible, surely it is God!

New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Albany, New York, realized that, though several different community groups utilized their building each week, they didn’t know much about them. They looked at their assets and realized that their large parking lot could be more than simply a place for cars. They dreamed up the idea of a farmer’s market as a place to tie together all of these communities and groups. In the first summer they welcomed 50–60 people each week. More than eight years later, hundreds come through their parking lot to connect with and fellowship alongside others in the community.

The farmer’s market not only connected the church with those who use their building, but it also drew them out into the neighborhood. It pushed them outside of the sanctuary walls into the lives of those around them. It succeeded not only in adding to the church’s ministries, but also creating spaces for all who walk onto the parking lot to dream of the ways they contribute to the community.

One Sunday morning at a church in New Jersey, a seven-year-old boy hesitantly approached the front of the sanctuary in the line for communion. As he neared the front of the line, the pastor knelt down and looked him right in the eye with a smile, “Jonathan, this is the body of Christ for YOU!”

He took a tiny crumb (as so many adults before him had) and started to walk toward the chalice, aware that he shouldn’t hold up the line behind him. But the pastor said urgently, “Take more! A piece as big as God’s love for you.”

He skipped away with a smile on his face and two big hunks of bread dripping in grape juice in either hand.

Even the youngest among us have a place at Christ’s table.

Ordained leaders—whether deacons, ruling elders, or pastors—are the front line that invests in the lives of the youngest to the oldest, the long-standing member or the first-time visitor, and every single person who walks through the church’s doors. They are called to encourage them to seek the life to which they are made in Christ, just as they seek to do the same in their own. Elders do this with attention to worship, education, and governance of the whole congregation. Deacons focus on the spiritual and physical needs so that people can be whole. Pastors preach, teach, and lead in ways that equip and engage those around them.

One’s call can be as big as planning a farmer’s market or as simple as reminding a child that there is a seat at Christ’s table for them, too. It can be just as daunting as it is exciting and inspiring to say, “Yes, I will serve!” What comes after the commitment to the ordination vows before the gathered congregation in worship is a testimony to the beliefs, hopes, dreams, and faith of the one who offers their service.

No one walks this journey alone. Fellow ruling elders and deacons can discern the way forward together, walking through the boundaries of committees’ autonomy and efficiency to engage in collaborative ministry with others. The pastor or pastors serve as resources and guides for the church’s vision, both in the present and for the future. Presbytery and national office leaders can provide denominational resources and trends that may enhance your ministries. All leaders should pray often, read Scripture as a daily practice, and familiarize themselves with the history, confessions, and polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). These acts will be foundational to the call to serve the church for such a time as this.

The encouragement Paul offered to the church in Ephesus is a touchstone for all Christians, but especially congregational leaders: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph 4:1).

For Reflection and Discussion:

How might your community of leaders engage in collaborative ministry and engage in this ordination vow together?

[1] Rachel Held Evans, Seaching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.

Additional Resource

Reyes, Patrick B. Nobody Cries When We Die: God, Community, and Surviving to Adulthood. Chalice Press: St. Louis, 2016.


About the writer

The Reverend Larissa Kwong Abazia is a graduate of Rutgers University and Princeton Theological Seminary. She has been ordained as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) since 2007 and served congregations in Chicago, Queens, Connecticut, and throughout New Jersey. Larissa is passionate about racial justice and congregational transformation, challenging the assumptions of life together for the new stories God seeks to tell today. She represented the denomination as the Vice Moderator of the 221st General Assembly (2014) and currently serves on the General Assembly Committee on Representation.

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