Martin's column

One of the things that never seems to change much is the priority those involved in finding a new minister for their congregation place on preaching and pastoral care. Why don’t they ask whether a new minister is going to be any good at eating and drinking with prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners? I guess we all have our priorities. But is any congregation in New Zealand going to pay my stipend so that I can spend my days, and nights, probably, eating and drinking with this interesting group of people? (Though I am not quite sure about tax collectors – but then again Matthew sounds like a suitably interesting sort of person. I suppose tax collectors in Jesus time weren’t exactly the suit-wearing IRD types of today.)

Jesus seems to have enjoyed the company of rich and poor sinners. But as followers of his and as “ministers of word and sacrament” it can sound like our very identity and being is enshrined in the rules and teachings of the institutional Church. Can the Church that gives us a title also allow its ministers the freedom and support to meet challenges involving the incarnation of the Gospel in the communities of those absent from our Sunday congregations? I think it would be very refreshing to hear of a congregation say to a prospective minister, “we’ve got some good pastoral carers and even a few good preachers among us – we want you to spend most of your time leading us in ways of bringing the Gospel to those who aren’t here on Sunday morning”.

For the sake of the wellbeing of both our colleagues and the congregations we serve, not to mention those entrusted with minister selection and training, it seems more important than ever that we have some clarity regarding the role of those who we train and call as ministers. In my work, one of the most significant areas of tension that exist in congregations is where there is divergence between a minister and his or her congregation about expectations relating to the role of minister.

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to attend a day-long seminar run by Brian McLaren. Brian is a prominent American religious commentator and has written several books about the nature of the church in Western society and the diverse forms that Christian worship and community may take in the future. He talked about the phenomena of “emergence” and about the possibilities created when those working alone developing new forms of Christian community and ministry begin connecting with others doing similar things in other places.

One of the things that struck me in his address related to the integrity of those who have been called into ministry and receive support from churches, congregations and religious institutions. On one hand, you and I believe we have some vocation or calling to serve in ministry, but we have also been called by a congregation to leadership and service in the context of that congregation’s life and witness. While we can affirm God’s providence, there is a relationship for most of us between the Sunday offerings and our economic well being – especially when things are a bit tight at home.

Brian challenged us, saying that we need to pay our dues and fulfil our commitments and obligations to those who support our ministry, but also and quite deliberately, make time and commit to something else, some other activity that embodies a new possibility for what God may be calling forth, but isn’t necessarily dependent on the approval or support of the congregation that we are called to serve and on which we financially depend.

There is nothing particularly new in this idea, but it is never the less a difficult topic. To say, one way or another, to our parish council or session that “even though you have called me, and even though you provide my stipend, there is still something more which I believe I am called to do or be part of”. Such a claim can be the height of arrogance, or even an excuse for not fulfilling our commitments, but if what we are involved with now is it, is that enough?

The images Brian projected challenged us to live almost within two ecclesiological constructs at the same time. The church we work and serve in now, and the church as it may become. This challenge has led me to think of how to contribute in more intentional ways to the building of small faith communities based on hospitality. Again, nothing new in this idea, but we have just started inviting people, some of who we do not know that well, on a more regular and intentional basis, to share in a meal and to talk about issues of faith and life. I do not think any of the people we have invited so far have been tax collectors, but eating and drinking with sinners is as good now as it always has been.

Have a great Christmas – thanks for your support through the year.