Are ministers essential?
Hadn’t signed up for an away day for a while, so I thought I would sign up for the one day preaching conference at New College in Edinburgh last week. I believe the day was videoed so it should come up on the Church of Scotland website at some point. It was a good day, well organised, and the excellent speakers spoke not only of the historical centrality of preaching in the Reformed Church but of the continued importance today of the centrality of the Word preached in our worship and life as a Church. The need was also mentioned of continuing to provide sound theological training for preachers, for the need to make it a priority in the weekly diary to hone that sermon, and to make space in our lives as preachers for reading to enhance this “craft”. After all, this is not just part of what ministry entails, it is central since we are ordained to Word and Sacrament! Cups of tea and biscuits can also be part of our ministry but not necessarily central!
So correct me if I’m wrong (!!!), but I sat there and concluded from this excellent day that ministers were essential in the Church of Scotland! What then are we to do when one out of three Churches are vacant in the future and the Rev Jimmy wants to go on holiday and take study leave? Who does the preaching in his Church and in the neighbouring vacant one? Yes, all the usual folk we get now (or struggle to get now), but this number is also being stretched. Good news is that we do have some folk willing to lead worship who are not ordained – great when it happens and volunteers can be found but they are not trained preachers – what if this situation continues and pop-up theologically educated and trained preachers cannot be found to fill all the gaps?
If preaching is central and educated and trained ministers essential, then in my tiny mind we have a quandary! Either ministers are essential and therefore we need to recruit like mad or we need to project the sermon in by modern media where there is no preacher or we need to reduce the number of Churches more akin to the number of preachers available! (Like that idea, however there are several more good reasons to reduce the number of Churches than simply missing a preacher!) Or, if you wish to conclude that trained ministers are not essential and we can get by without them in certain places, then who does the preaching and is it therefore central after all?
Now, on my reform website under “Flying kites of change”, sub-heading “New paths into ministry” this paragraph appears…
The Ministries Council, in its Assembly report of 2016, stated "That is not to recommend that the presence of a full-time Minister of Word and Sacrament is not desirable, but rather to demonstrate that it is not essential to the mission of Jesus Christ." So, if ministers are desirable but not essential, what is the role of a minister? And why do we train them up over several years if they are not essential? Why the big recruitment drive also over recent years if ministers are not essential?
And to add to that, why have a day on the importance and centrality of preaching if ministers are not essential. In my confused little mind, there is a contradiction here, or is it me? Like the beer advert, probably!
We must do better than look at the future and say ministers are desirable but not essential as we seek to cover the gap and comfort vacant congregations. There is probably a good reason why congregations still fall over themselves in the quest to secure a minister…though they probably want him or her to do a thousand other things, could it be that they miss the regular preacher who still gathers them round the Word? Could it be that preaching is still central to the Reformed Church?
If preaching is central (coupled with my conclusion that ministers must therefore be essential), then who is introducing the reforms needed to address the situation…improving the education process for ministers, solving the manse question, dealing with congregational expectations, ministerial support to provide the space for reading and crafting the sermon…changing the structures of the Church to meet a modern ministry, offloading the burdens of an outdated system…boldly introducing robust Presbytery planning etc.?
Answer the question: are ministers essential? And whichever way you answer, you have to introduce reform!