In working with groups around the issue of lay ministry—or what I’ve come to call the “ministry of all”—I’ve developed a guided meditation based on Paul’s struggles to be accepted as a minister. The meditation invites participants to imagine the obstacles that might block individuals within their congregations from living fully as ministers. It has been fascinating to listen to the obstacles that emerge for people during that experience. My sense of those obstacles also has developed as I have worked with groups, been in conversation with individuals, and read the works of others.
Although I believe we must address all of these obstacles if we are to live into the ministry of all, I think there are two that present the greatest challenge. First, I believe many people within congregations operate with a vision of ministry that is too limited. For some of us, that limited vision results in our viewing ministry as something best done by professionals. For others, it means limiting ministry to that which is done within the confines of—or, at the very least, through the sponsorship of—the church.
Second, we live compartmentalized lives. What we do on Sunday isn’t connected with what we do in the rest of our lives—and that compartmentalization has an impact on clergy as well as laity.
How are we to overcome the obstacles of a limited vision of ministry and of compartmentalized lives? What are things that we can do—indeed, must do—if we are to live into a vision of the ministry of all?
Overcoming these obstacles to the ministry of all calls for a cultural shift in our congregations. At least three things can help us make that shift: do theology, practice spirituality, and tell stories.
In one of the congregations I served, we began a class on “thinking theologically.” Each week we explored a specific theological question or issue. I’ll never forget one particular Sunday morning. We were in the middle of a fairly intense discussion when a class member pushed his chair back, slapped his palms on the table, and demanded, “Why has no one ever asked me to think about these questions before?” The young man was a successful attorney. He had grown up in the church and attended a denominationally affiliated college. He had served in a number of leadership roles in his current congregation, including a term as board chair.
As we talked later, he explained that his “doing” of theology—being more intentional about identifying the important questions in his life and exploring how his answers to those questions might shape his beliefs and actions—was providing a new framework for him. He was beginning to see how the various aspects of his life could connect in meaningful ways. He also was recognizing that what he did—both within and outside the congregation—was in some way ministry.
Congregations can help individuals reclaim the responsibility of doing theology. Preaching and liturgy can offer avenues for people to enter into theological inquiry. Small groups can provide time and space for individuals to ask hard questions. Leaders can help others reflect theologically on specific situations by guiding them through questions such as: Where is God present for me in this situation? What questions does this situation raise about my beliefs? What can I learn about myself and about God through this situation?
If spirituality is the lived experience of our faith, then we can’t insist that it be a one-size-fits-all approach to spiritual life. The way in which I experience and express my faith may not be the same way in which you experience and express your faith. Each of us must find ways in which to live out our faith that are personally meaningful and authentic.
And yet spirituality calls us back into the context of our faith community. This communal aspect of spirituality provides us with a framework of tradition and understanding. It provides us with an ongoing reminder that the faith we experience and express calls us to something larger and richer than our own needs and desires. And it provides us with traveling companions for our spiritual journey.
Congregations can provide opportunities through which people may explore their own sense of spirituality and try on a variety of experiences and practices. These opportunities can encourage individuals to experiment with and expand their experiences and expressions of faith; to make connections within their own lives, their faith community, and the world; and to discover a spirituality that is enlivening and empowering. The result may well be the tumbling of obstacles that prevent people from claiming their own place in the ministry of all.
The power of story has reemerged as a topic for consideration—thanks in large part to the work of Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Gardner has sparked thinking about the importance of narrative, especially for leaders.
In Gardner’s definition of story, there must be a protagonist, goals, obstacles, and an ultimate resolution. He explains that story is a “more encompassing, realistic, enveloping thing” than a message or vision or slogan. The telling of a new story asks an individual to “put aside or reject the story you have grown up with, believed in, internalized and seen yourself as a character in.”1 Stories can help bring about such shifts or changes in our lives both individually and corporately as congregations.
Stories in their purest form help us create new worlds. Not worlds of escape or denial, but worlds in which the best and truest parts of our lives and the lives of others find a place to take root, grow strong, and blossom. In these new worlds, we can celebrate and draw strength from the positive energy of life. Nurtured by the stories that create these worlds, we can dare to dream, dare to take flight.
Stories also provide us with a context for how we live and interpret our lives. Our Jewish sisters and brothers understand the importance of this aspect of storytelling. With care and intentionality, they tell stories around their religious observances as a powerful way of explaining what they are doing and why.
Stories allow us to connect with other people. Think about the stories your family has shared around the dining room table. In and of themselves, those stories really hold no significance. It’s the connection they provide that makes them so important. What you do and what I do become what we do. The stories stitch us together.
For all of those reasons, telling our stories and hearing other people’s stories can help us live into a vision of the ministry of all. Those stories can help us imagine new possibilities for ourselves and others. They can infuse what we do with new meaning so that we are able to see it as ministry. They can connect our individual efforts into a powerful ministry of all.
Adapted from “A Ministry of All,” which originally appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of Congregations magazine, copyright © 2004 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go to our permissions form.
“A Ministry of All” by Kathryn Palen, former director of consulting and education at the Alban Institute, won an award of excellence in the Religion Communicators Council’s 2005 DeRose/Hinkhouse Memorial Communications Awards.
1. Howard Gardner is quoted by Edward Prewitt in “Getting from Oranges to Apples” in the online publication CIO Magazine (April 1, 2004).
Reflecting with God: Connecting Faith and Daily Life in Small Groups by Abigail Johnson
Abigail Johnson offers a structured process for engaging in theological reflection by looking at a situation or event through a series of questions designed to help individuals and small groups to think through situations with the eyes of faith. Johnson demonstrates how theological reflection will enrich the faith life of the individual and increase group members’ sense of belonging to God and to the whole people of God.
Active Spirituality: A Guide for Seekers and Ministers by Kent Ira Groff
A practical guidebook for the inquiring layperson seeking a holistic, intelligent look at the spiritual life, and for the pastor or religious professional seeking a systematic framework and spiritual practices to re- ignite the flame of faith. Groff explains what it means to believe and what to do after you say you believe. Explore five spiritual disciplines: community, solitude, learning, service, and vocation. Great for study groups.
Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony by Lillian Daniel
Pastor Lillian Daniel describes how the practice of testimony strengthened her church’s lay leadership, fostered more intimate community, and drew the congregation closer to God. The book includes testimonies worshipers heard and reflections from both those who spoke and those who listened to these stories about God at work in the world. Daniel and her congregation discovered that speaking about God’s transformation had the power to transform their church