The Border Parish comprises three small congregations—All Saints Anglican Church in Hereford, Quebec; St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Canaan, Vermont; and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Colebrook, New Hampshire. The members have prayed and studied together for 30 years. Marilyn Neary, vicar of St. Stephen’s, says that ministry in the remote region has survived “because we have tried to live fully into our baptismal vows.” When the relationship began in the early 20th century, none of the three congregations could attract or retain seminary-trained clergy for long. When seminary-trained priests could be found, they were often newly ordained and served for only a short time. “I guess you could say that we grew into shared ministry because of benign neglect,” Neary says. “But we came to the realization that we all share in the ministry here because we are all ministers.”1
The organization of the Border Parish, Neary explains, now consists of an administrative team of laity and clergy who “pray, study, and do the deeds of Christ in the community.” None of the leaders of the Border Parish have formal seminary training; those who are clergy were “called out” of their congregations and ordained and trained locally. The congregations have a shared worship schedule, participate ecumenically, and share the hosting of educational and social events. While the parish is based on a “baptismal ministry” model, it also preserves and affirms the individual identities and strengths of each congregation. “You can have sheep and cows in the same pasture, and it won’t overgraze the field,” Neary observes.
The Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, works in partnership with the dioceses of northern New England—Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont—to support baptismal ministry in the region. The Pastoral Excellence Project of the Episcopal Divinity School, funded through the Lilly Endowment, seeks to nurture, sustain, and provide education and training for laity and clergy in areas traditionally underserved by their denominations and seminaries, and often challenged by the need to spread limited resources over vast geographical areas. In these contexts, the affirmation of baptismal ministry within congregations has not only stretched resources, but has revitalized congregations through a renewed sense of their vocation in their communities and the world. Further, the affirmation of the ministry of all the baptized has moved congregations from traditional, hierarchical, “clergy know best” models of religious leadership into a way of being that values the gifts of the whole community.
Ministry Rooted in Mutuality
The concept of baptismal ministry is based in Scripture and the practice of the early church. Also known as “shared ministry,” “mutual ministry,” “total common ministry,” and the “ministry of the baptized,” it has been concerned over the past 30 years with how the “clerically-centered model of congregational life and mission increasingly limits both ministry delivery and the sacramental life of the church.”2 Kevin Thew Forrester, ministry development coordinator in the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan, defines baptismal ministry as “a way of talking about how we live in a community of brothers and sisters where leadership is no longer structured around a hierarchy of those of greater or lesser importance, but around the mutual nurturing of the gifts of all members of the community.”3 Forrester suggests that Jesus proclaimed an alternative kind of community rooted in mutuality and human freedom. A baptismally grounded church is one where ministry is not the prerogative only of the ordained, but one in which all members of the congregation have the opportunity to identify their gifts and to form them into ministry for the church and the world. “To be baptized is to become one who accepts the call to serve others,” Forrester says. “Baptism and ministry are two sides of the same coin. . . . Whether it be preaching, healing, teaching, parenthood, nursing, public service, or the arts, these ministries are the unfolding of our baptismal ministry.”4
Nancy Moore, coordinator of the Pastoral Excellence Program in Central Maine and vicar of three congregations there, affirms the impact that a renewed sense of baptismal ministry can have on a congregation. “If I was trying to do ministry in a more traditional model, I probably would be overworked and frantic with three churches; but pastoral care could be done here without me,” says Moore. “We have people here who really take care of each other. But I then have to let go of the need to know everything and control what is going on.” Moore’s experience in Central Maine, like that of the Border Parish, suggests that each congregation evolves according to its own process, and that baptismal ministry moves members to “love one another so we can love the community.” Moore sees her role in the region as “leader, coach, and spiritual midwife—bringing something into life that needs life.” Baptismal ministry can, at first, “really be a hard sell,” she says,” especially if the people don’t believe that ministry is about them.”
More than Financial Motives
Central Maine is an economically depressed area, and none of the three churches there could support full-time clergy leadership, but Nancy Moore stresses that the growing sense of baptismal ministry in the congregation is positive and not simply a response to financial problems. “Economic failure is not a punishment here,” says Moore. “The fact that we are doing all that a church should be doing and that we are self-sufficient is something positive.” Moore tells of an encounter in a local furniture store where she ran into Janet, a member of Church of the Messiah in Dexter, Maine. The owner of the store knows that Moore is a priest, and asked Janet, “Oh, do you go to her church?” Janet smiled at the store owner and replied, “No, she comes to my church.”
Immanuel Church in Bellows Falls, Vermont, is another congregation revitalized through baptismal ministry development. Victor Horvath was ordained an Episcopal priest as part of the ministry discernment process of the congregation. He believes that baptismal ministry “gently challenges a church to reframe its own vision of itself and its priorities.” “In the old model it was fairly easy to subtly pressure people to turn up for some committee or another to ‘do more for the church,’” he says. “In this model, if we truly believe what we say, we are called to respect an individual’s sense of balance and call, and that in turn causes the church to look at its balance and call. Are we willing as a community to let go of aspects of our common life we once held dear—like weeding the garden or making the coffee—in order to support members of the community in answering God’s call to spend time with spouses, visit relatives, or read to their children?” Horvath believes that reclaiming baptismal ministry in a congregation requires a deliberate process of discernment of individuals’ gifts for ministry and sense of calling. “As individuals, once we recognize life as gift and call, how do we then use those gifts and respond to the call to build and support the community of faith?” he asks.
Immanuel Church has about 50 members. Although the congregation has an elegant building, like many congregations in former mill towns throughout New England, Immanuel experienced a long period of decline. An endowment was left to the congregation in the 1950s, so there was enough money to keep the doors open. But by the 1980s Immanuel was a congregation without much sense of shared ministry or identity. A clergy leader in the early 1990s attempted some lay ministry development, but those modest efforts ceased with the dissolution of that pastoral relationship
. Rather than immediately sending a replacement, the diocesan bishop challenged the congregation members first to discern their own gifts for ministry.5
Beginning in 1995, members of Immanuel Church entered into an intensive process that redefined ministry as the calling of all baptized persons, in the church and in the world. “I lived the first 48 years of my life thinking that ministry was ‘church stuff,’” says Victor Horvath. “But what I did at work, or at home, or on weekends came nowhere near to being thought of as ministry. Baptismal ministry, as we have talked it and preached it here, changed all that in a radical way.” A canon pastor was called in 1995 to support the baptismal ministry discernment process. Two years later, a group of interested parishioners called the “Map Makers Group” reflected on the parish-identified issues of identity, communication, commitment to God, spirituality, and church attendance. During this discernment process, “the time had arrived to be a gathered ministering community rather than a community gathered around a minister,” Horvath said. After another year of study and discernment, the Map Makers both “recognized that 98 percent of ministry takes place in the world through the activity of every parishioner” and wanted to explore further “what it would be like to affirm and support those with gifts for more church-based ministries, such as education, stewardship, diaconate, and priestly ministry.”6
Identifying Leadership Gifts
Soon Immanuel Church began to identify members of the congregation for spiritual leadership. The gifts of each member were considered by the whole congregation in the areas of stewardship ministry, education ministry, ecumenical ministry, preacher, deacon, and priest. Parish-wide educational efforts, including newsletter articles, a summer preaching series, and an Advent series were offered. A covenant group was formed, composed of those who responded positively to the invitation for specific ministries; it began a three-year period of study. Those called to the ministries of deacon and priest began the diocesan ordination process. On the Eve of Pentecost in 2003 the covenant group was commissioned and ordained as the ministry support team for Immanuel Church, Bellows Falls.7
Although baptismal ministry is often linked with financial concerns, the Immanuel congregation proves that the benefits extend beyond this need. “We come to the understanding of the ministry of all the baptized not out of a need to save money, but because of the simple reason that it is our baptism that calls each of us to ministry,” the congregation reports. “Money is not an issue for us—the way we carry out Christ’s ministry in and to the world is.”8
Carole Wageman, co-chair of the commission on ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, and author of Report on Baptismal Ministry in Vermont, is impressed by the palpable sense of empowerment and interconnectedness evident in the congregation of Immanuel Church and others that have chosen a baptismal ministry model. The personal growth of parishioners who did not see themselves as ministers and “yet are growing into the ministry is a poignant reminder of the gifts lived out in faithfulness by the early Christian church,” she writes.9
Demographics Not a Liability
Baptismal ministry is a central theme in the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont. The diocese is made up of many small, rural congregations. There are relatively few full-time clergy in the diocese; many congregations are served by part-time, bivocational, or locally trained clergy. Rather than see these demographics as a liability, the diocese uses the opportunity to affirm the ministry of the baptized. “Ministry is the life work of all the people of God. Ministry happens in our gatherings as the church and in the day-to-day living of our lives,” says Thomas Clark Ely, bishop of the diocese.10 He believes that “baptismal ministry helps take us beyond the realm of the church gathered (as important as that is) and more deeply into the realm of the church dispersed, living out its dynamic discipleship in the marketplace of people’s lives—at home, school, work, and community involvement.” Ely also asserts that congregations striving to live more fully into baptismal ministry are more likely to be focused on “mission” rather than “maintenance.”
Baptismal ministry holds up the primary reason for the church’s existence. Though congregations embrace baptismal ministry for different reasons, all enter into intentional processes of prayer and study. “We pray and study in order to do the deeds of Christ in the community,” says Marilyn Neary. As members of a congregation discern their gifts and their call, the study of Scripture encourages members of the congregation to hear God’s voice as it reflects on every aspect of daily life. Through study, prayer, and life in community, the shared nature of God’s call to ministry is brought forth in a dynamic vision of the interaction between the church and the world. The congregation rediscovers the gospel and Jesus’ teaching about ministry and the call of the baptized to work for the restoration of human community and wholeness.
Congregations that embrace baptismal ministry also face challenges. The need to develop the ministries within the congregation persists as a result of turnover. “We have learned that to raise up people from the pew,” says Marilyn Neary of the Border Parish, “you have to live here a while to get a sense of what it is really like. We don’t know who the ‘third generation’ is yet, but we are always on the lookout.” Victor Horvath feels that it might be time to “re-ignite that vision of life as blessing and call” at Immanuel Church, where new parishioners have not yet participated in the ministry discernment process. “So we’re reminding ourselves to preach and teach the basics again,” said Horvath.
Resistance and Challenges
Despite the benefits of baptismal ministry to a congregation, many remain resistant to change and suffer from low expectations. “I have had such a clear vision of the importance of the ministry of all the baptized for so long that I forget that it’s a new—and kind of weird—concept to most people,” says Nancy Moore. “It takes a tremendous amount of energy just to be patient as people discover that I’m not crazy or lazy when I ask them to consider their own ministries. It is also a challenge to get people to drive to attend a meeting, training, or even just an opportunity for fellowship with one another.” Susan Ohlidal, the pastoral enrichment coordinator in the Diocese of Vermont, speaks of the feeling that “we always have to repeat the same message in new ways.” Ohlidal says she sometimes wonders if congregations “are so steeped in the tradition of priest-centered parish life and hierarchical leadership models” that they have difficulty embracing other models.
Baptismal ministry also challenges theological education. It suggests the need for educational models that are accessible to a wider audience than traditional and expensive residential seminary degrees. Congregations interested in exploring baptismal ministry often cite the need for more education and training. “If theological schools took baptismal ministry seriously, theological education would be more grounded, locally astute, culturally diverse, as well as widespread among laity and clergy,” says Fredrica Harris Thompsett, a faculty member at the Episcopal Divinity School and co-director of the Pastoral Excellence Project there. Thompsett believes that theological education should not be “hoarded or parceled out among elite populations.” She sees the need for more clergy who “hold up, represent, and remind us all of the priesthood of all God’s people.”
Five Components for Developing Baptismal Ministry
1. For an overview of the history and organization of the Border Parish, see Carole Wageman, Report on Baptismal Ministry in Vermont, Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, May 2003, 20–24.
2. Wesley Frensdorff, “The Captivity of Sacraments,” The Witness, April 1992, 5.
3. Kevin L. Thew Forrester, “I Have Called You Friends”: An Invitation to Ministry (New York: Church Publishing, 2003), viii.
5. See the document “Immanuel Parish: A Brief History of the Covenant Group/ Ministry Support Team: How We Got to Where We Are.” For a synopsis of the history of Immanuel Church, Bellows Falls, Vermont, in regard to baptismal ministry, see Carole Wageman, Report on Baptismal Ministry in Vermont, 12–18.
6. “Immanuel Parish: A Brief History.”
7. Wageman, Report on Baptismal Ministry in Vermont, 12–18.
10. Thomas Clark Ely, “Ministry is the life work of all the people of God,” Mountain Echo, March 2001.