“This is something I have found to be true without exception: that when we, any of us, focus on things in our lives that are passing away, we get scared, we get anxious, we get depressed, we lose hope; and when we focus on things that are being birthed and are coming newly into creation, we get excited, we get imaginative, we get optimistic, we feel drawn closer to one another, we feel as if we have meaning and purpose in this life, and we have joy. . . . we are given change as an ingredient in life. We can be frightened and anxious and resistant to it or we can embrace it as a tool to transform us.” —Jim Kelsey (1952–2007)
When the late Bishop Jim Kelsey spoke these words in 2007, he was commenting on institutional change and its impact on congregations and judicatories. Many places throughout the Christian church are faced with hard realities such as declining membership and financial shortages. “The way we have always done it before” was never realistic for those locations challenged by geography, poverty, and low population, and it is becoming increasingly unrealistic for other, more prosperous and populous regions. The need for systemic change throughout mainline denominations has been verified through a number of studies as well as the experience of congregational members themselves. Jim Kelsey believed that the task at hand is “a matter of letting go of the familiar and being opened to new life—new surprise—new birth which God does have in store for us.”
Many congregations and judicatories have faithfully embraced change and experienced transformation through what is called “baptismal ministry.” These changes do not necessarily eradicate all the challenges to be faced, but individuals and communities are transformed by the journey, and through clarity of purpose and mutual responsibility new life is found. The congregations and judicatories transformed through baptismal ministry development look beyond survival to embrace the future with a sense of hope and abundance.
Baptismal ministry is discipleship where all baptized share in Christ’s identity and mission as the priesthood of all believers. Through baptism each person receives gifts for ministry through the Holy Spirit—gifts to be embraced and lived out in the church and in the world. Baptismal ministry maintains that the calling of each person is of equal worth and essential for the fullness of mission—that is, to restore all people to unity with God. Baptismal ministry maintains that the local community is the primary context for formation, ministry, and mission. Beyond the congregation, baptismal ministry encompasses the whole work of the whole people of God in all times and all places.
The ministry of the baptized is based in Scripture and the practice of the early church. Although the New Testament contains accounts of instantaneous conversions, most of the earliest Christians, like those of us now, were not exceptional figures like the apostles. In the first few hundred years after Jesus, the ancient Christian community developed a pattern of discipleship that followed the sequence behaving, belonging, and believing. Rather than starting with the assumption of belief, the making of early Christians centered on the experience of baptism. As historian Andrew McGowan, writes, “While faith was of course fundamental to being a Christian, it wasn’t faith itself that achieved that for you, because the church wasn’t quite a voluntary organization in the modern sense, where membership and desire to belong are more or less the same. Rather, baptism was understood to be a transforming action in which God, rather than the convert, was the key player, and in which one actually became a Christian through the action of the Holy Spirit.” In the early Christian world, baptism was considered a radical departure from societal norms and involved costly discipleship that was not ordinarily entered into without a great deal of preparation.
In the last few years for judicatories and local congregations engaged in the recovery of baptismal ministry, language has shifted from use of the term baptismal ministry to baptismal living. The shift is designed to further emphasize that most ministry indeed occurs outside of the church, as the baptized live intentionally as Christ’s own in the world. The shift in language is the result of concern that in some places the concept of baptismal ministry was limited to including laity in the church’s liturgical life. Baptismal living is a more comprehensive concept that includes participation in the life of the Christian community through worship, formation, and repentance as well as Christian life in the world through proclamation, service, justice, and peace. Participation in both the Christian community and ministry in the wider world is integral to baptismal living. “In other words,” writes Linda L. Grenz, founder and publisher of LeaderResources, “the way we worship on Sundays should embody who we are the rest of the time. . . .It is not a time apart, separate from the rest of life. Rather it is a time that reflects, inspires, nourishes, and empowers us for the rest of life.”
Key to the incarnation of baptismal ministry in local congregations is the acknowledgement that in many places church structures can stifle the generosity of the Holy Spirit with a need for order and control. This acknowledgement is in no way a criticism of the many saints and heroes who exercise profound ministries within the church every day, nor is baptismal ministry interested in supplanting those already exercising their ministries faithfully. But it does speak to the realities of many small congregations where diminishing numbers of people face ever-expanding workloads and feelings of frustration as they attempt to continue models of governance similar in many ways to secular business culture, including hierarchical leadership, power through position, authority linked to status, control by multiple communities, and other hallmarks of organizations governed by fear and anxiety. Given these realities, it is no wonder that ministry in general, as well as ministry in small and rural contexts in particular, is considered a killer job with the highest stress levels among professions. The ministry of the baptized, as a recovery of more ancient forms of church governance, is also an opportunity for local congregations, and the church as a whole, to incarnate the life and freedom of the gospel.
Ecclesiology should always respond to the local context and culture and be mission- and world-centered, rather than focused on preserving and maintaining particular institutional structures. The congregations and judicatories of vast regions with limited resources do not have the luxury of surplus seminary-trained clergy, extensive committee structures, or corporate programs needed to support the church-as-institution model, nor could such a model of church and ministry be sustained in such regions in the foreseeable future. Rather, sustainability for small local congregations in these regions depends on models of the church and ministry that support the formation and education of all the baptized as the ministers of God’s saving love in their families and communities. A common need in these small congregations interested in recovering the ministry of the baptized is to broaden perspectives on the church and ministry. Where a congregation views the church primarily as an institution, formation and education is needed to make the paradigm shift to viewing the church as the people of God.
From the perspective of baptismal ministry, the authority for ministry comes with baptism. Early Christian communities of the baptized were creative in accommodating movement and change. We cannot do less today if we wish not only to survive but also to thrive in challenging settings. If the church, as the people of God, is to thrive and grow, our structures of governance need reshaping to accommodate changing perspectives of the chu
rch and ministry. Perhaps the answers to these questions lie in our ability to recognize a diversity of models of church and ministry, and our task is to apply some of the flexibility and freedom of our history in support of congregations today.
Adapted from Born of Water, Born of Spirit: Supporting the Ministry of the Baptized in Small Congregations by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Born of Water, Born of Spirit: Supporting the Ministry of the Baptized in Small Congregations
by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett
What does the church look like if we take the ministry of the baptized—the priesthood of all believers—seriously? Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett explore this question as well as the variety of ways people in small congregations—many with no more than fifty members—are living out their baptism and the impact their actions are having on their congregations, judicatories, and communities, and the institutions that educate clergy.
Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership
by Dan Hotchkiss
In Governance and Ministry, Alban Institute senior consultant Dan Hotchkiss offers congregational leaders a roadmap and tools for changing the way boards and clergy work together to lead congregations. Hotchkiss demonstrates that the right governance model is the one that best enables a congregation to fulfill its mission—to achieve both the outward results and the inward quality of life to which it is called.
Be Not Afraid: Building Your Church on Faith and Knowledge
by Fredric M. Roberts
Misplaced anxieties based on fundamentally wrong diagnoses of church problems often cause leaders to overlook the real challenges that face their churches. At their core, congregations have a radically different “bottom line” than businesses and other organizations and need to be organized around their unique purpose. Be Not Afraid! offers a research-based guide to help people of faith know who they are, both as present-day congregations and as historical denominations; know what they believe and why they believe it; and to help them integrate their history and beliefs into all dimensions of their life together.
Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities
by Cassandra D. Carkuff Williams
In Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities, Williams explores early Christian communities and their practices in order to identify principles for discipleship formation. She then offers expert advice on how to approach modern-day issues of Christian education and discipleship formation based on the examples set forth by our earliest forebears in the faith. This book provides an overview of the past in order that we might take the proven example of early Christians and apply it toward our present and our future.
Letting Go: Transforming Congregations for Ministry
by Roy D. Phillips
Pioneering thinkers have been saying for decades that the key to church renewal lies in nurturing the ministry of the laity. Using as a basis his more than thirty years of experience in parish ministry, Phillips makes the case that in order for lay ministries to flourish, pastors need to let go of their traditional views about their role in the congregation. Letting Go forthrightly explains what it means for pastors to do less, so their members have the opportunity and freedom to grow.
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