A friend told me the story of encountering a woman who works at a Walgreens pharmacy. The woman told a heart-warming story of her work and of her concern for what she saw as “her congregation,” that is, the customers she got to know and care for over time. In particular, she talked about an uninsured mother who needed a $400 prescription for a child. “I worry and wonder,” the woman behind the counter said. “What will this mother have to give up so that her child will have the medication he needs?”
My friend, a pastor who works on staff in a mid-level judicatory, commended the woman for her care and compassion, and then asked, “Does your church know that they have a minister working at Walgreens?”
“My church?” the woman asked with some surprise. “Why, no. I hadn’t thought about that. No,” she admitted. Then she added, “They wouldn’t think that this is important.”
That story broke my heart. It broke my heart that this woman has the perception that her church has the perception that what she does outside the church doesn’t count. I’m pretty sure that if we went to that particular congregation (or any of ours, for that matter) and asked leaders or members if this woman’s work is important, we would get resounding affirmation. But if we asked what that congregation (or ours) had done to affirm or support her day-to-day ministry, we would probably get puzzled looks.
A Rose by Any Other Name
The subject of this article has gone under many names over the years: priesthood of all believers, ministry of the laity, vocation, ministry in daily life, and most recently I’ve learned it’s being called “spirituality in the workplace.” I’m pretty sure this isn’t the first time you’ve read something about this topic. In fact, a book published by the Alban Institute in 1993 said, “For more than thirty years the Western church has been exposed to a growing number of books and resources focused on the release of every member of the church for ministry and mission.” If the book were updated, it would need to say, we’ve been talking about this “for nearly fifty years.” And yet the authors’ observation is still true: “This proliferation of information has produced very little change in church life.”1 After all these years, people in our congregations, like the woman who works at Walgreens, don’t see that the church values what they do in their everyday lives.
Maybe that is because what we really value—and what counts—is what our members do for and in the church. Choir members, Sunday school teachers, committee members, food pantry workers, and worship attendees—we can count those things. And count them we do because those numbers tell us whether we’re successful, if we’re growing, and (ultimately) they’re used to evaluate a leaders’ ability.
For the past two years I’ve been involved in a project designed to answer one question: How might we describe, empower, and support pastors who see their calling in terms of equipping members for ministry in their everyday lives? When I started the project, I hoped that 6–12 pastors might be interested in pursuing the topic. To my surprise and delight, I’ve had small group conversations with well over 100 pastors from at least seven different denominations. And what I’ve heard is both insightful and hopeful.
Intensely Interested Yet Unsure What to Do
One of the most significant findings that came out of these conversations is that pastors are intensely interested in this topic; the large number of pastors who participated is evidence of that. At the same time there was a palpable sense—and many admitted it—that most pastors are unsure about how to work toward it. They told me, “We’ve been trained how to do ministry in and for the church, but we’ve not gone beyond that. We know we should equip people for ministry in daily life, but we don’t know how.” Or, “I have been trying to focus on ministry in daily life my whole career, but I haven’t been the best model.” And perhaps most piercing was the comment, “I’ve been a paid Christian for so long that I no longer remember what it is like to be a Christian in the world.”
It is encouraging that pastors are interested in this topic. It is also encouraging that pastors are willing to admit their sense of inadequacy and even failure. Our confession that the power of the priesthood of all believers has not been fully unleashed is the first step toward bringing about change.
Awareness of Systemic Blocks
Another significant finding from the conversations is that pastors are acutely aware of systems, structures, and cultural understandings that block congregations from being centers for ministry in daily life. The stumbling block that was often mentioned first is the common understanding that pastors “do ministry” and congregational members partake of it. Pastors admitted buying into this systemic expectation to justify their existence, to keep people happy, and to assure the continual flow of paychecks. In the words of one, “Pastors succumb to congregational expectations to ‘do ministry.’ Congregations hire pastors to do ministry and the people follow. People might manage big companies, but when they come to the church they look to the pastor for direction in everything.”
Another systemic block is that ministry is largely seen as something that happens at church because of intense pressure to keep the institution alive. In an age of declining institutions across society, the pressure is enormous to either keep the congregation healthy or to bring it back to what it used to be. Pastors said, “The structure (that is, the institution) keeps us from enacting the vision and hopes that called us to pursue ordination in the first place.” Or, “Pastors want to equip people for ministry in daily life, but the people want us to be chaplains.”
The third major systemic block is the lack of connection between what people do at church and what they do in the world. One pastor said, “Culture expects us to be ‘good Christians’ and ‘good Americans,’ which are very different things. To have status and honor or just to survive in both, I may feel drawn to act like a different person in each.” Faith is at work in our churches, but (pastors admitted) we have not helped people to see how faith relates to the other areas of daily life.
One comment summarized what often happens in the face of such systemic blocks: “Pastors retreat to their comfort zones, and ministry in daily life is not one of them.”
Confusion about Ministry In Daily Life
Another significant finding is that there is considerable confusion, both among pastors and among members, about ministry in daily life. In most cases, ministry in daily life is restricted by confusion about what ministry is. This confusion was expressed in terms of both internal and external understandings of ministry.
As reported above, ministry in the church is often restricted to what pastors do; at best, when members are encouraged to find their ministry, it is limited to what they can or should do in and through the church. (Reality check: look over the list of opportunities provided on your latest Time & Talent sheet.) Pastors named the fact that ministry is often confused with what it takes to maintain a congregation. One pastor said, “We get caught up in needing to keep people in worship, or attracting more people to worship, in order to keep the building in shape and the bills paid.” A few pastors, sometimes pointedly, had a hard time grasping that ministry could or should be an external activity.
Even when we shift our attention to the world, our understanding of ministry is less than it could be. Ministry in daily life is often seen only as a matter of being nice or moral, as being faithful to friends or coworkers, not engaging in gossip, or speaking of having gone to worship or on a mission trip. One pastor offered, “When I ask people about how their faith is active in their daily life, I get back stories of working in volunteer positions.” Ministry in daily life certainly includes volunteering, being nice, moral, kind, and fair, but somehow that doesn’t quite add up to the vision that the woman at Walgreens lives out.
Measurement, Success, Effectiveness
One of the more surprising concerns that emerged was about whether pastors are effective, and even if they are, how that can be measured. One pastor asked, “Where is our measuring stick that shows us we have effectively equipped people?” Another said, “Evangelicals equate ‘ministry’ with ‘saving souls,’ which is more measurable. Can we give signs or criteria for knowing whether pastors see that they’re making a difference?” And finally, one participant admitted, “I still evaluate myself on results, but I’m trying to move away from that.”
Theological Grounding Needed
The conversations made it apparent that clarity on theological underpinnings of ministry would be appropriate and helpful. Questions such as the following arose:
- What is the nature and the purpose of the church?
- What is God’s desire for the world and how does God work to achieve that desire?
- What is ministry? How is it different from mission? from vocation?
- How do lay people define ministry, and is it different from how pastors define it?
- What is “the ministry of the church”? Where is ministry done, and who does it? Is ‘equipping’ the right word?
In short, the conversations revealed that our understanding of ministry in daily life is not as rich and full as it could be.
The ministry of all the baptized is rooted in God’s desire to be incarnate (enfleshed) in the world—in us—so that the world might be restored to what God intended it to be from the beginning. Ministry is God’s way of being present and active in us for the sake of the world. We are all called to ministry in our baptism; some of us (a very small percentage of us!) are ordained or commissioned for the ministry of “building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12c). The work of building up the Body is an important—critically important—ministry, but not for its own sake; biblically speaking the Body, the people of God, the called-out ones, are always called out, empowered, and then sent out again—for the sake of the world.
Reconnecting with the World
It appears that our diminished understanding of ministry in daily life is rooted in the fact that pastors spend the majority of their time in the church, working for the building up of the Body (as they should), but in so doing we lose touch with life in the world. I know that in my own case, as a parish pastor I was enmeshed in the life of the congregation. I ate, drank and breathed the church. When people didn’t show up for Holy Week services I wondered, What’s wrong with these people? The first year in my current (non-parish) position, I found myself at home at 7:00 pm on Good Friday. My first reaction was chagrin: “Oh my gosh!” I said, “We forgot about Good Friday services!” My next—and immediate—reaction was revelation: “So this is how it happens? People have a life that doesn’t center around the church.”
In the process of working to build up the body of Christ, pastors often forget that those who have not been set aside for our particular task spend their lives in the world, where ministry also takes place. Ministry happens in the farm field, where food is grown so that people might be fed. Ministry happens in classrooms, where children and adults receive education necessary for their welfare and for the sake of the world. Ministry happens when parents change a diaper, clothe, feed, shelter and raise their children. Ministry happens when adult children care for aging parents. Ministry happens in the workplace where products are produced, where countless decisions are made, where people and all creation are protected and served.
To that end, the church exists: God’s people, called out of the world—not to escape it—but to be cleansed and nourished, forgiven and fed, prepared, empowered and sent out to serve in the world.
God Is At Work, Ministry Is Happening
It is encouraging that some pastors were intent on naming and claiming the reality that God is at work in the world, that ministry is happening in an astonishing variety of ways. At the same time, the pastors were very aware that most people can’t name or articulate it. “People are out doing incredible ministry; we should just spotlight that,” said one participant. “What is ministry?” one pastor asked before continuing: “People are already doing ministry, they just don’t know it.” Another cited author Kelly Fryer who says that ministry in daily life is not a matter of “taking Jesus out there,” but joining God out there, where God is already at work.
What Pastors Can Do
A number of ideas came out of the conversations about what pastors are doing, can or should do in order to support and empower ministry in daily life. One pastor stated, “This all starts with our attitude—that we value what people do and we encourage their ministry.” It seems abundantly clear that this is a critical factor. Regardless of the systemic expectations and obstacles that we encounter, reminding ourselves about what we are trying to do is central in keeping our work focused on the so that, the movement of the church into the world. The same pastor added, “For instance, when someone cannot do something at church because of another commitment, we affirm that that is their ministry right now and we find someone else to do what we need to have done.”
One pastor asked, “How can we celebrate the ministry we all have outside the church?” Another participant offered, “Luther said, ‘Whatever it is people are doing is holy work.’ So I spent a year visiting people in workplaces, helping them see how they are in ministry. I helped my mechanic see his work as ministry (that is, care) for my son, who was about to drive his car across the country.”
Several people mentioned that the best teachers of ministry in daily life are the laity. “So pastors need to listen to the stories members are telling one another. We need to name the ministries members are doing. People do this casually…” Another added, “But it helps when it’s intentional. They are powerful stories, and people will remember those more than my sermons.” One of the surprises in these conversations was an unexpected openness to what is commonly called testimony. Imagine what might happen if the woman at Walgreens (and others like her) was encouraged to tell her story to the congregation.
Anxiety About “Another Program”
It didn’t surface frequently, but there was concern about adding ”something else” to already overworked pastors and congregations. One pastor asked bluntly, “Is this another program, something else I’m supposed to do or something that I’m supposed to do differently?”
Hear the good news: this isn’t something “more” that people can, should, or ought to do. As one missional church leader said, our task is to “guide people to identify God’s calling, to recognize the gifts and opportunities they have, to provide them the biblical and theological training to incarnate the gospel in their particular fields, and then to commission them to that ministry.” Shortly after saying that, he added, “Our concept of ‘active church member’ would, of course, have to change.”2
God is already at work in the world. God is seeking to restore the world to what it was intended to be, and God is doing that work through us. As one pastor said, “I want to help people see ministry as an everyday activity. I want to help people use faith language. It’d be like the Pentecost story where the listeners say, ‘Hey! They’re speaking my language!’ ”
We’re Not Done Just Yet
This article is not a final report because our work on this topic is not done. We continue to explore this topic with pastors. We hope to expand the conversation to include lay people in the near future; it would be interesting to hear what they say about this. If you are interested, you can take this conversation to your congregation. A report and study guide is available at www.renewingchurch.org (look for “Equipping Pastors Interim Report” under Worth Sharing > CFR Resources). Engage your people in this conversation and then report back to us. Following up on the comments about measurement and effectiveness, we’d like to spend time exploring what this means for evaluation; how do we move away from measuring results? And we continue to look for partners who would like to explore this exciting and vital topic with us.
In short, this project has convinced me of this: If restoration of the ministry of all the baptized is not the most important topic for congregational renewal, it’s at least in the top three. My vision is of a community of believers that gathers to feast on God’s Word, that consoles and supports one another as we enflesh that Word in the world, and that is sent back to the lives, relationships and work that God has given us to do. My vision is that it would be incredibly exciting and fulfilling to be part of such a community.
What difference does all of this make in the life and activities of your community of faith? If the nature and the purpose of the people of God (the church) is to be in mission to the world, what does that mean for what we do and how we do it as a congregation?
How would the work of a pastor who sees his or her job principally in terms of preparing and empowering people for ministry in their everyday lives be different from what most pastors do now?
“Ministry happens in the farm field… in classrooms… when changing diapers… in the workplace.” How does your congregation name, support or encourage ministry in the daily lives of your members? Look through recent bulletins, newsletters and web pages published by your congregation. How many of the articles and/or activities name, support and encourage ministry in the world? How might you tell the stories
of people at work, joining God in the world?
In many denominations, people are asked to make promises. In the Lutheran affirmation of baptism liturgy, for instance, people are asked, “Do you intend to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people following the example of Jesus Christ, and to strive for justice and peace in all the world?” Which of these activities are in the church, and which are outside (or both)? How do these activities support or encourage the other activities? How does this list compare to the understanding that ministry in daily life is a matter of being nice, moral or kind?
In Matthew 25, when did the ‘righteous sheep’ realize that they were doing ministry? What does that have to say about ministry in daily life? What does this passage have to say about the church’s role in naming, supporting and empowering ministry in daily life?
How are you doing with your spiritual disciplines of prayer and personal biblical study? What intentional disciplines do you engage to understand both faith and contemporary life? How do you develop and foster friendships or peer networks for support and enrichment? What time to you devote to develop and foster friendships with people outside of the church?
One of the marks of renewal used by the Center for Renewal is, “Ministry in the church will be valued principally as a means for empowering ministry in the daily lives of our members.” Why do we offer internal activities in the church? What is the “so that” of our congregation’s worship, education, and fellowship? What would happen if this standard was used to evaluate the various ministries of your congregation?
Make a list of the activities that take up the majority of your time. Compare that list to your official letter of call or to the promises you made at your installation. What does this say about how well you are living out your call?
Pastors in the conversations indicated that they should be about the work of equipping members for ministry in daily life. Do the members of your congregation want this, or are they happy with the way things are? How might your congregation change if pastors did what they feel called to do? What would be the implications of doing this?
In what ways do members of your congregation assume, “the pastor does ministry that I benefit from”? In what ways you feel it is important to do ministry on behalf of others? What keeps you from being an equipping pastor?
1 R. Paul Stevens and Phil Collins, The Equipping Pastor: A Systems Approach to Congregational Leadership (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 1993), xi.
2 Darrell L. Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 178–9.
Dwight L. DuBois is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Having served parishes in Mississippi, South Carolina, and Iowa, he now serves as the director of the Center for Renewal at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. More information can be found at www.renewingchurch.org