The minister as a member of the community

The most appreciated service ministers provide is that of community-building.

Russell Staples, Ph.D., is a former professor of missions at the Seventhday Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Holy Father, protect by the power of thy name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are one" (John 17:11, NEB).

This series began with the humanity of the minister and now it draws near its close with a reflection on the minister as a member in a human society. Why? Surely it would be more usual to start with the transcendent dimension of ministry rather than the human to stress the divine call and the majesty of the office of one called to proclaim the word of God and to emphasize the role of leadership rather than that of membership.

I can only presume as to the reasons for this particular slant and arrangement, but I find myself in concurrence with what I take to be the purpose of the planners.1 It would seem to be clearly implied that there is a bivalency to the vocation of the ministry that it has to do with human as well as with divine relationships and that the human side of the task should be given at least as much attention as the divine.

Let us commence where the series starts with the human. It is instructive to think of the cognates that grow out of the Latin original of human humane, humanism, humanitarian, humanist, humanization, humanity. These words convey the sense that to be a human being means to live in interaction with others. The word "humanization" implies that the kind of human being each of us has become owes much to the molding influence of our family, our religious community, and of the educational and other societal groups to which we be long. Consideration of ministers as human beings is essentially a consideration of ministers with regard to their humanness, their interaction with other human beings, and the quality of those relationships.

This series is not intended to detract from that which is transcendent in the calling and vocation of the ministry, but it does call us to recognize that undue emphasis upon the high calling of the ministry may form a cloak that hides pride and arrogance from self—perception. Exaggerated preoccupation with the magisterial dimensions of ministry may lead to aloofness and noninvolvement in the life of the community. We have probably all known preachers who have unselfconsciously yielded to these temptations and who glory in the power of their high calling. If we are hon est, most of us may see these tendencies in our own lives.

As an antidote to this, and with our thoughts grounded in the meaning of the Incarnation, we turn our attention to the role of the minister as a member of the community of faith. Perhaps after all, this is the proper place to start thinking about the ministry. Ministers are first of all human beings who, in the exercise of their discipleship, remain responsible members of the human community, and second the incumbents of a divinely ordained office.

What is the church?

But what is the church? How do Adventists conceive of it? It is possible to think of the church primarily in functional terms—as an organization with a mission to perform. In this case, we might think of the church as an army—a spiritual army, to be sure—fighting a campaign and proclaiming the message to the ends of the earth, regardless of the obstacles or the cost. If this is how we think of the church, then it is more appropriate to think of ministers as generals or officers drilling those in the ranks and leading out in the campaign than as "members." Or if mass evangelism is the major object, then perhaps ministers could be thought of as "performers," surrounded by hosts of admirers, and with suitably elevated egos.

However, the New Testament most often describes the church in ontological terms. It is the "body of Christ." If this is so, then what the church is in itself its being rather than what it does forms the guiding motif from which self-understanding grows. Like Christ Him self, it is recognized to be human, but also divine. It is the community in which salvation is affirmed and in which the gospel is preached and received. If we think of the church in this way, then we can think of ministers as members promoting the church's corporate functions.

The celebration of Christianity has always been more corporate than private, for all of us undergo experiences too pro found and weighty to bear alone. It is within the congregation that Christians celebrate the deepest and most holy moments of their lives there they give thanks for the miracle of birth, there they commit their dead into eternal safekeeping, there confession is made and forgiveness sought, members are united with the Lord in baptism, lives are joined in marriage, and solace is found in times of grief.

We are wont to say that the greatest argument in favor of the gospel is a committed Christian life. But the Christian community that experiences the power of the gospel in its midst and radiates the love and glory of its Lord is a greater witness than this. It is of such communities that ministers are called to be members in fact, as members of the community ministers should function as catalysts promoting an atmosphere of love and acceptance.

Sociologists remind us of the need for community and fellowship in our age. One of the notable characteristics of American society is its institutionalized individualism. Each wants to have and develop his or her own shining identity, to hang free, to do his or her own thing. This attitude stands in stark contrast to the communal solidarity of tribal societies, in which persons sublimate personal gains for the greater good of the whole. Not surprisingly, anthropologists are half in love with such societies and use them as a foil against which to describe the rivalries and cankers of our own society. Freedom and individualism are disproportionately treasured in Western society, and little thought is given to the point at which personal license constitutes a trespass against the neighbor. Society threatens to become a battle of each against all.

We are thrust together in masses in our cities, but proximity does not lead to community, and many are lonely. The system reduces persons to role players. We relate to one another as if each is simply a cog in a great machine. Our interaction is devoid of social significance. Persons suffer alienation and fade away behind the service performed. The harsh competitiveness of society shows up personal inadequacies, and the unsuccessful are torn with feelings of failure and guilt. The unsatisfactoriness of existence deprives life of meaning. Daily there are those who lose all courage to face the rigors of life and simply give up. They sink beneath the flood. "Stop the world, I want to get off' is more than the theme of a play; it has become a significant syndrome in our society.

What such people need is the love and acceptance of a community. The lonely need fellowship, those in despair need hope, and those who suffer the pangs of guilt require forgiveness. All need the gospel and the meaning it restores to life.

To know that one is forgiven and accepted by God lies close to the essence of what it means to be justified by faith. But doctrine tends to be abstract, and one of the most satisfying ways of making religious experience real is to have it con firmed in the life of the community. To be genuinely accepted by the community just as one is, without having to prove anything, corroborates the inner witness of the Spirit that one is accepted by God. On the other hand, rejection by the community may lead one to doubt God's acceptance.

Paul as a community builder

Some regard the apostle Paul as having been a recluse—as a lonely, abstract intellectual, sometimes abrasive and jabbing, who alienated many he brought into the faith. I see the apostle rather as a churchman, always concerned for the young churches he had established. He constantly nurtured them with letters of love and instruction, writing his letters from the intimacy of community in one place to the corporate body of faith in another. Even his most private letters are at the same time communal.

He moved from the bosom of one home church to that of another, and the intimacy of the relationships he sustained in each is revealed in countless expressions and nuances in his letters. Of course, he was concerned to instruct the faithful aright and to promote a correct understanding of the gospel, but he was just as passionately concerned to maintain the unity and harmony of the church.

Paul's concern for harmony in the church is strikingly evident in Galatians 5. Of the 15 weaknesses of the flesh listed in this passage eight are precisely those that made for discord in the church "quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues, and jealousies" (verses 20, 21, NEB). The obverse is even more noteworthy. Each of the gifts of the Spirit listed is such as makes for peace and harmony in the church—"love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control" (verses 22, 23, NEB).

Paul's purpose is clear: He rebukes the attitudes and actions that produce discord and commends behavior that pro motes love and harmony. This is no isolated instance it runs like a leitmotiv throughout the apostle's work. Perhaps we have to do here with a ministry of membership.

The essence of being a member of the community lies in identifying with its aims and living out what it stands for. There can be no insincerity or cheating here. Any sham or phoniness is certain to be uncovered. To relate intimately means to reveal oneself as one is. This makes one vulnerable, and to do this most of us may need to fight the tendency to protect ourselves by maintaining more social distance than necessary.

To be members of the community means that we must carry the burdens of others as well as ministering the solace of grace to them. It means that we may need to sacrifice some personal goals and rewards for the interests of the group. Membership is both costly and rewarding, and the rewards are commensurate with the investment. Here the words of Jesus are indeed appropriate "He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it." There may be a professionalism about our preaching and organizing and leading and serving, but membership requires a depth of involvement that transcends professionalism. It is in the relationships of membership that true ministry is born, and it is there that it is most effective.

Ministers' most highly rated characteristics

The published report on the "Readiness for Ministry" survey substantiates the fundamental assertions made here regarding what it means for the minister to be a member of the community of faith. 2 The comprehensive survey instrument employed organized 444 dimensions of ministry into 64 clusters. It is striking that the five most highly ranked clusters of characteristics relate to personal commitment and faith, and center in the minister as a person in interrelationship with others. The first four relate to personal qualifications as these have a bearing on the experience of the community as a whole, whereas the fifth has to do with the minister as a promoter of a sense of community.

"Ranking at the top is a construct or dimension whose items point to the label 'service without regard for acclaim.' . . . This is reinforced by the second highest factor, namely, that of personal integrity; this describes one who is able to honor his or her commitments by carrying out promises despite all pressures to compromise. Ranking third is a factor that has to do with Christian example. The cluster describes one whose personal belief in the gospel manifests itself in generosity, and in general, a Christian example that people in the community can respect.

"The total group of clergy and laity allot fourth place to the characteristic of acknowledging limitations and mistakes, and recognizing the need for continued growth and learning. Ranking fifth is a cluster that has to do with the minister as a leader in community building. The items in this cluster focus on actions that will build a strong sense of community within a congregation. It includes taking time to know parishioners well and developing a sense of trust and confidence between him- or herself and the members of the parish."3

Roles more traditionally associated with the vocation of ministry rank sixth through tenth: "The sixth cluster describes the responsible functioning of one who shows competence and responsibility by completing tasks, by being able to handle differences of opinion, and by recognizing the need to continue to grow in pastoral skills.

The seventh ranked dimension describes the minister as a perceptive counselor, as one who reaches out to people under stress with a perception, sensitivity, and warmth that is freeing and supportive. This is fol lowed by a cluster that focuses on the minister as a person who manifests a positive approach, remaining calm under pressure while continuing to affirm people. The ninth ranking criterion focuses on a theocentric biblical ministry, a drawing attention to God's Word and Person in preaching, teaching, and leading worship."4

It is striking that preaching does not appear in these clusters before the ninth rank. In other words, eight clusters describing personal characteristics are rated more highly than, or at least precede, the minister's ability to preach.

It is equally informative to examine the three clusters that received the low est rating. Again they focus on the minister as a person and more specifically on traits of character and failures in behavior that cast reproach on the church and disrupt the community:

"Significantly the three lowest in rank . . . focus on the minister as a person. . . . The harshest criticism centers on what people describe as undisciplined living, a construct centered on . . . self-indulgent actions that irritate, shock, or offend. The second most serious negative describes a self-serving ministry, a minister who avoids intimacy and repels people with a critical, demeaning, and insensitive attitude.

This is a large cluster. It includes items that describe such actions as belittling a person in front of others, using one's ministerial role to maintain a sense of superiority, and being quick to condemn people whose words or actions are seen as questionable. The third most serious set of problems cluster around expressions of professional immaturity."5

One can hardly endorse these criticisms too strongly. Nothing is more destructive of community than the set of actions and attitudes appearing in this category—nothing stands further from a genuine expression of what it means to be a member of the community.

Of course, professional skills are appreciated. Leadership, ability to communicate the Word of God clearly, ability to lead out in evangelism, administrative skills, ability to conduct services well and in an inspiring manner, are ranked relatively high on the list. But it is striking that throughout the survey those queried rated the personal characteristics of integrity and warmth higher than professional skills.

What does this mean for us? It is obvious that the characteristics most ardently desired in ministers are personal qualities that reflect the essence of the gospel. These are not the kinds of things in which the seminary curriculum specializes, nor can they be easily taught. These qualities are more, on the one hand, like the fruits of the Holy Spirit in the life, and on the other, the outgrowth of a kind, loving, and emotionally stable per son. These qualities are generated more in prayer and in happy social interaction than in academic lectures. Qualities such as these prepare one for rewarding membership in the community and help one to build up the communal life of the church.

In conclusion, we must ask again what it means for ministers to be members of the community. It means, at the very least, that they place the life of the community ahead of personal or professional goals. Ministers who are truly members cannot even begin to think of let alone treat the community as an entity to be manipulated or used as a stepping-stone for professional advancement. Pastors who are joyous members of God's new society should naturally generate a consciousness of fellowship and acceptance acceptance by God and acceptance within the community.

Being true members of the community means knowing that the deepest and broadest manifestation of Christianity in this world is corporate rather than private. It means understanding the trans formation brought about when people know that they belong to God and to His people forever. It means believing that the prayer of Christ "May they all be one: as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, so also may they be in us" (John 17:21, NEB) not only describes the church in its ideal form but is a realizable possibility. This is why the fullest revelation of the love of Christ the world can see is the love manifested in the community of faith.

The minister who is truly a member of the body of Christ is a minister who can also best lead the community in faithful fulfillment of God's purposes.

1. Dr. C. Raymond Holmes, dean of the chapel at the Theological Seminary at Andrews University, and those on the chapel committee.

2. David S. Schuller, Merton P. Strommen, and Milo L. Brekke, eds., Ministry in America (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1980). This is an exhaustive study of the ministry in the United States and Canada, conducted by the Association of Theological Schools during the years 1973-1979. Thousands of laypersons, ministers, church leaders, teachers in seminaries, and theological students in 47 denominations (including our own) were surveyed to find out what churches most expect from young ministers.

3. Ibid., p. 19.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., pp. 19,20


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Russell Staples, Ph.D., is a former professor of missions at the Seventhday Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

November 1990

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