Thursday, April 30, 2015

Why are we so confused about mutual ministry?

Clergy, perhaps more than most professionals, get asked how they were called into their vocation.

Many of my colleagues have an answer that starts with something like, "Well, I avoided the call for a long time." It's the Jonah answer. Who me? No, not me! Where can I run?

It's probably related to that verse in Hosea, "But as the saying goes, 'The more they were called, the more they rebelled.'" (11:2)

Yesterday at Bible study I was explaining my own call story, and how I've never quite felt that way, because my call included declining another divine calling, that of farmer. My call to be a pastor was alternative to taking up the work of the family farm.

As I was talking about pastoral ministry as "just a" profession like any other, one ministry of many among the baptized, one class participant said, "Oh boy, you're really shattering the mystique!"

"Am I really?"

"Yes, you are, kind of..."

Sat with this a bit, then responded, "Maybe our job in faith communities, rather than shattering the mystique of the vocation of pastor, is more to raise the mystique of all the other vocations of the baptized. It's to claim the Lutheran insight that many callings are holy, from changing diapers to praying in a monastery, and they aren't elevated one over another, but equally and in different ways divine."

After a significant period of transition in our congregational life, one of the assignments we have before us as a congregation from our consultant is to form a "mutual ministry" committee. We have learned that central to the health of the church is health in its mutuality of ministry.

But what is "mutual ministry"? Fair warning, brief rabbit hole into church constitutional language begins now.

There seem to be rather disparate definitions floating around. The ELCA model congregational constitution defines the mutual ministry committee as more of a staff support committee. "A Mutual Ministry Committee has sole responsibility to affirm, strengthen, and support the paid staff. A committee member may also be called upon to listen, and clarify concerns of the staff members." Further: "This Committee shall maintain a relationship of trust and empathy towards the staff if this committee is to maximize its purpose. Therefore, the committee must not be placed in a position of power over the staff, which is the function of the Congregation Council. Accordingly, this committee shall not have responsibility for job descriptions, interview of job applicants, conduct job evaluations, determine salary levels, nor set vacation or sick pay policies. This committee will subscribe to a strict discipline of confidentiality, be available at the request of any staff member; and pray for each staff member and be an advocate for each staff member."

Read this a few times, and I think you'll realize that the definition of "mutual ministry" in our denominational constitution is not actually "mutual ministry" but rather "staff support." Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's important for churches to build structures and systems to support staff. I'm all for this. I just happen to think we may need a separate structure from staff support that is actually called "mutual ministry," with an emphasis on the mutual.

And I believe this on Reformation principles, perhaps the central theological insight of the Reformers, the importance of recognizing the vocation of all the baptized and our mutual ministry together as "midwives of giftedness for mission," as a lovely resource in a collection of documents from Episcopalians in Northern Michigan has it.

Would you allow me to geek out with the church constitution a bit more? See, in the section on the role of the pastor in congregations in our denomination, it says, "The call of a congregation, when accepted by a pastor, shall constitute a continuing mutual relationship and commitment" (C9.05). There's that word "mutual" again. It's central. Pastors, even though we are often the primary paid staff of a congregation, are called to engage in "mutual" ministry.

However, if we are going to make ministry mutual, we probably need to have that sentence apply to everyone in their call in the life of a congregation. What if every single "member" of a congregation understood this sentence to apply also to them? "The call of a congregation, when accepted by [a member/mission partner/baptized'], shall constitute a continuing mutual relationship and commitment."

We're all in this together. We're called to diversified functions and roles within the one body of Christ.  Each of us is called to give ourselves over to God's church as the Spirit-breathed body of Christ.

For mutual ministry to truly be mutual, I think two things need to happen in our congregations. They are two poles that function together.

First, each person needs to know their role, their call, how they have been born into giftedness for mission.

Our constitution clearly defines this role for pastors. It looks like this:

Consistent with the faith and practice of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, every ordained minister shall:
1) preach the Word;
2) administer the sacraments;
3) conduct public worship;
4) provide pastoral care;
5) speak publicly for the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God's love for the world.

Side note: It's that last one, #5, that lots of us clergy chicken out on, and perhaps that most members of our churches aren't aware is a specific part of our call in our ordination and church constitutions, and as vitally important as #1-4.

If we are to engage in mutual ministry, each baptized person in the body of Christ would need a similar list to live out of and return to. Of course there is such a list read at our baptisms and confirmations, focused on the commitment of all Christians to read Scriptures, worship together, strive for justice and peace, etc. and it's a solid list, but if we are to midwife giftedness for mission, we also need to be able to articulate the Christian vocation of each person in their specific vocations, as musicians, teachers, plumbers, parents, administrators, and more. Ideally, such a list would include vocational responsibilities both in daily life, AND in our mutual ministry within the church itself.

So that's the first step. Each person with identified gifts equipped for their specific ministries that build up the body of Christ for the sake of the world. Drop the word members, and start thinking together as mission partners.

The second step is to shape our common life together in such a way that these specific callings function well together in ways that are mutual and build up the body as a whole. For this second part, you probably need things like committees, or tables, or gatherings, intentional time together where those who represent the various parts of the body can gather for communicative action (ala J├╝rgen Habermas).

Two years ago, I was invited by the ELCA to speak at the first gathering of three leadership "tables" of the ELCA. This tri-table gathering included representation from the conference of bishops, the ELCA Church Council, and the staff of the church wide offices.  Here's the talk:

Clint Schnekloth @ Three Leadership Tables workshop from ELCA Churchwide Organization on Vimeo.

I was amazed that this was the first time these three groups had attempted to all come together and discern and work mutually together. My understanding is that it hasn't continued, which just goes to show how difficult it is to establish true mutual ministry at any level, from the national right down to the congregational level.

The "three tables" format seems to make sense to me, however, and I think it is the way forward for mutual ministry. Truly mutual ministry would bring at least three "tables" together in one space within congregational life. These tables would be 1) the pastor, and staff, 2) the church council, and 3) the congregation. Admittedly, the council is elected from the congregation, and actually even the pastor is a member of the congregation, but nevertheless, in most contexts, when communication breaks down and mutuality is lessened, it is these three tables that need to talk and engage in communicative action.

Such a gathering, because of its focus on mutual ministry, would need to operate at a meta-level. All participants would need to feel equipped to evaluate the mutuality of the relationship of the different tables, and to do some of the higher spiritual work that may not always get accomplished at congregational or council meetings, or the daily grind of pastoral ministry. I'm thinking here of things like vision, mission, discernment, oversight, 
From Robert Kegan's In Over Our Heads

Especially with the mental demands of modern life, the process of "doing church" together has become even more complicated. Not only are we dealing with increasing levels of complexity in the church that require high-functioning systems to navigate, we are dealing with this kind of complexity in every part of our life. If the church is going to lead the way in mutuality, trust, and communicative action, it is going to need intentional structures in place that can foster the kind of growth and discernment necessary to meet the demands of living faith in the modern world.

Given this complexity, it is also no wonder there is such confusion over how to define and organize "mutual" ministry. Such a team is an impossible necessity in contemporary congregational life. It's an amazing opportunity to do theology with boots on the ground. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing so well about the vision and practice of mutual ministry. There is an actual Mutual Ministry group and process in "Pastor and People: Making Mutual Ministry Work" from Augsburg Fortress. It has proven to be a helpful starting point for congregations that are moving toward a Mutual Ministry model. Thanks also for highlighting the great, time-tested ministry models in the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan.