Parish ministry has lived at the kernel of the Western Church for many centuries. But, with the rise of secularisation in the 1960s, civic religion separated from the institutional Church and citizens had the social freedom not to be part of a church.
Negatively, this meant the gospel’s presence and influence in people’s lives diminished. Positively, people who became part of the Church were much more deliberate in doing so. They had chosen to belong and become part of a congregation.
And with that choice came benefits: membership of a community of faith, participation in a community of worship, the chance to share in a community offering mission beyond itself.
Ordained ministry of word and sacrament, is, of course, exercised both within and beyond the parish. Though it’s easy to forget, that in each case it is the same ministry. According to one of my teachers, Frank Nichol, this ordination places upon ministers the responsibility “to call the Church to be the Church” through the proclamation of the Word.
In the Presbyterian tradition, this ministry is that of the teaching elder whose calling, training and authorisation enables the minister to offer a theological perspective on life, discipleship, relationships and values. The minister is also invited to share in the service Jesus exemplified, and to call the wider Church and community to choose to share in this service. Ministry is then about teaching, serving and modelling.
In the post-Christian West the Church’s parish structure can readily appear anachronistic to the wider community. Consequently, while parish ministry can be profoundly effective within the parish context, despite many parish mission initiatives, parish ministry can be largely irrelevant to today’s social structures and the people who inhabit them.
This is not news, of course. And the Presbyterian Church has long been aware of this situation and sought to respond. We have a strong track record in offering ministry outside the parish context precisely because we have recognised that these sorts of ministries enable us to be where many of the people who are not members of our congregations gather.
These ministries have taken a number of different forms.
We have provided ministry to people in their workplaces, and to this end have been involved in a range of chaplaincies. Unfortunately we haven’t always been very good at supporting these once we’ve set them up.
- The Inter-church Trade and Industry Mission flourished for a time but the Church didn’t own it and wouldn’t or couldn’t support it financially. In the end it morphed into a values-based but secular workplace wellness service variously known as Workplace Support, Seed or Vitae.
- Chaplaincy within and to tertiary education has also struggled, despite the opportunity it presents for us to be with students at a time when they are particularly open to a range of influences, both good and bad.
- The Churches Education Commission works in something like 600 New Zealand schools, but also continually struggles for resources.
- Prison and defence force chaplaincies fare rather better, perhaps because they are fully funded by the government (which also supports hospital chaplaincy to a more limited extent).
The effect of this situation is that many chaplain ministers either feel marginalised by their church – yours is not a real ministry: you know this because we don’t resource you adequately and because we treat parish ministry as the norm – or else they are not sure whose agenda they serve, the Church’s or the Ministry of Corrections or the Ministry of Defence.
We have also provided ministers who have been present in society’s infrastructure. These have often not been church-recognised ministries, but, if ministry is about teaching, serving and modelling, they are ministries none-the-less.
- If an ordained minister brings his or her theological perspective to bear on the economy and works to see New Zealanders’ lives and values reflecting the model offered by Jesus of Nazareth, we do well to recognise the potential power of this political ministry.
- The Church helped pioneer counselling services (and social services more generally). Many ministers have become counsellors recognising this ministry of healing. Why is it that in doing so they have been seen by some colleagues as having somehow left their ordination outside the counselling centre’s door?
- As a broadcaster I have the opportunity to celebrate faith and raise issues with a congregation of some tens of thousands every Sunday morning, most of whom don’t darken the church door.
Not an either/or
The case for the value of parish ministry is clear. But the case for its centrality is less so. As church membership declines ministry beyond the parish needs to be given equal time. We need to be more lateral and imaginative in envisioning it and more courageous in supporting it.
We can interpret these ministries in any number of ways – ministry to backsliders, ministry to the post-church community, intentional ministries of change and ministries of healing. However we view them, they reflect the potential for teaching, serving and modelling that engages new publics and transfigures their understandings of gospel and church.
Chris is a Presbyterian minister and an experienced broadcaster. He is currently the host of TVNZ’s Praise Be programme, and has served the Church in many local, national and regional roles – including as parish minister – since he was ordained in 1979.