Watch Your Step!

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.   -Acts 6:1-6 [ESV]

This passage is often cited in reference to the establishment of deacons in the church. It has long been a favorite passage of mine–appropriately so, since I am ordained a vocational deacon. But I remember years ago reading this passage and how it left a bitter taste in my mouth! Before I gained an understanding of spiritual gifts and calling, I thought the twelve were exhibiting no small amount of arrogance by insisting that it wasn’t right that they give up preaching the word of God to “wait tables.” I wanted to shout, “Watch your step there, fellas! If Jesus washed your feet, who are you to think that you are too good to wait tables?”

The more we progress in our ministry, the easier it is to step into the trap of believing that we (clergy) are above doing the seemingly menial tasks of ministry, particularly if the priesthood of all believers is not one of our fundamental values. Gifting and calling applies to every believer, not just the clergy–and all ministry has value. There are times when we need to be willing to serve by doing whatever needs doing, whether it’s below our “pay grade” or not! There is no room in the church for a spirit of entitlement–not from clergy, staff, or ministry leaders.

(Before I go any further, I want to be clear that arrogance was not what motivated the apostles–obedience was! They were being obedient to the calling that Jesus had placed on each of their lives to preach the word of God.)

As equipping leaders, we can set the example by occasionally helping out with tasks that are outside of our gifting and calling. My senior pastor and I decided to give our facility team a “summer vacation.” All summer we’ve been coming earlier on Sundays to set up and staying later to put away. I confess that I’ve grumbled a few times, but it’s given me a deeper appreciation for the ministry of this particular team! I also encourage our ministry team leaders to schedule themselves in their team’s rotation, serving alongside the team members they lead.

I once heard a bishop remark that his consecration as bishop was not a move up the ladder of success, but rather a move step_downdownward into deeper humility. What an exhortation! If it is true that an organization can rise no higher than its leadership, then let’s be leaders who side-step the spirit of entitlement and instead journey downward into deeper humility, that every member of our church will be truly humble, serving others according to their gifting and calling so that we all rise to the example set by Christ!

Clergy/Laity Distinction?

question markClergy/laity distinction… It’s a phrase that gets kicked around a lot, especially in the world of equipping leaders. But what does it really mean? Is there a clergy/laity distinction? Should there be? I think that it depends on who you ask and in what context you are asking.

I recently referenced the clergy/laity distinction in a sermon. Actually, I threw down my soapbox, climbed upon it, and proceeded to inform my parish that this distinction is a lie that divides the church and causes no small amount of confusion and misunderstanding. Apparently I was actually quite “feisty” about it, according to one listener! That’s not surprising, since for years I have been on a mini-crusade to promote equality of ministry. But another listener pointed out the irony that I would insist that there should be no distinction between clergy and laity, all the while appearing distinctly different from the rest of the parish as I stood before them in my white alb and deacon’s stole. Ouch!

I was preaching from Ephesians 4:1-16, pointing out that the role of the apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers is to equip the saints for the work of ministry, not to do all the ministry themselves. The purpose of this is to create unity out of the variety of spiritual gifts and diversity of responsibilities so that we all grow up together as one body, into Christ who is the head. I referenced the apostle Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 12, using the body as a metaphor to help his readers understand that all the “working parts” are necessary and equal in their value to the body as a whole. I spoke at length on the way we are interdependent and how this creates unity in the church as we each recognize our part–our ministry–and serve accordingly. In this context, I believe there should be no distinction between the value of the ministry of the clergy and that of the laity.

On the other hand… Both the senior pastor and I are ordained. We wear vestments for worship. Doesn’t that distinguish us from everyone else? And our denomination has an episcopal structure; we are governed by bishops. Doesn’t that represent a hierarchy of power? The answer to both questions is, of course, yes. There is definitely a clergy/laity distinction in this context, that of creating order in the church. It is a system of authority that is intended to guard the integrity of scripture and the sacraments. As an Anglican, I value the distinction between clergy and laity in this ordering of our church.

My point? As equipping leaders, we need to be careful about how we throw that “clergy/laity distinction” phrase around. We might actually contribute to the misunderstanding and confusion, missing the opportunity to restore the worth of each and every minister and the ministry they perform.