Shared ministry a shared interest for East Tennessee clergy and laity

April 8, 2004

Discover, respond, honor, affirm, involve, equip, support, empower, grow, thrive, transform. Shared ministry. Mutual ministry. Ministry of all the baptized.

Powerful phrases and positive terms glowed like jewels through the energized discussion and frequent laughter at a conference called, “We are all Partners in Ministry,” held March 27 at the Episcopal School of Knoxville and featuring the Rt. Rev. Jim Kelsey of Northern Michigan.

One week previous, Rick Govan, the diocesan lay ministry development director and conference coordinator, had struggled with the realization that tremendous demand would require the event to be moved from Grace Point Camp and Retreat Center to a larger venue when registrations topped and sailed past the 100 mark.

“I am absolutely convinced that the paradigms of ministry in today’s church are in the process of major change, that many basic assumptions about the church and its ministry are indeed in transition,” Govan said in his opening remarks to 130 people representing three-quarters of the parishes in East Tennessee. “We are growing into a better understanding that there are untapped resources among us and that the ministry of the church should be more of a shared ministry.”

We’re all called

The biblical foundation for shared ministry is strong, said Jeff Davis, senior warden at St. Christopher, Kingsport, and conference chaplain. In the first of many such examples through the day, he described how when Moses was called to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, he balked: He argued with God that his gifts were insufficient to handle such a task alone. God sent Aaron and Miriam.

“Not everyone possesses every gift,” Davis said. “By working together and utilizing all of our gifts, we can truly bring about miracles.”

Following an introduction by Bishop Charles vonRosenberg, Bishop Jim Kelsey added to the biblical foundation as he described how Jesus began his ministry.

After being baptized and withstanding Satan in the wilderness, “What’s the first thing he does? He goes out and recruits partners. Later when Jesus passed the ministry on to his disciples — and to us — he said, ‘I no longer call you servants, but friends, and greater things than I have done, you will do.’

“St. Paul picked this up in his writings,” Kelsey added. “We’re all individual parts of the body of Christ, each with our own gifts. We’re not alike — none of us can do it all — we have to draw upon each other’s gifts.

“Paul almost never worked alone,” he said. If you glance through his letters, some 80 names of partners in ministry are named, he said, “and that’s just those who made the book.”

Paul gathered a small group of people, worked with them a short while, then moved on. “He never sent back to Jerusalem for the latest seminary-trained graduate,” Kelsey said. “Ministry on the local level was shared and indigenous, and ministry on more than the local level, the apostolic ministry, was shared and itinerant.”

A ministry model

Northern Michigan was not the first diocese to develop and practice a model of mutual ministry, Kelsey noted, saying that Alaska, Nevada, Rio Grande and others had provided guidance when the diocese was looking to update the “clericalism” model in which priest-provided ministry is delivered to “consumers.”

The climate of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the 1980s was grim, he said: a crumbling economy, exodus of young adults, shuttering of businesses.

“We had a situation where our congregations couldn’t afford full-time clergy, and we asked ourselves how we could as a community gather and be fed with the sacraments and the word of God and be engaged in mission and not simply be locked into a survival mode.”

The diocese has four regions, and today “each has a team of missioners who work to support the congregations in those areas,” Kelsey said. “Those missioners, however, are not priests in charge of the congregations; they are teachers, supporters, companions of the life and mission of the community.”

“At the heart of it is what we call the Covenant Group Process, in which we equip the whole community,” he said. “The ministry support team may be as small as five people; in some congregations, up to one-third of the membership is on the ministry support team. They meet together for prayer and study, forming themselves as a community.”

During an affirmation weekend, those in the covenant group join with the bishop, ministry development coordinator and others. “We hear each other’s stories, the history of the parish — this is in lieu of the interview process for applicants to ordination — and then on Sunday morning, those in the group come forward and read a letter of application for commissioning as a team,” he said. “The entire congregation comes forward and signs a letter of support. It involves the whole community as much as possible.”

Deacons and priests are ordained, lay ministers are commissioned and licensed, and “hands are laid on everybody,” he said.

Transforming ministry

After a break during which conference participants could roam the property, tour Diocesan House, shop at Chapter & Verse Bookshop or chat with others while munching lunch, Bishop Kelsey showed a short film called “FISH.”

The story of Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle is a tale of rejuvenation in which the application of a few basic principles turned a nothing-special business into a place beloved by customers and employees for its positive, electric energy. One worker said simply, “It’s not about the fish. It’s about the encounter.”

“It’s about transformation,” Bishop Kelsey emphasized. “If we could choose an attitude that shows God’s love [through each encounter we have], we — and God — would be irresistible.”

He went on to speak briefly of the potential impact of a change in the church canons. “The first canon is as it was, ministry of all the baptized, and then it talks about the Commission on Ministry, and then in the old canons, licensed ministries, and then the process for ordination — as if it were one trajectory, which creates a hierarchical orientation.

“The new third canon is discernment, standing on its own, before licensed ministries and the rest. Now our assumption is that every baptized person has a vocation; it’s up to us to discern what that is.”

It’s the work of the church, the people, to support one another in our ministries in daily life, he said. “What we should be doing in church is hearing reports from the field,” he said. “We should support each other in the work of reconciliation, proclamation and servanthood.”

In East Tennessee

Participants wondered what this means for East Tennessee.

At the end of the conference, Rick Govan said a suggested curriculum for licensed ministries is planned through the Commission on Ministry for use in congregations.

However, he said, “It’s grassroots: If you say, ‘we’re thinking about this, we would like some ideas’—then let us help you and work with you, but it’s got to come from you.”

“One model will not be appropriate everywhere,” Bishop vonRosenberg later said. “Nevertheless, the people who attended the conference began to perceive some hints and suggestions of what the fullness of our baptismal ministries might mean in the service of Christ in this particular part of God’s world.”