What a message we send!

Church methodically removes the best icons of lay ministry: We ordain them
February 29, 2004

WE WHO ARE the church are probably guilty of sending many mixed messages to the larger culture and to our own community. But there is one message that particularly weighs on my mind these days.

We hear an increasing emphasis on our baptismal ministry, especially the baptismal ministry each layperson is to live out. There is growing awareness that this lay ministry is essential for the church to be effective in the world as the Body of Christ.

We tell the laity that their ministry is important, even essential, and that true ministry is not just practiced by clergy. We remind ourselves that clergy are those called out by the community to take certain roles, including the role of enabling, nurturing and supporting the more fully mobilized lay ministry we envision. We spend many words and much energy attempting to define the role of the diaconate and reiterate the iconic role of deacons in enabling lay ministry.

But here's the problem: We methodically remove the best icons of lay ministry. We remove them by ordaining them. We send the message, unwittingly and continuously, that if you are really effective in your ministry, ordination is the logical progression and result. Along with that comes the subliminal message that ordination is the badge of true ministry.

Parallels exist in other professional areas. One classic pattern is that of encouraging an excellent teacher to become a principal or administrator. Often when the teacher makes the shift and becomes a credentialed administrator, he or she finds the new responsibility ill-suited and unrewarding. Often the miserable administrator returns to the classroom to flourish again.

Our schools need principals and administrators. The church needs priests, deacons and bishops for many essential liturgical, pastoral and leadership roles. We must continue to form, train, anoint and ordain clergy. But we must do this in ways that don't counter or diminish our priority for lay ministry in the church.

So I ask: Where do we find the balance in ordaining clergy, yet keeping many laypersons who are important visible iconic ministers in their present roles? What actions can we take to match the verbal emphasis on development of lay ministry?

What can we do? For a start, we might call the Commissions on Ministry in our dioceses Commissions on Ordained Ministry, for that's what most of them are. Or perhaps we should keep the name and expand the charge of the commissions to include encouragement and enhancement of lay ministry as well.

In the past, Commissions on Ministry tended to ask, "Are there compelling reasons not to ordain this person?" My sense is that we need to ask, "What compelling reasons are there for ordaining this person?" It is import to know what the church community will lose, as well as gain, if this person is ordained. Perhaps there are some persons who are far too valuable as icons of lay ministry for us to orda them.

If that statement seems offensive, consider what that tells us about ho conditioned we are to think in only way about ordination. Why not focus instead on further development of a layperson's gifts and charisms as the continue to be exercised in congrega tion, community and diocese.

It is not this writer's purpose to this dilemma or suggest all possible alternatives, but to raise awareness stimulate creative discussion and action.

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