Gifts of God – for the Work of Ministry

Service of Ordination
Canterbury United Methodist Church
Birmingham, Alabama
June 4, 2010

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (NRSV)
— Ephesians 4:11-13

Tonight we gather to celebrate the truth of Ephesians 4:11-12. It is theologically impossible for there ever to be a shortage of clergy, a dearth of leaders for the church, not enough people to do the mission Jesus has called us to do. The New Testament, from Jesus’ first calling of his disciples, all the way through the Acts of the Apostles testifies to the truth: Christ never leaves his church without leadership.

The writer to the Ephesians calls leaders, the gifts of God for the church. So I first want to say, “Thank you Lord, for the gift of these lives whom you have given us tonight, those on whom hands will be laid. John, Mary, and all of you are God’s great gifts to us.

Sometimes the poor old myopic church has difficulty seeing God’s gifts as gifts offered to us. It only took us 1500 years to see the gifts God was giving us in women whom God had called to ministry.

Sad to say, in the last thirty years we have so shrunk the United Methodist Church that we cannot utilize all the gifted people God has sent us, which has made being on our Board of Ordained Ministry a real heartache this year.

But thanks be to God once again God has not left us to our own devices, God has sent us just the new leaders that we need for the future, and you gifts of God now sit before us.

Barbara Brown Taylor says that the most miserable job she ever had in the church was sitting on her church’s Board of Ministry, having to decide whom to admit to the priesthood. She said the candidates that year were a motley crew, people who had bombed out in marriage or other better paying careers, people of questionable emotional stability.

For her, the straw that broke the camel’s back was one guy who, as proof of this call into the ministry, pulled up his shirt showing where the off duty policeman’s bullet entered his side, exiting his back. He took the bullet as a young man while attempting to rob a convenience store.

“That bullet,” he said pointing to his side, “was my burning bush. That was my call into the ministry.”

The committee was aghast. In the discussion that followed some said, “Look, he’s served his time in the state Pen. Maybe he’s been redeemed.”

But Barbara said the most moving argument was in the man’s citation of the burning bush story, the call of Moses to lead God’s people. “I knew enough of the Bible,” she said, “to know that God loves to call some strange, strange people into the ministry.”

We don’t have time to hear all of your stories tonight, but I’m sure if we did, we would all say in unison, “God still calls strange, strange people into the ministry!”

You are here tonight because you have been summoned, called. You are here as God’s idea of what the church needs. You are here as God’s gifts to God’s people.

Why? Our text tells us: to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. Maybe you know that Greek has no punctuation. So there was some debate in the church over where to put the comma in this long sentence. The old King James had it, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors” comma, “and some teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” This wrongly implied that the church has apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. The teachers equip the saints for the work of ministry. Newer translations rightly remove the comma so it reads that we have prophets, evangelists, pastors and some teachers (no comma between pastors and teachers) why? To equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

The whole point of ordained evangelists, pastors, and teachers is to equip the saints (that is, everybody in the church) for the work of ministry. It’s not that pastors do the work of ministry, it’s that we equip the people of God for the work of ministry. Our whole point, as pastors, the judge of our ministry is how well we equip the baptized to do the work of ministry.

Thus my friend John Westerhoff said, “If you are a layperson who spends more than ten hours a week at church, then you are wasting your time.” Your ministry is not to be at church, running errands for the pastor; your ministry is in the world with Jesus.” Westerhoff added, “And it you are a pastor who spends more than ten hours a week working outside the church then you are wasting your time. Your ministry is to equip the saints for the work of Jesus in the world.”

We dare not send anyone into a bank, or a middle school, or to the statehouse in Montgomery these days without giving them the essential equipment to survive as a disciple of Jesus.

That’s one of the reasons why I worry that some of our Sunday worship just doesn’t have enough biblical/theological substance. I’m not worried that some of the music is cheesy and some of the content is trivial – though it often is! I worry that we are not giving the saints enough equipment to do the work of ministry.

I beg you newly ordained (I beg all of us, myself included!) not to rob your people of their God-given ministries in your attempts to be a good pastor. We have churches that have too much pastor for too few laity. The result is the pastor, because he or she has enough time to do it, takes over ministry that God has given to talented laypersons.

The Methodist movement spent its first century, it’s most productive century, under the premise that you should keep Methodist clergy moving constantly, never letting them stay long enough in any one place to become embedded so that the laity gave to the clergy that which God expected the laity to do.

Each years as the Treasurer hands the figure for connectional giving (apportionments) to me — so I can hand it to the DS’s, so they can drop it on the clergy, who then drop it on the laity – I ask myself: how did our financial support for mission and administration, for benevolences and the connection become the sole responsibility of the clergy? Not one single congregation in our Conference treats its stewardship in that way. We are getting the sad results that we deserve.

My last congregation was an inner city church that had shrunk in ten years from a thousand members to barely thee hundred when I arrived. I was overwhelmed by all that needed to be done. First meeting with my SPRC I handed them a stack of note cards. On each card I had written one task that I did as a pastor – everything from preaching, to visiting the sick, to evangelism, to composing the Sunday bulletin. Then I said to the SPRC, “I’ve only recently arrived here. These are all the tasks that I could do as your pastor, but I don’t know what’s most important for me to do here. Arrange these tasks in order of importance.”

I left the room. They debated for an hour, then called me back. I was shocked to see “preaching” at the top of the list, followed by “teaching,” followed by “prayer”!

“This congregation is desperate for new members,” I said. “I thought you would have put evangelism at the top of the list, visitation of prospective members, something like that.”

“We’ve lived in this town all our lives,” one member said. “You just moved here. If there’s any visiting to be done, any evangelism, it’s up to us, not you.”

Another said, “We haven’t had a sermon or a worship service that I wanted to invite anybody to. You preach well; we’ll find you a congregation to hear it.” (Laity!)

God help us if, in your ministry, you don’t equip the saints for their ministry but rather rob them of their God-given ministry.

The good news is that God has given us all we need to be faithful to God’s commands, to further his mission in the world. You will find, if you open your eyes, that God (or the bishop!) will never send you to any church where God will not give you the people you need to do God’s work.

The gifts of God for the people of God! Thanks be to God!

William H. Willimon

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