January 23: Elder: Equipper of the Called

January 23: Elder: Equipper of the Called

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Audio of Scripture reading, sermon, and pastoral prayer only

This is the last in a 3-part sermon series entitled “Called to Ministry.” By virtue of water baptism, Christians receive a “call” to a ministry which is common to all followers of Jesus. Among the baptized, God calls some to ‘set apart’ ministries, the most common being a call to ordained ministry. The United Methodist Church has two orders of ordination: deacon and elder. Today’s theme is the role and purpose of The United Methodist Elder.

Scriptures: Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16

Question: in regard to your chosen vocation, whatever that may be today or may have been in the past, what got you started down that particular path in life? Maybe it was a long-time interest of yours, and so you just kept moving in that direction out of a sense of curiosity. Maybe it born out of a specific skill or ability which you developed, and in time came to realize you could earn a living using that talent? Maybe you yourself envisioned this pathway, or maybe it came to be after someone else suggested it to you after seeing a possibility in you. Maybe it was born out of necessity; you needed a job, found one, and stayed there. Whatever it was for you, it’s safe to say that the pathways to our jobs and careers are varied.

image of cell phone with question mark on the screen

Have you ever considered your vocation a calling? And by that I mean, that God designed you specifically for your particular field of work, and then opened a way for you to work in that domain. Almost like there was no way of not doing it because it’s just who you are.

When it comes to a life of ministry, speaking of it as a calling is fairly typical. I think the reason for this is because ministry as vocation—and not just pastoral ministry—isn’t something that one can do well or effectively simply on the basis of personal skill or financial need. There really has to be an external source of power and ability to be in some kind of ministry as a vocation. There are simply too many ways to become disillusioned or beaten down to be able to keep at it over the long haul. Since clergy were exempt from the draft during the Vietnam War, some avoided military service by enrolling in seminary. Although I haven’t any proof other than my own experience of post-seminary experience, I’m nearly certain that most of those persons probably ended up leaving the ministry if they got that far. It’s just too fraught with emotional and spiritual landmines to be able to stay at it without the undergirding of the Holy Spirit. Better known as a Call.

Are pastoral and diaconal ministry the only vocations to which one is called by God? Of course not. There’s a whole slew of jobs or careers which most of us would rather do less on account of all the challenges associated with it. But there are those who are drawn to those jobs and are equipped with the necessary grace to meet those challenges with a certain amount of aptitude. For example, Caroline worked for twelve years as an in-home care giver. Many if not most of her clients had significant memory loss. If I might be allowed to brag on her a bit, she was absolutely gifted in her ability to work one-on-one with these persons. By no means was it easy, but God granted her the grace of extreme patience and gentleness necessary to walk alongside these persons in a way that they themselves felt safe and comforted. I, on the other hand would have failed miserably in her job. I just don’t have that same grace to do it. It’s clearly not something I’m called to. Likewise, she’s often told me, “I could never do what you do.” And that’s because she’s not called to pastoral ministry. I love it! And, quite frankly, have never felt dissuaded from it on account of the typical challenges with which many of us are familiar when it comes to congregational life.

I think teaching is calling. And specifically, teaching special-needs education is definitely a calling. I also think teaching middle-school, if you’re going to be effective and not go crazy, is a calling. Working in childcare is calling. At some level, being a nurse has to be a calling, especially when it comes to working in settings that are particularly emotionally draining, such as a pediatric cancer unit, or hospice. Working in areas of service where the financial benefits are generally minimal probably requires being called and gifted. Otherwise, burnout is likely to come quickly.

So, when we speak of being called, we’re first and foremost talking about a summons from God. The language we use to describe that summons will vary, as will be the means by which that summons is experienced. But the point is, it’s a directive or an invitation from God to join him in doing something in particular. He then equips you to do it. He provides the necessary skills and abilities and temperament to do it. God calls and we respond.

Two weeks ago, I shared my belief that Christian water baptism constitutes a call to ministry which is common to every believer. That call is a call to love and serve every person we meet and know, to be the light of Christ, and to figure out how to best bear witness to the life of Jesus Christ in us for the sake of others. This common, all-encompassing call is clearly articulated by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the members of the congregation in Ephesus. He writes, “I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God” (Eph. 4:1).

His audience was what we today refer to as the laity, the people in the pews; non-clergy. Again, live as people worthy of the call [each of] you received from God. And how is this call to be lived out? He goes on: “Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love” (v. 2). That sounds like something all of us can do.

In verse 7, Paul says something that functions as a verbal bridge. This statement both affirms the call which is common to all baptized believers and lays the groundwork for identifying what we Methodists refer to as “set apart ministries,” specialized ministries which are born out of the general ministry common to everyone.

Verse 7 reads, “God has given his grace to each one of us, measured out by the gift that is given by Christ.”

text "Spiritual Gifts" with artistic rendering of a red flame

On one level—and this is an important point—this statement implies that every baptized believer has been endued with certain special abilities which are intended to be used to strengthen the body of Christ to do his work in this world. These special abilities are given by the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion, and they’re called “spiritual gifts.” Every baptized believer has their own array of spiritual gifts, with one or two being dominant and most identifiable.

On another level, this statement sets the reader up for the idea that that the spiritual gift given to certain persons within the body of Christ are given in order to equip them to function in ways that are not expected of every baptized believer. These spiritual gifts are often associated with particular ministries within the life of the church. In verse 11, Paul names five of the 20+ spiritual gifts identified in the New Testament. He writes, “God gave some [to be] apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.”

Apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher. Each a particular spiritual gift—a particular set of skills and abilities used to build up the church and do the work of Christ. And each an important role within the church, roles to which not every Christian is called.

In The United Methodist faith tradition, the most common set-apart ministry is the ordained ministry. (Within Methodism, ordination is limited to the clergy, which isn’t the case in all denominations—but that’s the way it is in Methodist denominations.) Last week, Elisabeth shared a little about her call to be an ordained deacon. You might recall that this call of hers reflected her heart. Remember how she told us she was naturally drawn to those who were kind of on the outside? How she recognized in herself that she was drawn to children, even as a young person herself? In time, she sensed God calling her to vocational ministry. But one thing was clear to her, which was that it wasn’t a call to pastoral ministry. The typical role of the pastor didn’t resonate with her spirit. Instead, she felt called to a vocation of service, which is the central mark of a deacon. Serving is a spiritual gift, and it’s the gift that most qualifies someone to effectively fulfill the role of an ordained deacon. When Elisabeth learned about the United Methodist deacon, her call came together for her, and today she’s well on the path to being an ordained deacon, which will happen in about two years.

Whereas Elisabeth’s ministerial call is fulfilled as a United Methodist deacon, my call to set-apart ministry is fulfilled as a United Methodist elder. I mentioned a moment ago that the central mark of a deacon is service. In our faith tradition, the central marks of an elder are expressed in three words: word, sacrament, and order. ‘Word’ generally means preaching and teaching the Word of God. ‘Sacrament’ means both administering the sacraments of holy baptism and holy communion and also guiding people to the place wherein they’re able to receive them. ‘Order’ means overseeing the general life of the church, from worship to administrative meetings.

To help give you a better sense of the differences between what a deacon is called to and an elder is called to, I’ll read you the official “examination” statements of each office which are read aloud during the ordination service. There are some commonalities but also some marked differences. Here’s the statement about the deacon’s call:

A deacon is called:

  • to share in Christ’s ministry of servanthood
  • to relate the life of the community to its service in the world
  • to lead others into Christian discipleship
  • to nurture disciples for witness and service
  • to lead in worship
  • to teach and proclaim God’s Word
  • to assist elders and appointed local pastors at Holy Baptism and Holy Communion
  • to interpret to the church the world’s hurts and hopes
  • to serve all people, particularly the poor, the sick, and the oppressed
  • and to lead Christ’s people in ministries of compassion and justice, liberation, and reconciliation, especially in the face of hardship and personal sacrifice

Now, compare that with the statement about what an elder is called to within our faith tradition:

An elder is called to share in the ministry of Christ and of the whole church:

  • to preach and teach the Word of God
  • and faithfully administer the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion
  • to lead the people of God in worship and prayer
  • to lead persons to faith in Jesus Christ
  • to exercise pastoral supervision
  • to order the life of the congregation and the connection
  • to counsel the troubled, and declare the forgiveness of sin
  • to lead the people of God in obedience to Christ’s mission in the world
  • to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people
  • and to take a responsible place in the government of the Church and in service in and to the community

As you can surely see, the call to either branch of ordained ministry is broad in nature. In reality, no one is gifted to do everything listed in these official statements really well. The truth is, those of us called to the ordained ministry are gifted to do one or two things well, and the rest we spend our careers trying to figure out how to do as well as possible without totally dropping the ball! Which leads me directly to what many say is the core responsibility of an elder/pastor. And what I’m about to share with you is born out of these two facts: 1) Every baptized believer is called of God and gifted to do the work of ministry, namely, strengthening the Body of Christ and doing the work of Christ in the world; 2) the pastor can’t do everything.

In my role as the pastor/shepherd of this congregation, my primary responsibility is to use the gifts God gave me to equip the good people of this congregation do the work of the church.

If the role and function of the elder can be summed up in one statement, it would be Ephesians 4:11-12, with the emphasis on verse 12:

God gave some [to be] apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ. Let me state that purpose again. To equip God’s people.

What’s the verb in that statement of purpose? Equip. And who is the object of that equipping? God’s people. The church; the called and baptized. And for what purpose are they equipped? For doing the work of serving and building up the body of Christ in this world.

So here it is in plain English. As an elder, in my role as the pastor/shepherd of this congregation, my primary responsibility is to use the gifts God gave me to equip the good people of this congregation do the work of the church. Yes, that means that I will work alongside you, but my primary task as the pastor is not to do the work just as your primary task is not to equip the body. Again, to a certain degree, our ministry is something we do together, but in the end, the responsibility of doing the daily work of Christ wherein we’re making deep connections with the people in our city is something that only you, the called and baptized of this congregation, can do effectively.

There are many ways a healthy church lives this out. One example is establishing a visitation ministry wherein the homebound and others who would benefit from personal contact at home are called upon by members of the church in addition to the pastor occasionally visiting. Another example is leading Bible studies. Where’s it written that only the pastor can lead a Bible study or a small group such as an Advent or Lenten study?

Another example would be the pastoral participation in administrative committee meetings. My guess is that it’s the expectation of most church leaders that their pastor will be present most church meetings, especially if they’re not otherwise busy. But I have a well-respected colleague who’s very good at what he does who once told me that he honestly couldn’t remember the last time he attended a Finance Committee or Trustees meeting. It’s not that he doesn’t care, because he absolutely does care. He just knows that there’s a much better use of his time than spending many hours a week at multiple meetings each week.  So, in place of going to those meetings, he meets one-on-one with each chairperson the week before in order to go over the agenda and talk about whatever needed to be addressed. And then he entrusts the leadership of that meeting to that chairperson, who’s prepared to represent the pastor if necessary.

God gave some to be pastors…to equip God’s people for the work of ministry.

So, between last week and today, you’ve become a little more familiar with what a deacon and elder are called to do. But from where I sit, more important than knowing what they do is knowing from whence they come. They come from you. The baptized body of Christ followers. God’s call to a set-apart ministry comes to those who are already participating in and living out their baptismal call in a local church, such as this one. In fact, this aspect of a person’s call to a set-apart ministry is so important to us that the very first step in the process is getting the support of their local church. If the people who know them best can’t affirm that the gifts and graces which make for an effective deacon or elder are present in the person feeling called, the process stops there. You are where it all begins. And you should know that it’s from out of you that persons have been called to specialized ministries. Here are those that I’m aware of:

  • Dan Hart
  • Ruth Irish Vandersande
  • Elizabeth Hurd
  • Will Lobb
  • Bob Kreger
  • Bob Chapman
  • Joe Fetterly
  • Shiree Fetterly
  • David Reed
  • Denny Irish
  • Becky Morrison
  • Matt Chapman

Each of these persons was connected to this congregation in some way. And today they’re fulfilling their call in different settings. They’re ordained clergy, local licensed pastors, worship leaders, and missionaries. And in one way or another, this congregation played an important role in their call, and in their ability to hear and respond to their call.

Friends, until Jesus returns, the work of the church will never be complete. The call to ministry will continue unceasingly, one generation after another. Who among us is God calling to help lead the church, both as gifted lay persons and gifted elders and deacons? Maybe, just maybe, that someone is you! Let’s pray.

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