Clerics or Coaches?

It’s not every Sunday that I get up at 5.30am in order to catch a plane and fly to Wellington, to attend a 10 o’clock service. But last weekend that was just what I did, in order to be part of the induction of a new pastor at a church in suburban Lower Hutt. The new minister, who completed her studies at Carey College last year, had invited me to join the morning congregation, because it has been my privilege to mentor her over three years of training for full-time pastoral leadership. So it was a special experience to see her embark of this new stage of her journey in serving God and his Church.

The rationale for inducting a minister has changed somewhat over the 34 years since I was ordained to the “Ministry of Word and Sacrament;” the artwork here was a gift from my brother on that occasion. My mother church claims to be led collegially by a court of elders, some of whom have the special function of teaching, but there is no doubt that over the centuries a patina of clericalism has attached itself to our polity and praxis. Some of this was appropriate, as leaders need to have some sort of authority to implement or modify that for which they are held responsible. But some was inappropriate, taking its shape more from the Jewish temple hierarchy than from the diverse and malleable structures we find in the early church. Ordination had changed from being a simple recognition of God’s gift and calling for certain people to be teaching shepherds and equippers, to being a sign of a special status in the economy of salvation. Even in the Reformed tradition, people looked to the minister as the expert, role model and even broker of their faith. Special names and special clothes consolidated the sense of mystery evoked by the tasks and demeanour of ordained ministers.

In the late twentieth century and the “death of Christendom”, a lot of this thinking became irrelevant, but ecumenical considerations have constrained us to maintain some of the language and expectations. It doesn’t help that the church has tended more and more to become a kind of voluntary society, which people think they join in order to receive certain benefits, one of which is the services of a minister. Our thinking – amongst both pastors and people – has needed to be converted, so that we grasp how every one of us is both “called and sent” to cooperate with the mission of God.

Sunday’s induction was not an ordination. My friend’s denomination relinquished that pathway some years ago, in favour of inducting a pastor just to that congregation and not to service of the church as a whole. I had mixed feelings about that. It did seem to me there was something missing. When my husband became a doctor, he and all the others in his graduating class recited the Hippocratic Oath. There is a sense in which he is a doctor for all time, deeply trusted by the community, regardless of the hospital, laboratory or family practice where he is employed. When I was ordained, I made the same commitment, to serve the whole church, even though there would be a season when I mainly served God by raising our kids. I went back into full time ministry, but now I am in another stage of the family life cycle, and divide my time between ministry tasks and family responsibilities. These days, I have had to embrace the reality that my formal ordination has little relevance to my leadership roles. There will be no induction service as I take up my role as Discipleship Coach next week – but I hope you will pray for me!

In a missional church, what leaders do in equipping the saints is intimately related to the ministry of the entire community, not done on its behalf. Spiritual Formation happens when we serve each other as “interpreters, catalysts, and resources for the exposition of Gods Word in all its formative power."(Darrell Guder, in his lecture series on Walking Worthily, p 278). The faith community itself becomes a parable and a sacrament, in the midst of a world longing for spiritual significance. The gospel works its healing in and through us as we offer a “visible alternative” to the desiccated values of 21st century society. My call to ordination is precious to me, but in 2009, 30 months after finishing up my ten years as a Senior Minister, I feel “Called Again” to a new form of ministry, and a new way of being a leader. I have a passion for supporting spiritual growth, a heap of experience and some God-given wisdom. This Lenten season, I am learning to mine the rich resources and diverse practices of faith formation bequeathed to us down the centuries. I will have a structured and intentional ministry, but it will be just one flavour in the smorgasbord of faith expressions God is using as he works out his will in our community.

To Chew Over: Does the notion of ordination mean anything to you? How about the notion of a Discipleship Coach? Which resonates most with your own spirituality?

Sung at a recent induction service:

There's a hunger in this wilderness for your revelation

To hear the words of life that strengthen me

Come and show what you've prepared for me, speak your confirmation

Show me how I fit into your plan

For when you call my name I can see again

Who you are and who I'm meant to be

And as you beckon me I am free to see

Who you are and who I'm sent to be.

© Brian Doerksen 2000.


  1. Some very pertinent reflections, Viv, I appreciate your observations. It is clearly true that ministry is not done 'on behalf of' - as if the congregation is a client. On the other hand there is a sense I think in which the congregation as a body invests certain of its functions into some. The 'minister' is thus an embodiment of the whole. This is rather like the medieval notion of kingship (the royal 'we'). In a sense this is a safeguard, that the sacred charge which belongs to us all is exercised by us through certain individuals on whom we recognise a particular calling. It is in this dynamic that the proper sense of ordination is found.

    Martin Sutherland

  2. Thanks Martin, I like that application of the royal "we" - which I think Anglican bishops also use. My Presbyterian heritage would see the communality as including the wider church and not just the local congregation.


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