Ministers, ministry, and semantics

Stuart doesn’t think paid ministers are anything special. I agree. Though “special” is as “special” does. Stuart commented on, and linked to, my post about raising non bitter ministry children. He didn’t like that I used the word “ministry” because we’re all meant to be ministers. Well, yes. But at that point it’s a matter of semantic differences, not theological. I don’t think you’ll find anybody linked to in Stuart’s post who disagrees with him on the fundamental point that those in paid ministry positions have a responsibility to be training and equipping the church to bring the gospel to those they are in relationship with.

What this all boils down to, and I’ve been looking forward to using this phrase here, is an illegitimate totality transfer.

Ministry might be the task of all Christians, but it is only the paid vocation for some. This is the problem with the Presbyterian church and the word worship – worship has a broad semantic range. It’s meaning is dynamic, though each meaning is linked an fundamentally the same. This is true too for the word “ministry” – it’s the best word we have to describe the role of Christians and the job for those we pay to work for the body. A payment that Paul encourages and even mandates (for all but himself).

English words have pretty wide ranges of meanings (I recommend reading Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue for an exploration of just how English functions, and our church “jargon” (complete with Biblical terminology) is the same. Language is tricky to pin down, and pinning down one word with one specific (minority) definition makes for problematic discussions.

I’ve been reflecting lately on whether Paul’s ministry approach is normative – either for the Christian, or for the paid worker. I think it’s clearly not the case for either. Paul is an apostle, he’s single, he’s schooled in the law, he’s a Jew, he’s different to the other apostles (who have wives, and are paid). He calls the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitates Christ – but he doesn’t call them all to do ministry the way he does, he seems to see his own ministry as a special case. I certainly don’t think we should be expecting everybody within the church to minister in an apostolic fashion. We are (1 Peter 3:15) to be prepared to give an account for our hope, but we’re also a body of Christ with diverse roles and giftings, called to love and serve one another.

Stuart frames the purposes of his posts in the comments on the current one:

Precisely what I want to do in this series is to ask, “Given that paid pastors exist, how can we think of their work (and help them think of their work) in a way that avoids some current problems?”

I have three pastoral concerns here:
1. for pastors, many of whom (at least anecdotally) struggle with overwork and consequent neglect of their wife and children;
2. for church members, who rely too much on paid pastors to do the ministry;
3. for the world, whom the church cannot bless if it is too reliant on paid pastors.

Worthy concerns, and I’m interested to see where Stuart goes while I try to build my own framework and philosophy for ministry (though it’s been pretty heavily influenced by those who came before me…).

I get the feeling that some of this helpful conversation gets bogged down in semantics – we spend so much time defining, or redefining, our terminology in order to engage with one another’s ideas. Izaac reflected on a conversation with one of his fellow students (who is part of the Joshua Tree church plant) mentioning similar issues:

One of our problems was that we were using the same words to describe very different things. When I said church it was not what Danny was thinking when he said church. I wanted to talk to Danny about his role as a student minister – but I prefaced the statement with “For lack of a better word…” and many other things like that.

This has highlighted for me part of the great thing that Stuart, Danny and others involved are trying to do. That is, groups such as these of which they are a part, which seek for radical rethinks of what we are doing, could easily define themselves by what they aren’t. Instead they are working hard to define what they are.

It’s a great conversation, but we need to make sure we aren’t (or are) at cross purposes on the basis of language.

7 Comments Ministers, ministry, and semantics

  1. Al Bain

    I don’t know what you mean when you speak of “illegitimate totality transfer.”

    And…

    “Ministry might be the task of all Christians, but it is only the paid vocation for some.”

    Says who?

  2. Stuart Heath

    I do love to bag illegitimate totality transfer, and the hunt-and-peck, Bible-is-a-magic-book way that people can sometimes do systematic theology.

    But I don’t think I’m guilty of it here.

    I hear your point that in your post you’re just talking about your experience of being a paid pastor’s kid (and I assume that Mikey’s posts are on that, too. Gavin’s is, I think, more ideological. And it’s how I was indoctrinated through Club 5, MTS, etc.: “If you’re a serious Christian, you go into ministry,” which means “get a job in a church”, and which implies — and sometimes explies — that the only value of non-church work is to pay for church work, because, you know, that’s the only real kind of ministry, and the days are short).

    The point I’m making is not specifically about your post. It’s a meta-comment, about the cultural context in which the posts to which I linked can make sense. That is, in a world where there’s nothing special about paid ministry, it’s hard to imagine those posts being written and framed in that way. It’s not a criticism of those posts in particular; I point to them as evidence of the fact that the thinking of our subculture is skewed.

    I agree we need to be careful with our language. (This is one reason I think we need to stop wasting so much of people’s time pretending to learn original languages in Bible college, and spend some of it teaching them philosophy of language, which they’ll actually use in the real world.) This is one of the reasons I say slightly unwonted things like “new creation”, “church gathering”, or “paid pastor”. I’m trying to avoid our cultural baggage crushing biblical words (like “heaven”, “church”, or “minister”).

  3. Nathan Campbell

    Stuart,

    “The point I’m making is not specifically about your post. It’s a meta-comment, about the cultural context in which the posts to which I linked can make sense. That is, in a world where there’s nothing special about paid ministry, it’s hard to imagine those posts being written and framed in that way.”

    I disagree. I don’t think being in paid ministry is intrinsically any more “special” than being a Christian baker. Essentially. But I have no qualification to comment on how to be the parent of the child of a baker, because I am not the child of a baker.

    I also know that many people who read my blog are in paid ministry, or in the process of training to enter paid ministry – so that is the context to which I write (occasionally). And it is the context to which I wrote that post particularly.

    I can’t write or frame it any differently with the same persuasive power because to do so disregards both my background and knowledge, and the nature of the audience to which I was communicating.

    I assume that both Mikey and the Solapanel team have similar audiences and are writing from similar frameworks (based on their experiences in paid ministry).

    If I were writing to an audience predominantly made up of lay people I would write differently – I would write about not seeing the child of your paid minister as fair game for special criticism on that basis, they are, afterall, normal children with normal tendencies to misbehave. There is nothing “special” about them.

    I am also not suggesting I have a problem with the barrow that you’re pushing (or the kite you’re flying) – like Mikey and Izaac – I think this conversation is useful and challenging the dominant paradigm is useful. Ultimately though, I’m a pragmatist, not a revolutionary, when it comes to strategy. I’d much rather bring about change within the system (slow and frustrating though that may be) than start a new system and lob grenades in from the outside, watching everybody inside duck for cover. I don’t know why I am this way, I think one of the problems I perceive is that lobbing grenades from the outside has potential to harm those who are trying to achieve the same ends from within the system.

    Al,

    Illegitimate Totality Transfer is a fallacy where you consider every possible meaning of a word with almost no regard for context. So when I say “ministry” or “ministers” within the context of a post about raising the children of paid ministry workers, and somebody says “but every Christian is in ministry” ignoring the contextual use of the word, that’s supplanting one actual definition of the word ministry with another. I’ll post on it soon…

    “Ministry might be the task of all Christians, but it is only the paid vocation for some.”

    Says who?

    I guess says me, the Bible and reality.

    Even if all Christians are in ministry it is clear in my experience that not all Christians are financially rewarded for being in ministry.

    There seems to be a distinction between “the workers” and “the church” biblically. Jesus doesn’t send all his followers out (unless its a significantly diminished band at that point) in the “harvest” passages, and Paul seems to make a distinction when he talks about not muzzling oxen and paying workers their dues…

    Do you disagree? Or were you just wanting me to back up my assertions?

  4. Stuart Heath

    I think I’ve witnessed enough discussions on your blog to know that it’s not really worth pursuing this, Nathan, but let me try once more.

    1. I understand you are talking out of your experience. But of the points you listed, two and a half were specific to someone who works for a church. The rest could apply to a whole range of people. And yet you applied your post particularly to ‘ministry children’. I don’t read a lot of blogs about ‘how not to embitter your children when you run a small business’. I’ve read almost no blog posts about how non-church work is ministry. For me, it’s an indication in the Christian subculture that we think there is something qualitatively different between a paid pastor and a baker. (Or is it self-selective: the bloggers are people in church jobs?”)

    2. In relation to your response to Al, of course we understand that when you say ‘ministry’ in that context, you’re talking about paid church work. And that’s precisely what I’m taking issue with. The cultural context where ‘ministry’ means ‘working for a church’ is simply wrong. Changing the language won’t fix everything, but it’s an easy and important step.

  5. Nathan

    “I think I’ve witnessed enough discussions on your blog to know that it’s not really worth pursuing this, Nathan, but let me try once more.”

    But this is fun…

    “But of the points you listed, two and a half were specific to someone who works for a church. The rest could apply to a whole range of people. And yet you applied your post particularly to ‘ministry children’

    But using your “every member of the church is in ministry” rubric (a crude summary I know) – surely this sort of view is useful. “How to raise children who aren’t bitter about the sacrifices you’ve made for ministry” would seem a pretty good thing to think through for any member of a church… It would be remiss of me not to mention, in a post like that, anything about raising children if you happen to be in a paid ministry position.

    I haven’t gone back to reread my post, or your comments, but are you suggesting that some how by narrowing my focus to the specific the advice (7.5 points of 10) for people in ministry (unpaid) is irrelevant or of less value?

    “I’ve read almost no blog posts about how non-church work is ministry.”

    I think I wrote something along these lines ages ago, but I’ve got 3,400 posts to sort through and I can’t remember what I called it or tagged it as… I think, in summary, my position was sometimes it’s a cop out to call secular work “ministry” – I think I drew an analogy to art. We want our work based ministry to obviously be ministry. We want it to look like ministry, not to be abstract. We want to be Michelangelos rather than Jackson Pollocks. But once we’ve established those parameters I agree – being a functional member of the workforce, and bringing order to creation, is ministry. A caveat on that statement is that if you are cut out/gifted/desire paid full time Christian work then you need to look at your motives for not doing it.

    I don’t think paid ministry work is the default definition of ministry in evangelical circles – if it was we’d have more people in paid ministry than out of it. I think its talked about so much precisely because the lure of non paid ministry positions is much greater, its more comfortable.
    I’m a product of AFES (amongst other things) and I think their constant banging on about full time paid ministry is helpful. I think this is the case because it’s a little self-selective (like the blogosphere) in that it targets people who are opt-in keen Christians (you don’t join a group at uni and go to conferences if you’re not). I think paid full time ministry needs to be talked about as a potential “career” in appropriate contexts. Especially at a time when people are sinfully considering grand dreams and future prosperity. It’s an easier sell to a uni student than someone climbing the corporate ladder. I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t gone into the workforce purposefully committed to going into ministry after a few years I would have found getting out of the comfort of a prestigious, well paid, position pretty difficult.

    I think if you asked thoroughly converted, ministry minded, lay people if they thought they were in ministry most would say yes. Ministry is a mindset. Like I said – I don’t think anybody you’ve linked to disagrees on that. It’s just the word “ministry” also describes a subset of that mindset, the career that follows it. I’m wondering if there’s an analogy here with sport – take football (soccer) for instance. I love football. I play it, I watch it, I discuss it. I would describe myself as a football player. But I’m not a professional footballer, they get paid to do all of those things – and in doing so inspire my football. They also, would define themselves as footballers. I don’t think that means we need new terminology to establish the distinction between us. It just means we have to pay regard to context. Words are not broken by multiple uses. I don’t get angry (anymore) about the Presbyterian definition of “worship” because I recognise they’ve just borrowed a word and stretched its meaning a little bit elastically to describe an idea they are trying to capture. I agree that it becomes problematic when someone incorrectly says “it can only mean this new, elastic definition” – but it’s just as problematic when somebody says “because it used to mean this it can’t possibly also mean this”… words are flexible.

  6. Damien Carson

    The title of this post is an excellent one because this whole matter really does boil down to semantics, and more specifically, what am I referring to when I use a contemporary word to describe a New Testament idea (assuming that I want to be conformed to the worldview & teachings of the NT)?

    You need to be able to identify specific people and their activities, and in the 21st C Western Church, and “ministers/(the) ministry” is a vernacular way of doing that. I can see where Stuart is coming from, and am sympathetic to it, but to change the vocab, you need to reform the ideas.

    You’ll need to work out which New Testament words are used to express the ideas that you want to change the English reference for (ie. minister/elder/pastor/teacher?) and which of those ancient words are synonymous with one another and to what extent.

    I’m a graduate of QTC and I don’t refer to pastors & elders as “church leaders” anymore because the New Testament ideas concerning leadership have been pointed out to me. My thinking was reformed and my vocab has changed.

Comments are closed.