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Called through baptism; Ministry is not just for clergy

"If someone has some kind of need that I can help with, why wouldn't I?" says Jill Williamson, a member of Richfield United Methodist Church in Minneapoolis. "I might someday have a need, and somone could help me. It's what Jesus would do; it's what John Wesley would do."

Williamson organizes a sandwich-making brigade at her church that assists a local nonprofit that feeds homeless people. She also assists a homebound elderly church member by visiting her and driving her on her errands and shopping.

Williamson is a layperson – and she is a minister.

Jesus calls all his followers to serve people and invite them into a relationship with God. Jesus told everyone — not just religious leaders — to "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).

Even the United Methodist baptismal vows — which include repentance; resisting evil, injustice and oppression; and serving Christ as one's savior — are a commissioning into ministry. The Book of Discipline 2012 states: "All Christians are called through their baptism to this ministry of servanthood (outreaching love expressing the mind and mission of Christ) in the world to the glory of God and for human fulfillment" (Para. 126).

You don't need to preach on Sundays or serve a congregation to minister. Believers live out their baptismal vows – and answer God's call – in countless ways: Listening to a distressed friend. Delivering meals to the homebound. Helping an immigrant navigate the city bus system. Advocating for better education for impoverished children. Raising funds for a mission project. Forgiving someone. Speaking a kind word to an overworked shop clerk. Pursuing a professional vocation as a teacher, nurse or doctor, social worker, attorney and many others. Telling someone about God. And much more.

The boots-on-the-ground ministry of all laypeople, wherever they find themselves, is the most influential arena where words and actions illuminate the love of God and draw more people closer to Christ.

As the Discipline affirms, "The witness of the laity, their Christ-like examples of everyday living as well as the sharing of their own faith experience of the Gospel, is the primary evangelistic ministry through which all people will come to know Christ and The United Methodist Church will fulfill its mission" (Para. 127).

"The United Methodist Church is in an exciting place right now," says Jodi Cataldo, director of laity in leadership for the General Board of Discipleship. Systems are in place for equipping and engaging laity for leadership in ministry, she says, meaning "the smallest adaptive change in how we do ministry on the local church level can create a tsunami of positive movement through every level of the church, from the smallest of faith communities to the largest mega-churches."

For laypeople who sense God calling them to specific areas of ministry, The United Methodist Church has some specific offices:

  • Lay servants help lead and support congregations in a variety of ways.

  • Lay speakers are trained to provide pulpit supply.

  • Certified lay ministers provide overall ministry in a small church or expand ministry in a larger church setting as part of a ministry team under the supervision of a clergyperson. They preach, provide pastoral care, lead small groups, plan new faith communities within existing churches, lead ministries with immigrant groups, or serve as pastoral associates in a large church or as part of a team in a multi-point charge. The General Board of Discipleship is developing training standards for certified lay ministers.

  • Deaconesses (women) and home missioners (men) commit themselves to a full-time vocation in ministries of love, justice and service. United Methodist Women oversees this community.

  • For certification in specialized ministry, lay and clergy study a focused ministry area (Christian education, children's ministry, music ministry, spiritual formation and more), receive recognition from their conference and commit to continuing education.

  • Missionaries are lay and clergy who serve, often in a country other than their own, in a variety of fields under the supervision of the General Board of Global Ministries.

Such opportunities provide laypeople "avenues of development and growth in leadership as disciple-makers, moving people from being spectators to being active ministers of the Gospel," Cataldo says.

Clergy: representative ministry

From among all baptized Christians, God calls some people into set-apart church leadership as clergy. They commit their lives to serving God and God's people in an accountable relationship to the church.

Clergy are in "representative" ministry. By representing to the worshipping congregation and the community the ministry of the whole church, they guide all God's people in their own ministries. It is an identity as well as a job.

Elders serve primarily as parish pastors who order the ministry of the congregation, lead worship, preside over the sacraments and provide pastoral care. They may also serve as chaplains, missionaries, district superintendents and bishops and in other denominational roles. Elders itinerate, moving usually from church to church within an annual conference as they are appointed by the bishop. Local pastors and associate members are licensed (but not ordained) to serve as a parish pastor or chaplain in a specific setting.

These days, The United Methodist Church is encouraging elders and local pastors to experiment with innovative ways to reach new people through new forms of Christian community.

"The constantly and rapidly changing context for United Methodist mission and ministry provides unprecedented opportunities for new and creative leadership in the ranks of elders across the connection," says the Rev. Myron Wingfield, assistant general secretary for clergy life at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

"The challenge of establishing, maintaining, and growing vital congregations, combined with the challenge of leading those congregations in world-changing mission beyond their walls, is exciting," he continues. "Many elders are on the front lines of where the Spirit is bringing the world and the church together in ways that reflect the best of our Wesleyan heritage."

Deacons are ordained clergy who relate "the gathered life of Christians to their ministries in the world." They provide worship leadership, assist elders as they preside over the sacraments of baptism and Communion, and lead in ministries that "connect the church with the most needy, neglected and marginalized among the children of God" (The Book of Discipline, Para. 328).

They may minister in congregations as leaders in Christian education, music, age-level ministries, outreach and administration. They may minister outside of a church as social workers, social-service ministry directors, chaplains, denominational workers, missionaries and more.

Deacons usually find their place of service to which they ask the bishop to appoint them.

"One of the gifts of the order of deacon is that they have permission to stay focused on the ministry of all Christians and the transformation of the world," says the Rev. Margaret Ann Crain, professor emeritus of Christian education at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and author of The United Methodist Deacon (Abingdon). "Because deacons are not focused on ordering the church, they have the freedom to focus elsewhere, specifically on the transformation of the world — or, to put it another way, to participate in bringing to fruition the reign of God. Deacons are always looking for opportunities to connect resources and people to needs in the wounded creation."

Whether deacon, elder or local pastor, the work of all clergy is ultimately to prepare and support laypeople for their ministries. Together, all God's people shine the light of Christ throughout the world.

The Rev. Victoria Rebeck is director of deacon development, provisional member support and certification programs for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville, Tenn.

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