Tag Archives: Ministry

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.

William Shakespeare

If I were a minister (which I won’t be); I wouldn’t use the honorific ‘Rev.’ as my title. For thesame reason that if I were married (which is not completely impossible); I wouldn’t use ‘Mrs’. Or if I had a degree (which I actually do); I wouldn’t put letters after my name.

I live in a pretty informal world. I don’t use titles at all in my normal life, and it seems slightly odd or old-fashioned to do so. It would be even more bizarre to change a title when I don’t use titles anyway.

I get that ministers have trained in theology. And that they worked hard to do so. And that ministers’ training is a bit more than just getting a degree in theology. And that convention and tradition allows them to thus describe themselves as Rev. Joe Bloggs. But, I think it’sinteresting that almost nobody chooses not to do so.

Is it about the status?

Partly, I think this title changing thing is status-seeking. I’m off the market (and possibly better than you) because I’m married. I’m clever because I have a degree. I’m more committed to religion(?), my ideas about theology are moreimportant than yours, because I am a minister.

It’s marking a difference between ministers and ‘other people’. One that I don’t really think is all that valid. And the difference it’s trying to mark is that ministers are superior, or moreimportant, or more special than ‘other people’. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of this. Don’t tell me that you deserve respect, show me.

I can see that there are times when additional status is useful – when it helps to get the job of being a minister done. But most ministers don’t use it only when it’s helpful, they use it all the time.

Or is it more about the theology?

Whilst I’m sure that there’s a bit of a status thing going on (I worked hard to train for ministry, I deserve this title!) I guess though, that ministers use ‘Rev’ as much because of their theology of ministry.

I’d describe this theology as ‘minister as person’. It’s the idea that people are called to become ministers, and that this marks an almost irrevocable change in their identities – like becoming a parent.

Identifying with your job (whether it’s as a minister or not) in this way has its upsides. It gives you a sense of security and it means that you’re never really off duty which is sometimes helpful for the rest of us.

On the other hand, identifying with your job is not normally seen as a good thing. It can cause you to become too attached and not see when it’s time to move on. It can stop you developing as a whole person, but instead becoming too one-dimensional. Being ‘on duty’ all the time leads to burnout.

In the case of ministers, I think it leads to ‘GA retired minister syndrome’ at the annual meetings, where retired ministers can often dominate the
discussions – possibly because they have few other outlets to express their ministry – which then accidentally disenfranchises those of us with less time on our hands.

Joseph Priestley, famous for having discovered oxygen (also a Unitarian minister)

I’m more in favour of the theology of ‘minister as role’. That being a minister is just one of many roles that people undertake, and that even if it is a role that you hold for the rest of your life (and not everyone does), its importance can shift.

It’s probably better for your mental health to see yourself as more than just a minister. And it will probably make you happier if you are more rounded.

Thinking of ‘minister as role’, also validates the idea that there are many different ways to minister as a Unitarian, and that none of those ways are restricted to professional Unitarians. And the idea that it’s the
congregation or organisation that calls a minister to serve them – and that they can call whoever they like, trained or not.

And the idea that it’s about doing ministry, not being allowed to use a special title.

Ministry: lay vs pro

Hands in circle

The congregation is its people

One problem I tend to have with Unitarian ministers is the importance that they place on professional ministry. It’s not that I don’t appreciate ministers, it’s just that I’m not sure they’re all that.

A Unitarian minister, who I know slightly, was telling a group of us about the new choir in their congregation. In an ever slightly so patronising tone, the minister told us that the choir members felt that the music they provided was ‘their ministry to the congregation’. Ah, bless. Lay people who think they can do ministry.

I think the patronising tone was unintentional, but in any case, music has ministered to me more than any actual minister ever has. From my point of view, that choir can do more ministry for me, than their professional minister ever could.

Maybe ministers are not as important as they think

I’ve really got two things against ministers being gung-ho about professional ministry.

Firstly, I’m never quite convinced that they are acknowledging their own bias. I will admit that I’m not perfect in this respect either. But when called on it, I quite accept that part of the reason that I think that lay people leading worship is good, is simply because I am a lay person, and I enjoy leading worship.

Ministers stressing the importance of professional ministry within a congregation, always seems a bit in their own self-interest. I hope that the ministers I respect would acknowledge that they have some bias, or at the very least, there can be perceived bias.

Secondly, I think that in stressing the importance of professional ministry, it’s easy to miss the fact that without lay people, there can be no professional ministry. Congregations with ministers are more likely to grow and attract new members. But, those new members aren’t going to stay if the only person worth talking to is the minister.

Contribution of lay people

Lay people pay almost all of the bills – even our current investments were generally originally donated by lay people. In worship, it is the gathered worshipping congregation, not the service leader, who create the worship.

Lay people are almost exclusively the religious educators of our children. (Unitarian children’s education mostly takes place at the same time as the Sunday service.)

Lay people provide most of the organisational and administrative power of every congregation, and district association, as well as the national denomination.

Aside from congregational leadership roles, lay people are usually at least as qualified (if not more so) to take on professional roles as Unitarians – partly because ministerial training does not particularly equip ministers for non-congregational roles.

I guess I’m lay inclined

Should I ever get married or have a baby, I wouldn’t want the minister in my congregation to think they were entitled to lead the appropriate rite of passage. I’d actually prefer to have a service led by a bunch of people – who might be lay people or ministers – probably coordinated by an order of service. I’m more than comfortable with choosing and defining my own services and rituals. (If it was my funeral, I wouldn’t care, because I would be dead.)

And, at this stage I’ve been attending my congregation for more than 3 years. I’ve heard a lot about what my minister thinks on various topics. I’d like to know how the guy that I always discuss and disagree with thinks about things – I think that will be inspirational.

It’s helpful to have a professional minister in your congregation, because it’s really helpful to have someone who can dedicate themselves full time to the congregation. And it’s good to have someone that’s been vetted by the national denomination – assuming that the Interview Panel do their job reasonably well.

It’s good to have someone who can help a gathered group create good worship. It’s good to have people to provide pastoral care. It’s essential to have someone with vision. I just don’t think that professional ministers are the only people who can provide these things.

But then, I’m biased. I’m lay.