We all are called for service to witness in God’s name.
Our ministries are diff’rent, our purpose is the same:
To touch the lives of others by God’s surprising grace,
So people of all nations may feel God’s warm embrace.
-Rusty Edwards, Hymn 778 (from Wonder, Love, and Praise)
By Richard Helmer
One of our parish leaders often reminds me that the implicit or unspoken messages we send as a community of faith are just as important – if not more so – than our explicit, spoken messages. In recent conversations, I’ve been reminded of the implicit messages we often send as a church about ministry. A great deal of our time is devoted to building up and supporting various ministries – the works of the saints – that further our worship and pastoral tasks as a Christian community and institution. And regularly, during the year, we commission and honor people in these ministries: from the vestry to the choir, the altar guild to our Sunday school teachers, our Eucharistic ministers to our teams devoted to outreach and social services.
The implicit message we send, however, by only lifting up these groups and leaders for ministry in our congregations, is that Christian ministry is always and only focused in and around the institutional Church. Even worse, we often imagine ministry means Christian activity with the clergy (“professional” ministers) at the center, and various groups of lay ministers in orbit, working with, for, and sometimes around the clergy! While our ministries in the church’s name and for the faith community’s well-being must remain vital, if we confine our definition of ministry to only these clergy-centered areas of our life in a faith community, we severely limit our vision for the Gospel’s potential to work through each of us in the wider world. We severely limit our roles as saints – that is, as Christ’s eyes, ears, and hands in the world.
In short, when you imagine ministry of all the baptized, do you first think of the few hours a week you spend in volunteering for your faith community or attending worship? That’s the trap I mean.
But what if you began to see ministry as part of your everyday, even moment-to-moment life? In the parish I serve, we have financiers and attorneys, artists and poets, contractors and artisans, physicians and nurses, office assistants, musicians, counselors, librarians, homemakers, students, entrepreneurs, volunteers, bookkeepers, scientists, teachers, architects, and realtors. During this season when we remember All Saints, it’s important to remember and value all of these vocations as critical to our baptismal life. We are reminded to think of our jobs as more than just jobs. They are our ministries. We must remember that Christ is at work when and where we are. And because of our baptism, we have invited Christ to work through us. We are a community constantly in ministry, whether we are on the church grounds or not, whether we are doing it in our congregation’s or denomination’s name or not! That, to me, is what sainthood is truly about.
Some of us these days are struggling with unemployment and underemployment. Just the other day, I dashed to the school office after dropping my son off for first grade. We had each been asked to put $20 in an envelope to help with the purchase of a birthday present for his teacher. I was hoping to get in and get out quickly so I could make it to the office on time for my “job” in ministry. But another parent was also putting money in at the same time, and she wondered aloud as she did if the few dollars plus change she could afford would be enough. Time seemed to stop as I paused to talk with her.
As a single mother presently struggling with unemployment, she was faced with the shame of not being able to make the ask. Frankly, my family couldn’t afford the full ask either, and I shared this with her. I think she found this a relief. I was honored by her willingness to share the perspective of her situation, reminding me that even in a seemingly affluent community like the one in which I serve, there are many who struggle alongside us every single day to make ends meet. It was a moment of ministry, and I didn’t have to go to the parish office to accomplish it. I wasn’t even wearing my collar.
As we parted company, I wondered about the gifts of the unemployed and underemployed in our midst. What do our own members bring to our shared life as they work for little or no pay or search between jobs? So I did some research – by posting the question on my Facebook page. From some friends, I got the standard “pray for the paycheck” response. Indeed we should pray for all those struggling to make ends meet at this time. But I also heard from other friends this remarkable list of gifts for ministry the unemployed and underemployed bring to all of us: hope, determination, loyalty, dedication, determination. Another response noted the gift of being off the tether of a contract – the freedom to find meaning in life without the constant demands of an employer. This is ministry, too, as gifts like finding life’s meaning are shared among us most of all by those struggling to seek the next paying job, the next career, the next vocation. As we struggle along with the un- and under-employed for economic justice, we also reap the gifts of the Spirit the struggle reveals among us.
Then there are the gifts of those who have retired – whose experience and wisdom can give rise to so much opportunity for ministry in their lives. There are the gifts and ministry of our children, as their wonder keeps the rest of us alive to fresh perspectives on God’s grace at work in our midst. There are the ministries of our youth, as their energy and new vision stir up what is old and begins to bring to fruition what is new. There are the gifts of parents who nurture the next generation; the ministries of husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, partners, friends, and neighbors. None of these are “paying jobs,” but they get the job of ministry done in profound ways! These, too, are ministries of the saints.
The Christian “job” is to take on all our work, play, and struggle with what our spiritual tradition calls intention; that is, with prayer. With this action we cease to be working stiffs and our jobs cease to be mere generators of the almighty paycheck. Instead, they become ministries, and, indeed, vocations for all of God’s people, wherever and whenever we find ourselves. And that’s a message worthy, it seems to me, of a feast day like All Saints’.
The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.