Called to Ministry in the World: what if we ordained the laity?

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by Lisa Fischbeck

In this season of graduations and ordinations, I am once again given to reflect on my own ordinations. I remember how excited and humbled I was to receive the blessing of the church, to be set apart for ministry, first as deacon, then a year later, as priest. The Church really knows how to lay hands on a person, literally and metaphorically, to let them know in prayer, song, sermon and action, that God has called them, and it is good.

But even as I was receiving that ordination embrace and being sent forth, I wondered what the church would be like, what the world would be like, if we did something comparable for our laity who are called by God to vocation and ministry in the world. What if we set apart, prayed over, laid hands upon, sent forth, gave gifts and had a cake, for the teacher, the nurse, the lawyer, the retiree, the shop keeper, the stay-at-home parent, the social worker, the person living with a disability? What if we encouraged them to invite their family, friends, colleagues and neighbors to the celebration? What if we gave the church a chance to say that we believe this person is called to this ministry and that we will do all in their power to support them in it?

Verna Dozier’s pamphlet, The Authority of the Laity, published by Church Publishing in 1982, still speaks volumes beyond its 42 pages today. In it, Dozier proclaimed: “What’s important in the Gospel is a new world, not an institution.”

Too often, the church has been about the work of preserving or growing the institution more than equipping the laity to transform the world. To wit, when the church commissions lay persons, it is usually for their ministry within the church: as vestry, altar guild, Sunday school teachers, etc. Occasionally, the church will commission a group heading out on a one-week mission trip. But rarely does the church commission laity for their ongoing mission and ministry in the world. In the liturgy, we send them out, “to love and serve the Lord”, but do we really challenge them, help them, to see their particular daily life and work as a vocation, a calling worthy of the Church’s blessing and embrace?

Baptism is certainly the foundation of our vocation and ministry. Our confirmation and the recitation of our Baptismal Covenant challenge and reinforce that primary call. But only the marriage rite comes to mind as comparable to ordination, with specific vows to a particular calling, with a public accountability to the church, to God, and to those we love.

Some vocations have developed rites and rituals of their own: doctors recite the Hippocratic oath, elected officials swear that they will uphold their office, expectant parents receive a baby shower. Each of these is powerful. But they are the exceptions, not common to every call, and they do not connect a person’s faith or awareness of God’s presence and blessing to the particular work they have been given to do.

Of course, it would be a significant logistical challenge to designate a separate liturgy for every lay member of the congregation, even if such a liturgy were limited to the season when a layperson claimed and began to live into her or his vocation. We would have to sort through whether such celebrations would occur on a weeknight or Saturday, as ordinations often do, or on a Sunday, as part of the regularly scheduled liturgy. In a congregation of more than 100, it could take a decade or more for a church to “ordain” everyone. And doing so on Sunday would certainly distract from the readings and emphasis of the liturgical year.

Logistics may limit possibilities. But that doesn’t mean we give up the opportunity to name, bless, and send forth a person to a particular calling in the world.

The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a mission church of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, begins to respond to this challenge in its Sunday liturgy throughout the Season of Epiphany. At the end of the liturgy, after post-communion prayer and before the blessing and dismissal, laypersons are invited to come forward to be prayed over, commissioned, and sent forth. Each commission includes a call and response between the sponsor or celebrant, the congregation, and the one being sent forth. Each week in a season that already focuses our attention on taking the Light of Christ out into the world, the Advocate focuses on a particular category of calling for doing so. Given the variety of vocations and the limited number of weeks in the Season of Epiphany, we have to use pretty broad strokes. – one week, those who take care of others; another, those who teach and study; another, those who engage in business or commerce; etc.

Some years, when there are fewer weeks in the Season of Epiphany, the call and response is brief, allowing for more than one commission each Sunday. Other years, the commissions are more embellished and detailed, and therefore, more personal and meaningful. At the start of the season, we let everyone know who will be commissioned on which week, allowing people to adjust their schedules in order to be there. And those who brew the liturgy are certainly open to changing the order of the commissions in order to accommodate the calendars of the laity as needs be.

There is a lot of talk these days about the church needing to get out “beyond the church walls”. The truth is, the church has been out there for a long time. We just haven’t effectively made it known to others and ourselves. Commissioning the laity for their work and ministry in the world can help us more fully to realize and to make known that what the people of God do in the world is not only important, it is essential to the work of the Kingdom of God.

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a 21st century mission in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Sample Commissions

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Baba Yaga
Guest
Baba Yaga

Friends, forgive me if I am unfair, but I find in these responses a tendency to define ordination as a single liturgical event, and then to discuss the nature of the event. Having watched a good few people be ordained, I find ordination to be one part of a long process of taking someone very seriously - through community discernment, through education, through clinical preparation, through prayerful support and wise accountability. Ordination without all these other steps seems like it would be a charade. I think the conversation we need to have should be about discerning, articulating, and supporting the ministries of lay people, in a context of authenticity and genuine discipleship.

Pamela Grenfell Smith

Bloomington, Indiana

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Chris Epting
Guest

Frankly, I think there is a huge issue with infant baptism that we are not even prepared to talk about.

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Chris H.
Guest
Chris H.

Jim, then the problem becomes infant baptism. Should such an important event be held when one is incapable of willingly participating or remembering? I know a great many atheists, agnostics, and other non-Christians who were baptized. Almost everyone of my generation and older were, in case of early death. So apparently that gift of the Spirit and commissioning rarely sticks. That leaves people wanting a different ceremony to demonstrate commitment/commissioning or they switch churches and get re-baptized.

Chris Harwood

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Jim Turrell
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Jim Turrell

The baptismal covenant is, in itself, a commissioning, if we look carefully at the promises that follow the credal portion. The candidate is then dunked, the celebrant prays that s/he receives the gifts of the Spirit, and the candidate receives the imposition of hands.

Both creating a separate commissioning rite and pretending that confirmation is the "ordination of the laity" ignore what is already done in baptism--as well as the theology of the present prayer book.

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Tom Sramek Jr
Guest

My thought is that we should get back to the thought of Confirmation as the "ordination of the laity" and really treat it like an ordination--with big certificates and all. You even have a bishop there! Confirmation doesn't "complete" baptism any more than ordination does, but it does give a person a chance to affirm his or her call to the "priesthood of all believers."

Separate from that, I see no problem having a service of commissioning for individual vocations in the world. You could certainly use "A Form of Commitment to Christian Service" on a quarterly basis for people to commit, or re-commit, themselves to serving God in their jobs. We periodically renew our baptismal covenant, why not renew our "vocational covenant"?

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