Has the concept of “calling” been hijacked by the institutional church? I wonder. In our Reformed theological tradition we acknowledge the priesthood of all believers. Every Christian has direct access to the throne of grace and the personal God who chairs the universe; every Christian personally represents that God in life; and every Christian in every place of work may view that as their place of calling.
Using the gifts which God has given is a framework for our life and work as the church, but not only the institutional church! Using the gifts God has given is a framework for our life and work as families, neighbors, workers and citizens. Whenever and wherever we are using the gifts God has given for the wellbeing of those around us, we are engaged in meaningful ministry. Some work may be more strategic, some more mundane, but it’s all meaningful ministry.
Within the church, we have developed patterns (traditions) which are largely unquestioned. It is our practice to ordain full-time ministers of the Word with a public acknowledgment of this work as a distinct calling from God, confirmed in the official call of a congregation. Similarly, when officebearers are called to serve, there is a public acknowledgment of God’s call to these offices confirmed through the voting of the membership. All of this is good.
Then there is a cluster of committed volunteers comprised of church school teachers, youth leaders, committee leaders and the like whose giftedness and willingness to take up ministry roles is acknowledged in a service of commissioning. These roles are identified as significant ministries, requiring diligence and giftedness. But we do not usually speak of a call to such roles. Is that because there is no voting involved, only appointing and volunteering?
There are still other functions within the church which require diligent, gifted volunteers. There are a variety of serving, encouraging, maintenance and hospitality tasks which receive only a little public acknowledgment and for which there is no commissioning, let alone ordaining.
Inadvertently, we have established a pecking order within the church with respect to “calling.” The concept of God’s hand in leading certain people to pursue certain kinds of work becomes especially associated with positions of full-time ministry in the institutional church. Deacons, elders and ministry associates share in this special status during their terms of office and in ways which other church volunteers do not. At the top of this “food chain” of calling are those in professional ministry. This is not our official theological position, but it does seem to be our practiced reality. And this is not good.
The privileged and unique position of ministry as a career path which is a recognized calling from God and from God’s people—exists relative to other ministry functions within the church and relative to career paths outside of the church. Again, this is not what the priesthood of all believers suggests, but this is what our experience reveals. To parody the words of Orwell’s Animal Farm, “All of us are equals and in ministry, but some of us are more equal and more in ministry than others.”
In this context, it is helpful to review the Scriptures which speak of God’s gifts. There are four such passages in the New Testament, each of which acknowledges that gifts are graces of God intended for the wellbeing of the entire community. But note the differences: in Romans 12 we read of prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, contributing, leading and showing mercy. In I Corinthians 12 the identified gifts are that of apostle, prophet, teacher, miracle-worker, healer, helper, administrator, tongue-speaker and interpreter. Ephesians 4 mentions apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. And in I Peter 4 the gifts of God are mentioned rather broadly as speaking and serving.
Why would the church ordain workers in only some of these gift categories? Could we imagine a church which ordains those gifted in contributing, to the office of Donor? The office of Administrator? Healer? Tongue-speaker? What these gift passages do is remind us that the calling of a minister of the Word is rooted in the general call to ministry which exists for all Christians. Could we imagine the church ordaining folks into ministries of craftsmanship and trades so that daily work and calling truly intersect?
The ministry of the Word relates to both calling and job. Always. And at the very same time. My contention is that this is also true for everyone else.