Pastor Rodney Dangerfield

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Ministry associates may be referred to as the “Rodney Dangerfields” of the CRC: In the minds of some, they “don’t get any respect”. As one delegate at Synod 2008 stated, in comparing ministry associates with ministers of the Word, they are “equal in function, but differ in honor”. His point was to draw a contrast between his perception of reality and the description of different offices as given in Church Order Article 2, where the offices are said to be different in function and equal in honor.

It is an interesting proposition, and one that expresses the experience of many ministry associates. In one sense it can be observed that ministry associates and ministers of the Word are not “equal in function” — the job descriptions and the scope of responsibility are most often quite different. Yet, the “bite” of the comparison comes when we recognize the many cases where ministry associates are functioning in roles that used to be reserved only for Ministers of the Word.

There is a changing landscape in the North American church scene, where more and more denominations are making more and more use of persons who do not have the standard formal theological education indicated by a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree. A recent article in Christian Century observed that “More than a third of United Methodist churches are now served by local pastors” (the United Methodist Church term for “ministry associates,” in CRC lingo, or “commissioned lay pastors,” in the lingo of the PCUSA). (See Christian Century, July 13, 2010, p.22)

Such persons, ordained for ministry, still often find themselves wondering, “Does the church really see me as a pastor?” In the changing landscape of church life the culture of many denominations, including the CRC, has not yet caught up with the reality of ministry practice with respect to how to designate or treat as “set apart for ministry” those who ordained with the localized ordination.

It might be helpful to remember that just a couple decades ago most ministers of the Word in the CRC were asking not to be addressed with the “honorific” titles traditionally used for pastors; titles like “the dominie”, or “the most reverend” so and so. The landscape has changed. Pastors are now fortunate if they are addressed by any title at all. Many ministers of the Word even in the CRC find themselves wondering privately, “Why don’t people respect my ordination?”. You don’t have to be a ministry associate to feel like “Pastor Rodney Dangerfield”.

As those called to service rather than status, there is something positive about being able to identify with this discussion. The call to humility is one all would-be pastors must happily answer. Yet for the sake of the church, ordination needs to connote both a high sense of obligation and devotion among those ordained, and a high sense of honor and respect among those serving with and served by those ordained.

What does this mean for the church today, in particular, with regard to the office of ministry associates? Allow me to make a few propositions that invite reaction:

 

Proposition #1: Ministry associates and ministers of the Word alike need to welcome the practical opportunity to show humility that is presented by our cultural confusion regarding titles and position.

Question: How does one respond when addressed in a manner that treats us or our role with less respect than we would like? (How does one respond when we’re addressed with greater respect than we would like?)

Proposition #2: Ministry associates, ministers of the Word, and all who lead in the church will do well to discover and practice terminology that will honor those who present God’s Word and serve Christ’s church in an ordained pastoral role, whether as minister of the Word or as ministry associate.

Observation: Our church order doesn’t govern us here: ministry associate and minister of the Word are church order terms, but not forms of address. Maybe training in terminology is simply an individual, case by case endeavor — it certainly has been in my journey of letting people know the term “Pastor Dave” fits me better than “dominie”. Yet the question is worth asking.

Question: How can we help the church body, locally, regionally, and denominationally to acknowledge the pastoral identity of those ordained into such a role, particularly as a ministry associate?

Proposition #3: Ministry associates and ministers of the Word need to stand together in the responsibility of being life-long learners.

Observation: I move away slightly from the “Rodney Dangerfield” theme here, yet part of “getting respect” is “earning respect”. One traditional strength of the CRC has been recognizing the value of extended theological education, and the hard work it involves. An M.Div degree is not the only form of theological education, but those functioning as pastors without one will be blessed, and their ministry will be blessed, if they apply themselves to such a degree. Ministers of the Word who have such a degree will honor the church if they continue to grow through a purposeful continuing education plan, whether through formal or informal channels. There is a pride in a minister of the Word saying to one ordained as a ministry associate: “You won’t be as worthy of pastoral respect until you have achieved my degree status.” There is also a pride in one ordained as either a ministry associate or as a minister of the Word saying, “I don’t need formal and continuing education to function well in ministry.”

Question: How can we better offer the message that continuing education is a tool pastors need to have?

My propositions, observations and questions can continue, but at this point I would rather hear the thoughts of others. I invite you to express yourself in this forum, and also in other forums available to you, both within and outside of the CRC network. May the Lord of the Church be honored by the way we serve Him and treat one another.

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 Hi, Dave.

I completely agree that there is something very healthy about being called to service rather than status.  And your focus in lifelong learning is great.  Thank you.

However, I think a significant issue for Ministry Associates is that--at least so far as I know--they are not eligible for the Ministers Pension Fund, nor are their congregations required by the Church Order to provide them with health insurance.

These forms of  "honor" would greatly reduce the "Rodney Dangerfield" syndrome.    I think one of the best ways we can honor those who serve is by providing them with decent benefits.

 

Perhaps there is some movement afoot in this area.  Can you comment?

 

Dave H.

 

Thanks Dave for your quick input.  I'm hoping we can get a good conversation going here.

As you invite my input re "honor" for ministry associates via benefits and pension, the truth is that the denomination does have a pension plan that ministry associates are eligible for (it is a "defined contribution" plan rather than a "defined benefit plan", which in the minid of many is preferable these days)  There is also a health insurance plan they can qualify for.  The reality is that both ministry associates and ministers of the Word need to negotiate these plans with their "employing church" or agency -- it used to be that denominational rules made this automatic, but no longer.  

You, and others "participating"  in this conversation might be interested in looking at the "Ministry Associate Handbook" , which is on the CRCNA web site, the Candidacy Committee page.  Go to www.crcna.org/candidacy   In that booklet a number of these "honoring" issues, and other nuts and bolts issues of the office, are addressed.

The problem is, of course, that the CRC culture has not caught up with the "reality" of  ministry associate regarding issues (or issues for honoring ministers of the Word, for that matter).  Here is where, in my mind, we need to get our heads together.  

 

I'm delighted to hear that some substantial work has already been done in the area of benefits.  That's great.  Thanks for the information. 

 

 

Participant

When i was ordained it was as an Evangelist, not a Ministry Associate, and I was sent to Tucson for the purpose of planting a church. A dozen years later God has provided a self sustaining church that also owns its own building in the heart of Tucson. Numerous people have come to Christ and many others have found healing and renewal in our small community. I came to this joyous task of ministry later in life and could not afford a seminary education which I would now love to have.

At my ordination I was told that my office was equal in honor, differing only in task to that of Minister of the World. Years later I can't imagine what I do that is different from someone who has received an advanced degree. I preach, teach, evangelize, lead worship, counsel, and run the business and administrative elements required to purchase and maintain a building and to do the ministry itself. That said, I am sure that those with seminary education are often better equipped and more capable in the various tasks. I also have the privilege of serving the denomination as president of the Board of Home Missions as well as serving on the Regional Home Mission's Team, the Home Missions Committee of Classis Arizona and directing a church planting effort here in Tucson called the Tucson Cluster. I am indeed privileged to serve in these areas. I am honored to be able to do so. I would gladly do these thing without title or recognition which seems odd to say when I am posting these things here. My point is not to draw credit or glory as all of that belongs to God. My point is that the church is called to honor those who work hard among them. Ministry Associates that I know do work hard and the church has most often failed to honor them in the way that it says it will when it ordains them. There work is often ignored. A man I know labored for many years as an Evangelist and did marvelous work and when he died there was no mention of him in the Banner or any recognition beyond the folks that he faithfully ministered to. Comments I hear include being regularly told that I should apply for article 7 status so that I can be a 'real pastor'. My response has been to say that I love being an evangelist and have no desire to grow up to be a 'real pastor'. I have been told that I preach well for someone who is 'only a Ministry Associate'. I have been told that I am not eligible for such things as Lily Grant sabbaticals or to be part of certain peer groups that are designated for only those who have graduated from an approved seminary.  And, of course, if the other pension plan is so much better, why aren't we inviting all new seminary grads to be a part of it? One reason is that it is called the Unordained Workers Plan, if I recall correctly. Or have we renamed it? Anyway, when i was ordained as an Evangelist I was invited to join the unordained plan specifically created for the unordained. I found that wonderfully amusing. All said, I understand the rules and I wish to highly honor the theologians among us who have completed that wonderful training. Scripture, however, does not invite us to honor those who are formally educated among us, but only those who work hard. Those I know who graduate from seminaries do work hard and build the Kingdom and should be richly honored for doing so, so that their work is not additionally burdened by the cares of this world.

The easy way to solve the problem, I think, is to stop telling people they will be equal in honor. We can set up a two tier system that allows those with advanced degrees to be differently honored than those who fail to acheive that certification. That way we can honor those who lead worship, minister to youth and children, provide counseling ministries and all the other tasks that have been lumped under the Ministry Associate banner in lesser, but good ways. My longing is simply that our words match our actions. If we are going to equally honor than we should do so. If we don't want to do that, then let's create a different system and apologize to those we have wronged.

As for me, I think I am willing to give my title back. Thirteen years ago it was a precious way for the broader church to recognize my passion to reach people for Christ and a huge encouragement to me that God had indeed called me to leave the business world and go plant a church. Now days, the people in my community mostly call me Rod or Pastor Rod. They do so with great respect and love. They honor me by taking care of my needs and by bringing gospel to their friends. I have never had to show my ordination card to conduct a wedding or visit someone in prison or in the hospital. The only place it seems the title matters is when I move outside my local community into the broader CRC community. Since the Ministry Associate title doesn't travel to other classes, it really doesn't matter even if I want to leave Tucson for somewhere else. And I don't want to leave. I love pastoring my community and helping others, both Ministers of the Word and Ministry Associates start new works here in Tucson where we are among the least churched cities in North America. Besides, you don't really need a title to share the gospel. :)

Rod, you say so nicely, and so much better, with so much more diplomacy, what is true regarding this issue than I ever do.   And I appreciate that.  But bottom line is that the difference between what the church order says about equal honor, and what it does in terms of paying attention to the offices, is inconsistent and contradictory.   And this inconsistency plays out not only in the treatment of ministerial associates and evangelists, but also in the treatment of elders and deacons.   It is a huge inconsistency, and it is hypocritical.   While elders bear some of the blame for this, it is largely the "ministers of the word" who are responsible for the hypocrisy and inconsistency and protectionism.   I think they have generally improved over the last twenty years in this regard, but there are still tendencies to perpetuate this inconsistency.   I recently noted two alternate forms for ordination for ministers in the back of the hymnal, and I believe the second one, being 6.5 pages long, and being newer (I believe) is another indication of this inconsistency, when compared to the form for evangelist or the form combined for elders and deacons.   There is no way that the denomination can claim it is following the church order on this point.  The church order doesn't even follow itself. 

Re-reading your original comment/request, I gave it some more thought, David Koll.   And I thought you have provided an excellent synopsis of the difficulties of title. 

So to your proposition 1.:   I looked at scripture.  Typed in "Peter".   And I did not find a case where Peter was addressed as, pastor Peter or apostle Peter.   Sometimes, it was, "Peter, the apostle",  or "Peter, an apostle",  but even this was rare.   I doubt there was less respect because of this lack of title.   Nor would the formalized or reluctant use of it denote respect where it was not due.   I'm reminded where Jesus says to call no one father because God is our Father only.   Implying that title and honor belong to God alone.   

Proposition 2:   It would good to remember that the same difficulties that occur in the use of honorific titles apply to elders and deacons, and indeed to christian brethren.   How often do you hear people call each other "brother Dave" or "brother John" in the christian context?   Do we commonly refer to "elder Jack" or "deacon Jake" when we address each other?   So why would it be surprising that we do not address as often in conversation "pastor Dave" or "preacher Ron" or "servant John"?  

Proposition 3:    If you stop learning, pinch yourself, because you are probably dead.