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.