Chapter 13: The Unity of the Ministry

Ferment in the Ministry
by Seward Hiltner

Chapter 13: The Unity of the Ministry

This is a picture-talk book. For every basic function of ministry there has been time to consider, I have either set forth the explicit cartoon-like image of function or, in some instances when history had not made such an image explicit, have constructed one from the implicit meanings. But this is not a picture book.

At one point in my work I consulted my publisher to see if he could find an artist who would draw cartoons for my images. The wise answer was that he could — but would it help or hinder if we got actual cartoons? To be sure, if we had them, the inattentive reader might look at them just as he looks at the photographs in Life. But if the purpose of my images is not to impede reading of the text, but is instead to aid the reader to do his own thinking more confidently in images (I think he does it anyhow), then might not the pictorial gain be offset by apparently not appealing to the reader’s imagination? I believe my publisher is wise, and I have followed his counsel. For, cartoons or no cartoons, imagination is required in seeing these images of the ministry and their interrelationship.

Even before I began making the notes that have led to this book, and long before I began writing it, I was convinced that the ordained ministry is a unity, although a complex one, functionally speaking. I was supposed to be a specialist in matters like pastoral care. But I found myself riled when people assumed that this specialism meant that I could not preach, made sure that I would be a poor administrator, assumed me to be unconcerned about getting the gospel to people, found me a psychologist instead of a theologian, and took it for granted that I could never take a hard-nosed line because I supported people.

Had I been in a local church for most of my ministry, I suppose I should have done what has been done by my able and insightful friends who have followed that course; namely, worked it through personally and professionally, realized that the ministry is a unity, although one of complex functions, and from then on kept publicly quiet. It may be a legacy of my early commitment to a specialized form of the ministry that makes me try to articulate this and work it through and not simply take it for granted. It is also on the basis of my contact with hundreds of ministers, especially among the younger and more alert, that I decided to write this book. True, they must find out the complex unity of the ministry, finally, for themselves. But why should they not have a spot of help?

The Nine Images

When I began rediscovering or constructing the several images of ministerial functioning, I decided to reserve judgment on where — except individually — they would come out. No predetermined conclusion that they would emerge at a central point, no foreordained conviction that they would remain separate, seemed appropriate. Consequently, so far as was possible, I took up each function and its image as phenomenologically as possible. And of course all the time I knew that the nine types of function selected for consideration were not exhaustive of the ministry.

Let me remind the reader about the basic elements in the cartoon images as they emerged:

Preaching. The image includes the elements of preacher, open Bible, and pulpit. The Word of God comes through the Bible but is not equated with the Bible as book. The Bible rests on the pulpit, not on the preacher. The people are symbolically represented by the pulpit, and are uplifted as is the preacher in hearing the Word. The preacher has the same message, through the Word, for himself that he has for others. Although no explicit feedback arrangement is shown in the image, the authority of the minister’s interpretation of the Word depends upon his dedication and competence and is not above question by those who hear.

Administering. The elements include one minister and at least two laymen, whatever their size, sex, or color. All are shown at the same level, whether standing or in another posture. All are looking in the same direction. The minister has a hand on the shoulder of each to demonstrate that his authority is encouragement plus skill. But only in concert can the functions of ministry be accomplished.

Teaching. The constructive image here includes a minister, perhaps also a second minister as special religious educator, a round table, several persons of different characteristics such as age, sex, and color, and some symbols on the table like Bible or cross. The teaching by the minister is in dialogue or trialogue. The symbols show it is not just any old kind of content but Christian content. The second minister, hopefully a woman, shows that the minister is teaching even when he is not exclusively in charge.

Shepherding. Both an old and a new model were offered to the reader. If he could stand sheep, we offered the picture of a minister or shepherd kneeling and taking the burrs off a particular sheep. But even with the ancient image updated, we warned that there should be a walkie talkie beside him — and the implicit assurance that if the sheep was too sick for burr-control, a helicopter would show up to take him to the vet. The modern version of the image, minus sheep, was presented as the minister at the hospital bedside — sitting down so he and the patient are at the same level, with something like a Bible or cross shown in the picture but manifestly not used as a weapon over the sufferer.

Evangelizing. The elements of this image are a minister, a group representing different fixed characteristics such as race or age, some symbols like Bible or cross to provide the context — and a translator. With persons ready to listen to the gospel, this is a good image. We were not able also to provide an image of those who just might hear it but are not now so inclined, except through showing quizzicality and belligerence in one or two of the group.

Celebrating. Taking the Communion or Lord’s Supper as normative here, the image included table with the elements, minister, and supporting celebrants. Our analysis showed this one image as inadequate to cover all Christian celebrating. Still, it is clearly central.

Reconciling. The elements here were a minister with a gavel, a group, a table, and a Bible on the table. The gavel was discussed as the instrument of rational and accepted authority, not over but with. We noted that the reconciling process cannot begin until something like this fact is present, even though ministerial activity may have to make its efforts long before.

Theologizing. Here we had a minister in his study with some books, clearly including the Bible, an open window showing some symbols (like a factory) of the activity and confusion of modern society, and something like a typewriter to show the minister as an active scholar and not just a passive recipient. The first seven images show actual activities of ministry. This, and the one to follow, show preparation for activity. Or, to be more precise, they show that activity with others is meaningless unless there has first been activity with the professional self.

Disciplining. Here the minister is shown in an attitude of prayer, with appropriate symbols like Bible or prayer book — but with the whole before an open window which, like the image of theologizing, demonstrates the purpose of ministry to the world as it is.

Their Common Elements

Until I had analyzed each of these nine functional images individually and phenomenologically in detail, it had not occurred to me that in a general way they all have certain elements in common. There are of course also differences, some shown in the images themselves and others only appearing in the full photograph of the function. But the common elements in the images astonished me. Here they are.

1. Every image contains something like the Bible or the cross to show that this context is unique, however much it may be like other situations in certain respects.

2. Every image has at least one minister (some more than one, as in teaching); but he is never alone if we read beyond the cartoon itself. Even the images that stress preparation rather than performance, theologizing and disciplining, imply a subsequent service relationship to people.

3. The minister is shown as accepting leadership, but interpreting this as putting him on the same level as the people except for his presumed competence and responsibility for coordination. Even in shepherding he kneels to help the sheep, or sits rather than stands at the bedside. In the pulpit he is raised; but so, symbolically, are the people — to hear the Word.

4. In some images explicitly, but in all implicitly, the ministry is to all sorts, ages, colors, sexes, and conditions and attitudes of men. In one or two of the images anxious, belligerent, or who-do-you-think-you-are expressions have been suggested. The minimum condition is that they are there and present. No gung ho required.

These common elements of the images seem enough to suggest to me that there must be some kind of unity to the ministry — even though, in the analysis of these restricted images, it is also plain that one cannot move literalistically from one image to another without allowing for context and specifics.

But preaching and evangelizing are not telling them without consulting them, our images show. Pastoral care is not being nice to them with the prospect of some day clobbering them through disciplining. Reconciling is not getting unanimity so that teaching in some artificial one-way sense is thereafter the order of the day. Theologizing is not getting it so ordered that nothing is left but dishing it out. And so on.

What our functional images point to is a unified attitude about ministry — complex enough to take various needs and functions and situations as they come, but with no sense of inherent contradiction among them. You thought you were simply engaged, shepherding fashion, in helping and encouraging Mrs. Sizzle. But when she goes on to criticizing the church, taking apart the book of Genesis, denigrating the morals of the clergy, and attacking the Communion service, why is it not both wise and fun to shift gears and deal with her on those terms? Only a complexly unified ministry can do this.

The Ambiguity of Unity

What are the "units" of a complex unity? At least in the ministry, they are not purely behavioral. We cannot say the unity lies in talk; so go on talking. But neither is it in listening alone, nor in performing traditional rites, nor in being attentive to the voice of the news, nor in hatchet-buryings between various kinds of antagonists.

Function is larger than behavior. Function always tries toward goals but with no necessary security that those goals can be reached. Christian function is bound to rely at times on certain traditional means, such as those of celebration and preaching. But beyond those, and within the limits of decency and order, it may use any means at hand to move a step ahead.

Its preparations are almost inseparable from its activities. Theologizing and disciplining may be seen as the images show them here, as preparation; but unless they issue in function, they are vain. By the same token, the other seven images that are shown in active function could have been shown, instead, in terms of preparation. For every function there is preparation, else the ministry is not responsible.

But unity contains ambiguity if it is the kind of unity that, in the mind of the minister, makes it hang together for him despite the variety of his activities seen in the usual categories. The ambiguity is deepened because the skills needed are very rarely present in high degree in any one person. But it seems to me it is just this ambiguity that adds to the zest of ministering, in any setting new or old. Forget the perfectionism; do well what you can do well; shore up your weaknesses to some point — and then rejoice that you are not on the assembly line doing the same thing every ten minutes. For those who want assembly lines, the ministry is the wrong place to look.