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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

It’s Not “Our” Ministry
May 23, 2013

For the past few months, we have taken a careful walk through our ordination vows, reminding ourselves of what we promised God and the church when we were ordained and installed into our leadership offices. After eight ordination vows that are identical for all officers, there is a ninth that is specific to the particular work associated with each office: teaching elder (minister of Word and Sacrament), ruling elder, or deacon. Beneath all of these ministry offices lies the most important vocational covenant of all – the covenant of baptism, by which God makes a sovereign claim of ownership over all of us, and to which we respond with solemn baptismal promises to reject evil, embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior, and live as faithful members of his church.

These baptismal promises we make to God and to the church are not the essence of the baptismal covenant. The essence of that covenant is God’s claim on us – our baptismal promises are our heartfelt yet feeble response to the far greater and more steadfast prior promise God makes to us in Jesus Christ. Our promises do not that covenant make.

Similarly, as ordained officers of the church, we have made particular promises of fidelity and service to Christ and his church, but the essence of our vocational covenant does not reside in the vows we make. Rather, our ordination is grounded in Christ’s call to us. As with baptismal promises, our ordination promises are our heartfelt yet feeble response to our Lord’s prior claim on us.

All too easily we lapse into an assumption that these ministries into which we have been ordained belong to us, because our ordination was solemnized by our vow-taking. If this ministry belongs to us, we can presume to have a right to make or withdraw these promises as we see fit. Indeed, many have done just that, making promises they intend to keep only conditionally, or setting aside promises they once made that seem to them no longer advantageous. For instance, I have asked ministers and elders who have chosen to act contrary to our church’s polity despite their earlier promise to abide by it, why they feel free to set aside that promise; they frequently respond that the church has changed (rather than that their commitment has changed), so they no longer feel obligated to keep their promises to it.

Our promise-making is not the basis of our ordination, any more than it is the foundation of our baptism. It is simply our appropriate response to a vocation given to us by God and confirmed by the church. Still, keeping or breaking our ordination vows is not a small thing, because this is how we live out our stewardship of God’s call upon us.

Some critics of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) charge that we have abandoned our ordination standards with recent changes in our Book of Order’s overview paragraph of our expectations of church officers. That thumbnail overview (formerly G-6.0106b, now G-2.0104b) points to our ordination vows as the core content of our ordination standards, and charges ordaining bodies to exercise all due diligence to assure that candidates for ordination are able to affirm those vows without exception. While the overview paragraph has indeed been recently changed, the set of vows to which it points have not been diluted (they are listed in W-4.4003) – in fact, as I pointed out a few weeks ago, those vows have recently been substantially strengthened with the addition of a new promise to pray for the people we serve (W-4.4003h). As we have seen over the course of this series, these ordination vows constitute a truly robust set of standards to which we promise fidelity.

Let’s acknowledge what should be obvious – none of us keeps our promises perfectly. We expect our officers to give their best diligence to honoring their ordination promises, yet we all bank on the grace of our Lord and his church in forgiving any failures we may demonstrate in keeping them. Such grace leads us not to dismiss our ordination vows, but to engage ourselves all the more earnestly in making every effort to be faithful to them.

Ordination vows are not billy clubs to bang over the heads of those who may fall short in observing them. There is no good reason to accuse or to shame folk who have failed in some respect to live up to them, whatever their reason. My intention and prayer in lifting them up is rather to encourage in us renewed aspiration to fulfill our vocation well, to the glory of our Lord Jesus whose call led us to make these promises in the first place.

For the sake of God’s glory alone,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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