A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
The Grace of Being Ordinary
January 21, 2016
Last Sunday I had the privilege of participating in two installation services – first of ruling elders being installed on the session of one congregation, then of a teaching elder being installed by presbytery as a pastor in another congregation. Both events were wonderful celebrations of the gifts and ministries of dedicated men and women. But I must admit that the notion of being a traveling “installation technician” gives me some pause. To “install” means to put something in place for service or use, like a heating system or a dishwasher or a battery. It is a mechanical image focusing on functionality. One might expect in a church setting that we’d opt rather for devotional or motivational language such as “consecration” or “commissioning” – but installation? Seriously?
In Reformed understanding, the particular ministries to which we ordain and install candidates are simply various functions in the overall economy of the church. They entail no elevated personal standing or value. Sometimes Presbyterians have betrayed this with an unofficial hierarchy of offices, such that a church member with special gifts may be elevated to the office of deacon, and perhaps from there further to the office of ruling elder, and finally for a special few to the highest office of ministry of word and sacrament. Such a hierarchy is fundamentally contrary to our theology of ordination and ministry.
We ordain people to particular ministries “for reasons of order,” so that particular tasks that are necessary for the church’s welfare and mission may be fulfilled by people properly trained, equipped, and fitted for them. Some tasks are more visible than others, yet none are of higher value thereby. This is the point Paul is making when he talks about the ways in which the Spirit gives seemingly “inferior” members of the body commensurately greater honor. (1 Corinthians 12:14-26)
Presbyterian terminology underscores the very ordinariness of church leadership. We call our chief ecclesiastical officers “moderator” and “clerk.” Can you imagine anything duller? I struggled recently to convey to a non-Presbyterian that our current national search for a new “Stated Clerk” is in fact a search for someone to fill our denomination’s highest office. He would have much more easily understood some designation that indicates special elevation or honor, such as bishop or archbishop, pope or metropolitan, president or executive, apostle or prophet. I explained that even at the top level of church leadership, we believe that ministry is still about function rather than status.
The words “ordinary,” “order,” and “ordination” are all related. We understand ordination as an act by the church to keep its ministries in good order, rather than as promotion to a higher status. For the church to fulfill its mission, we need people in particular offices that have the gifts, training, and temperament to serve that office’s needs effectively. Anyone ordained to be elder, pastor, or deacon is as “ordinary” as any other person that serves the church - whether child care giver or custodian, musician or educator, greeter or usher.… You get the idea.
Embracing our ordinariness is a mark of proper humility, something like what the Bible refers to as “meekness.” It is the opposite of swagger and entitlement. It is one of the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. Only two people in the Bible are directly described as “meek” – Moses and Jesus. Meekness is not “weakness,” but the deep strength of having no need to be honored or vindicated by others.
One of my early mentors once told me gently that he really loved the way I speak, but sometimes the Sheldon he heard in church spoke with a slightly different voice. Maybe it was a lame attempt to sound older, or wiser, or (shudder) more spiritual. He said that when he heard the “church voice” he really missed hearing the “Sheldon voice” that he loved so much more. I discovered that it is precisely in my ordinariness that I am most useful to the work of the Lord.
Yes, I have been ordained to Gospel ministry. Yes, I have received the terminal university degree. But I have achieved no higher place in the kingdom of God thereby. I am still but an ordinary servant fulfilling a particular task for reasons of good order in the church, for the sake of our Master. Sometimes it is appropriate for me to be introduced as Reverend or Doctor or Pastor, but often it is better for me to be called simply “Sheldon.”
“So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:10 NIV)
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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