Two years before we entered the Divinity School, Professor Niebuhr published The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, in which he called the ministry “The Perplexed Profession.” He cited confusion over the principal goal of Ministry. As a solution, he offered what he hoped would become a generally accepted statement of purpose: the “increase among men [no gender neutrality then] of the love of God and neighbor.” Unfortunately, Professor Niebuhr’s efforts failed. While there have been many changes in church life since 1961, there is still no agreement as to the proper work of Ministry. Indeed, there may be more confusion today than in Professor Niebuhr’s time.
I was ordained by the New Haven Association of Congregational Christian Churches on June 18, 1961, and left immediately to assume the pastorate of the Powder River Parish in SE Montana: an experiment in ministering in a sparsely populated area. Most of my energy went into preaching the word and administering the sacraments where otherwise the word would not have been preached and the sacraments would not have been administered.
When called to serve a traditional church in a small town in Vermont, I addressed a need in the community for affordable housing. I found funds to construct ten units of Senior Citizens’ Housing. Of course, I did not need ordination to do that. When called next to a suburban parish, also in Vermont, I was disappointed to learn that many members uncritically supported the War. I was being paid by people with whom I deeply disagreed. Rather than accept that moral compromise, I resigned, went to Library School at Rutgers and became an independent school librarian.
At schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, I found great job satisfaction. My task was to enrich and support curricula. In addition, I taught courses in “non-print media,” including adjunct service at Villanova, introduced multi-cultural courses, fund raised and coached. I built a new library. On the church side were “transitional ministries” and pulpit supply.
In retirement, back in Vermont, I found a core purpose for ministry in “community building.” The Peacham Public Library, because of an expansion I led, has become the town’s “common ground.” I chaired the Vermont State Board of Libraries. I now sit on the Vermont Low Income Advocacy Council. I have remained engaged in church work, as a Just Peace Advocate, Association Registrar and Church Clerk. I stopped preaching five years ago.
It’s sad that we still have little agreement as to what constitutes “good ministry.” How, then, can ministers be evaluated properly? Not everyone agrees that “community building” is an adequate goal. (It echoes only part of Professor Niebuhr’s purpose, omitting the part about increasing the love of God.) The profession remains perplexed and in trouble; my advice to candidates for Ordained Ministry is to prepare both for other work and non–stipendiary church work. St. Paul, the tentmaker, provided a model that works well still.