While the Rev. Jes Kast-Keat is enjoying vacation, she invites the Rev. John Russell Stanger to write for The Twelve. John Russell is Minister for Advocacy and Education at Presbyterian Welcome in New York City, an organization that ministers to queer people in and beyond the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). You can read more from John Russell at PluckyPresby.com
I am a Minister of Word and Sacrament of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) variety. The question that usually follows my disclosure as a pastor is, “Where’s your church?” Other religious leaders might start to wonder about the size of my congregation, the style and theology of worship and language, and how many support staff I have helping me pull it off. They are innocent and natural questions. A pastor serves in a church where s/he stands up on Sundays to preach for their congregation from a pulpit. So I’m always prepared to start my well-worn it’s-more-complicated-than-that explanation.
My first call as a minister is to what we Presbyterians call a “validated ministry,” though we formerly shared the RCA language of “specialized ministers.” This is the process by which chaplains, denominational staff, professors, mission co-workers, non-profit professionals, and others spreading good news go through to have their ministries recognized by our denomination. (It was once entertaining but therapeutically confusing to tell people I was “seeking validation.”) It empowers us preach the word and “rightly” administer the sacraments, as John Calvin would have it, in and beyond the walls of congregations.
Yet, since my ordination I’ve noticed the myriad and frequent ways we ministers serving beyond congregations are assumed not really to be pastors. As a minister working in a faith-based non-profit, I’m currently fighting the urge to give you a rundown of what my ministerial day-to-day looks like, hoping to convince you I’m legit. But I won’t do that because it only buys into the scrutiny my call and ministry exist under. I’ve learned this behavior through the now familiar questions, laced with skepticism, about my ministry. This skepticism contributes to the erroneous sense that my validated minister colleagues and I are laity playing dress-up.
But for us Reformed folks I think there is something deeply theological about celebrating validated/specialized ministries. Our tradition worships a Sovereign God who is active in all of creation. We proclaim a Christ who refused to operate within the limits of established religious communities. We know the movement of the Infinite Holy Spirit who will not be limited to the visible church. Our God is always with us, but always beyond us.
Ministers who work primarily beyond the walls of congregations—but not apart from them—visibly point to the invisible church all around us. We specialized ministers are more than an ecclesiastical concession, we are necessary for the full proclamation of the gospel. Ministers serving a particular congregation are also necessary for us to become the Church, but today I’m dreaming of a community where the language of ordained ministry in conferences, congregations, and classes, can be questioned, stretched, and nuanced beyond the limits of parish ministry.
So from now on, when I meet another pastor, my question will be: “What does your ministry look like?”