A Reflection from Nathan Huguley, Office of Student Success
What is “ministry?” I’ve been struggling with this question for a number of years now. Traditionally, we might understand ministry to be essentially pastoral. A woman or man is called by a church or assigned there by an ecclesiastical authority to be the pastor, the spiritual leader of a congregation. While that is still the direction that many folks go, I have noticed that lots of people I talk to feel called to ministry but do not feel called to the pastorate. They seek ministry tracks in healthcare, military, corporate, or prison chaplaincy. They want to start or run nonprofit organizations. They seek terminal degrees in order to become theological educators. They work in student ministries, helping professions, and advocate for social and legal justice. Many of these people that I talk to frame their work and career aspirations as “ministry,” whether they are ordained or not.
Lest we think that congregational ministry is yet another thing that millennials are ruining, we should remember that this is a trend that started in the twentieth century. My mother, a seminary graduate and licensed minister, does her ministry as a nurse and social worker for a nonprofit organization that is not faith-based. My father, a seminary graduate and ordained minister, has been a hospital chaplain for over 30 years. I have known many baby boomers and generation X’ers who have framed their careers in law, medicine, social work, the corporate world, the government, or trades as ministry. Is it any wonder that young adults these days don’t limit our definition of “ministry” to the person standing in the pulpit on Sunday morning?
I have talked to friends and colleagues in ministry who express anxiety that so many people are pursuing seminary education who do not want to become pastors. I do not share their anxiety. The church is not a building we use for 4 hours a week. The church is not even just the people who gather in that particular building. The church is the community of believers that carries out the work of God in the world. I’m not anxious about a generation of leaders who care less for propping up an institution that is focused inward than they do for getting outside the church building’s walls and doing their work as a ministry. I’m excited about a generation that wants to reopen the definition of “ministry” so that they can become the hands and feet of God in the world that’s in need of love, comfort, challenge, and healing presence. I am also excited for the ways in which this has energized those who are called to be pastors. They seem to love it when church members take responsibility for becoming God’s coworkers, freeing pastors to do the work they also feel passionately called to do.
Ministry looks different now than it did 30 years ago, and it will look different 30 years from now than it does today. I hope that it becomes a more inclusive idea that makes space for all the people of God to see the work they are called to do as ministry, regardless of their job title. We can participate in this movement by being more intentional about identifying the gifts that we see in the people around us and telling them what we see. In my work I find that many people have delayed pursuing seminary for years because they didn’t have people around them who encouraged them to develop their gifts. Do you know someone like that? Have you benefited from the ministry of someone who isn’t yet called a minister? Central Seminary has become a place where ministerial entrepreneurs can come to develop the skills and knowledge they need to pursue their unique vocations. Our contextual learning program helps students find creative spaces to do experiential learning in the field. If you know someone who has gifts for ministry and creative ideas for how to use those gifts, please consider referring them here to Central where they can be part of the ongoing conversation about the changing landscape of ministry.