08 November 2008

Practical Ministry: a Christian Understanding of Pastoral Care

A Greek Orthodox deacon in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (Photograph: Eric Stoltz). Diaconal ministry is at the heart of the ministry and service of the Church

Patrick Comerford:

1, Introduction:

In the Church of Ireland, we have often debated the introduction of the permanent diaconate. In its present form, diaconal ministry is often seen as a transitional moment, a temporary year spent as deacons wait to be ordained to the priesthood.

But no-one sees priestly ministry as a transitional ministry, as a ministry preparing ordinands for ordination as bishops.

The debates in the Church about the diaconate might be helped if we recovered the uderstanding of diaconal ministry, the ministry of deacons, as the foundation of all ordained ministry in the Church.

When deacons are ordained priests they remain deacons. When priests are ordained bishops, they remain deacons. Service and being a servant are at the heart of all the ways in which ordained ministry is exercised in the Church of Ireland.

Throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament, priests and Levites, priests and deacons are described in terms of service, servant-hood, slaves and slavery. This is at the heart of all the ordained ministry of the Church, at the heart of practical ministry, and at the heart of our understanding of the provision of pastoral care.

As the bishop says in the ordination service:

“Deacons in the Church of God serve in the name of Christ, and so remind the whole Church that serving others is at the heart of all ministry.

“Deacons have a special responsibility to ensure that those in need are cared for with compassion and humility. They are to strengthen the faithful, search out the careless and the indifferent, and minister to the sick, the needy, the poor and those in trouble.” (Book of Common Prayer, 2004, p. 555.)

2, Bible study (1): I Timothy 3: 8-13

Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, nor indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscious. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus (I Timothy 3: 8-13).

3, The Old Testament:

Throughout the Old Testament, the ministry of prophets, priests and Levites, those who lead the people in following God, and those who led the people in worshipping God, is spoken of in terms of service – serving God and serving the people:

So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God (Exodus 24: 13).

After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, ‘My servant Moses is dead’ (Joshua 1: 1-2).

Those who minister and serve God and the people, the ministers, are spoken of as servants, with little distinction between the secular and the sacred realms.

There are different translations – for example, some translate the word as “helper.” But they all come from the same root, with service and being a servant at the heart of ministry: “… the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud …” (I Kings 8: 11).

When the Temple is rebuilt in post-exilic Jerusalem, the role of Levites is defined in these terms of ministry and service:

“They shall ministers in my sanctuary, having oversight at the gates of the temple, and serving in the temple; they shall slaughter the burnt offerings and the sacrifices for the people, and they shall attend on them and serve them” (Ezekiel 44: 11).

The Priests are to “minister in the sanctuary and approach the Lord to minister to him,” and the Levites are to “minister at the temple” too (Ezekiel 45: 4-5). Those who are involved in the Temple rituals and sacrifice, are to minister or serve at the Temple (Ezekiel 46: 24).

Ministry is serving the people and serving God in the sanctuary.

In the Psalms we find the same idea at the heart of the function and role of the angels and the elements, as they serve God:

Bless the Lord all his hosts,
his ministers that do his will
(Psalm 103: 21).

You make the winds your messengers
fire and flame your ministers
(Psalm 104: 4).

4, Reflective exercise: models of service and ministry:

When I was at selection conference in 1999, I was asked by one of the panel members who had been my models of ministry. I probably thought nobly about those who had been influential at earlier stages in my life, the monks at school, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh and Desmond Tutu in the apartheid-era in South Africa, a canon in Lichfield Cathedral in 1971, a rector in Wexford in the 1970s or a rector in Belfast when I was on a student placement in the 1980s.

Another candidate at the same selection conference joked that when she had been asked this she told them she couldn’t make up her mind between Father Ted, Father Jack and Father Dougal, “so I told them Mrs Doyle.”

“And how did you explain that?” I asked her.

“Because she serves.”

It wasn’t true, but there was a real kernel of truth in the story. Service is at the heart of ministry.

In a reflective exercise, consider someone who has influenced you (positively or negatively) in establishing your understanding of Christian pastoral ministry and then discuss the following:

● What have you learned from this person regarding human care?

● How does this help or hinder you in ministry?

5, The New Testament:

In Matthew 22, in the story of the invitations to the wedding banquet, the word slave and servant are used for different tasks. The slaves go out into the highways and byways to invite people to the banquet. The servants wait at the table, serving people when they have come to the banquet.

We have here models for those who go out proclaiming the Good News – the Ministry of Word; and those who serve at the banquet, the Ministry of Sacrament. But both are at the heart of pastoral care for those who are being called into the Kingdom of God.

The most familiar terms for ministry or service in the New Testament are: διάκονος (diakonos, servant); diakonia (service or ministry); and diakonein (to serve or minister).

The Greek word διάκονος (diakonos, servant) is a standard word meaning “servant,” “waiting-man,” “minister” or “messenger.” One common explanation in etymology is that it literally means “through the dust,” referring to the dust raised by the busy servant or messenger.

We can see an early practical use of these terms in Saint Mark’s Gospel.

When James and John asked to be seated at the right and left hand of Jesus in his glory, the disciples were angry, but we were told: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognise as their rulers Lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant (diakonos)” (Mark 10: 42-43)

To be great in the Church, to be great in the company of Christ, we must be servant, and we must be practical servants. Another servant word in the New Testament for those in ministry is iperites:

Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards (iperites) of God’s mysteries (I Corinthians 4: 1).

The word iphrites is used for a servant or in nautical terms an under-rower, a subordinate rower, a very seaty task indeed. By extension, the word was used for anyone who serves with their hands, a servant. It was used for the servants and attendants of magistrates or judges, for example, who had to execute penalties, for the attendants, retinue and soldiers of a king, the attendant in a synagogue who cleaned it down and swept it out, And so we find it in the New Testament for anyone ministering or rendering service, anyone who aids someone else in any work, an assistant, and then for a preacher of the Gospel

We are ordained as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, and we are ordained as servants. And the New Testament language for those who are stewards of the mysteries of God and preachers of the Gospel uses vocabulary that makes no distinction between “secular” and “spiritual” service or ministry.

The constant image used for ministry is of those who wait on the table, as in the use of diakonein (to serve) in Saint Luke’s Gospel:

Blessed are those slaves (oi douloi) whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly, I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve (to be a servant to) them (Luke 12: 37).

Jesus asks the disciples would they rather not tell a slave: “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me (diakonei moi) while I eat and drink” (Luke 17: 8).

However, it is also worth noting that that Martha is rebuked for too much service (Luke 10: 40-42).

6, Reflective Exercise 2: The Raising of Lazarus (John 11):

Read the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11, and reflect on the following questions:

● What is the story abut?
● What are the ingredients and key figures in the story and how are they used?
● What do we learn about human care in this story?
● What sensitivities might a congregation have in hearing this story?
● How might we understand transformation from this account?

7, Developing the New Testament understanding of service and ministry

The Gospel understanding of service develops into an understanding of διάκονος (diakonos, servant) as the technical term for a Church official. We see the deacon as an office or function, a service or ministry in the Church with the selection of seven men, including Stephen, to assist with the charitable work of the early Church (see Acts 6).

In the opening verse of the Epistle to the Philippians, Paul and Timothy describe themselves as slaves, using both the words διάκονος (diakonos, servant) and slave (doulos) in that opening verse for their ministry and the ministry of the Church:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus (douloi Christou Iesou), To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons (diakonoi) (Philippians 1: 1).

In our opening Bible study we looked at Paul’s demands on deacons:

Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, nor indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscious. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus (I Timothy 3: 8-13).

8, Ministry and Motive:

So, servant (διάκονος, diakonos) and slave (doulos) are the common words in the New Testament for those in ministry.

“If anyone of you wants to be great, he must be the servant (διάκονος) of all; and if one of you wants to be first, he must be the slave (doulos) of all (see Mark 10: 43-44).

These words descriptive of ministry in terms of status (servant) and of function (slave).

Paul uses the word slave as an analogy of relationship. For example, he opens his Letter to the Romans in these words:

Paul, a servant (doulos) of Jesus Christ called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God …” (Romans 1: 1).

As slaves, we are bought and are no longer our own. But, paradoxically, the totality of this claim of God brings us into a new freedom.

As for being a servant, service is the natural work of slaves, and it is also the work of all Christians. This is ultimately expressed in the command to love:

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? …” (Matthew 5: 44-46).

When a lawyer asked Christ which was the greatest commandment, he replied: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22: 37-40).

Raymond Brown points out that there is no other ethical teaching in the Fourth Gospel but to love.

In the Great Discourse at the Last Supper, Jesus tells his Disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another “(John 13: 34-35).

The servant status is based on the obedience to this command to love.

What are the consequences of the freedom of a slave?

1, There is a tension between accountability to God and to the world. Christian ministry is not “justifiable” to anyone but God.

2, There is a freedom from personal preferences. Ministry is not a choice but a command which is grace resourced.

3, There is a freedom from feelings: there is a distinction between service based on “liking” and on “loving.”

9, Jesus as the Model of Ministry: John 3: 1-17

When Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark of night, he is puzzled by what Jesus has to say to him. Jesus then provides a model for service and ministry in the way he has become a servant in being sent by the Father:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3: 16-17)

The Greek words used here imply servant-hood, and service, for they imply giving one to someone as his own, giving one to someone to whom he already belongs, or, in the second place, ordering someone to go to an appointed place.

Later, Jesus shows this in his own humiliation, strips himself down and as the servant washes the feet of his disciple. This is a scandal, for here we have the offensive reversal of roles.

In the integration of these patterns into our ministry, we are reminded that Christ dwells in the Father and Christian ministry springs from dwelling in Christ.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture on Year I NSM (Non-Stipendiary Ministry) Course on Saturday 8 November 2008.

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