Equipping the Saints

MANY PEOPLE ONLY SEE THEIR PASTOR during liturgical services. They may have no contact with any of the clergy outside of this context. The only other “church functions” they attend may be social or athletic events where the clergy are on the sidelines. The pastor’s most prominent role in our Church today is as liturgist.

As a result, particularly in rural or village churches of the Christian East, a man’s voice was his chief qualification for entrance into the clergy. And if he had a nice full beard like Jesus, so much the better! Priests would often preempt deacons and deacons the other clergy if their rendition of the Gospel or a favorite hymn was more lyrical. The best clergyman was a good liturgist and the best liturgist, after all, was the best virtuoso.

When parishes were established in this country they were often organized after the model employed by the Roman Catholic churches around them. There the laity had no role in the parish beyond taking up the collection and possibly arranging flowers for the altar. Any ministry in the parish was exercised by the clergy and religious such as teaching sisters.

If we look to see how things were done in the New Testament era, a very different picture emerges. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, for example, we find a very clear cut job description. St Paul writes, “To each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift…He himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4: 7, 11-13).


Those with Gifts of Leadership

St Paul lists several types of Church leaders. The Apostles were first of all those who had been eyewitnesses to Christ life and ministry. When a replacement for Judas was to be chosen Peter identified the eligible candidates as being one “of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22). He then went on to indicate his own understanding of an Apostle’s role in the Church: “one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.”

Many people think that Prophets are fortune tellers, telling how the future is to play itself out. Sometimes that is close to the truth. At other times the prophet’s gift is to speak God’s will for the present moment or, rather, to interpret the present moment in the light of God’s will for us. This function in the Church is generally found in the monastic calling. By their vows they become “dead to the world” in a foretaste of the common destiny of all of us. In the Kingdom of God neither possessions nor physical relationships will continue. There will be no ego, no pride, for all the glory will be God’s. In addition some monastics have the gift of discernment, reading the hearts of those who come to them for guidance.

Evangelists are those who proclaim the Gospel far and wide. Missionaries and retreat masters have often shared in this gift. Today web masters and bloggers might join in this gift.

The pastor/teacher is the person at the head of the local Church, the bishop or his representative, the presbyter (priest). While the others mentioned traveled around the Mediterranean world bringing the good news of Christ, the pastors were the people left behind to shepherd the local community. Their main role was described as “equipping of the saints for the work of ministry,” the “saints” being those who were made holy by being united to Christ in holy baptism. At every baptism we are reminded that “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” You can’t get much holier than that!

The pastor in this view is primarily an enabler, giving people the tools needed to take up their place in one of the Church’s ministries. He must see to the training of greeters, singers and servers, of catechists and ministers to the sick, of church council members and workers in any other kind of ministry that might be needed in the parish. And it is because he is this enabler of the saints under his care, because he is the teacher and shepherd of the flock that the pastor presides at liturgical services.

The Work of Ministry

In St Paul’s vision of the Church, there are no passive spectators. All are meant to be active, to be engaged in the work of ministry in one way or another. Most parishes have their regular schedule of projects that mark its life during the year – coffee hours, fundraisers, socials, outings – and people work to make them happen. This is certainly one level of ministry, but there is more. Two such ministries which touch the heart of every parish are those concerned with worship and catechesis.

Liturgical singing is a ministry in which all worshippers should be involved. Everyone should take part in the chants appointed for the people. Others have a more particular or specialized ministry as cantors or choir members. A cantor can make or break the liturgical services in the parish because the cantor is the liturgical minister most concerned with the involvement of the people.

People have long associated ministering in the holy place with “altar boys.” In fact, the role the servers play is basically the role of subdeacons. In many places the servers are actually vested as subdeacons. At least a few older teens or young adults should be involved in this ministry to supervise and train any younger servers the parish might employ. In some Eastern Churches those senior servers who have a firm commitment to this ministry are actually blessed by the bishop as subdeacons.

Another essential ministry in every parish in that of catechist. Many people identify the term catechist with Sunday School teacher, but those who coordinate youth ministry, work with young adults or conduct adult education programs are also catechists. In some churches people have been trained to introduce visitors to the church or help them follow the Liturgy. In other places people have been instructed to conduct church open houses, perhaps in conjunction with a food festival. All of these are catechetical ministries essential for the spiritual growth of the parish.

Commitment and Training

Taking part in many of these activities demands a level of commitment. Cantors must plan their leisure activities around the parish’s schedule of liturgical services. Catechists must commit themselves to a full cycle of sessions in any given year. These demands would be a real burden to anyone who was not convinced that ministering in this way was their return to God of the gift He had given them.

Training Is a Must!

One aspect of any serious ministry is the need for training. The twentieth-century academic Margaret Mead once said in another context, “Zeal without knowledge is a sin.” This certainly applies to ministry in the Church. The desire to serve must be complemented by a willingness to be trained for service. Being smarter than a child, for example, does not automatically make someone a good catechist! Neither does having “learned one’s catechism” (in another age or even in another Church tradition) dispense a volunteer catechist from going through a training program.

The result of this interaction of ministry workers and their enablers is, as St Paul has it, “a mature manhood” after the stature of Christ. The parish becomes an icon of Christ and of those who accompanied Him – the apostles, the myrrhbearers, and the rest – each taking up their responsibility in and for the Church according to the measure of Christ’s gift.