What do you think of garbage collectors? Or architects? Or farmers? Not whether they are nice or nasty (though that might be important): but what do you think of them theologically?
The reason I ask is this: I find that in seminaries we do not always place a high value on the career theology students followed before they began to train for ordination. In fact, we sometimes talk as if it is fairly irrelevant, even inferior, to what they are doing now, and what they are going to do.
I see three problems with this attitude.
1. People coming to Wycliffe have often had the most impressive careers, in teaching, engineering, the arts, home-making, the law-you name it. Whatever we have been doing during that time, God has been at work, shaping us, developing our gifts, chipping away at our character, preparing us for the next phase.
Thus there is a very direct line connecting our previous work and our future work. If you were a manager, doesn’t a priest need to know how to manage people? If you were an educator, isn’t education central to congregational leadership? If you started your own business, might God not have prepared you to plant a new church? And so on.
2. More significant is the fact that this attitude to “secular” careers will likely rub off on the way we lead parish ministry. Who will you think of as the most spiritually mature Christians in your congregation? For many clergy, it is those who spend most time in the four walls of the church, serving on committees, singing in the choir, maintaining the building. Isn’t that the best way to measure their commitment to Christ and his church?
Exhibit A: Don Page was a senior civil servant in Ottawa. During his twenty years or so in that job, he started the Public Service Christian Fellowship, which eventually sponsored around a hundred Bible study groups scattered throughout government buildings in Ottawa. Through those groups over the years, he told me, about a hundred people became Christians.
How much did Don Page do in his church? Very little. The elders (it was a Fellowship Baptist church) said, “Don, that is clearly your ministry. We will support you and pray for you, but we will not ask you to take on any internal jobs at the church.”
Exhibit B: When Don left, to become Vice-President of Trinity Western University, he asked his VP to take over the PSCF. The man replied, “Sorry, I can’t do that: I’ve got too many responsibilities in my church.”
One of the chief reasons the church exists, surely, is to equip its members so that they can go out in witness to the world. If you like, Christ is centrifugal, inviting us to follow him into the “secular” world where he is already at work. Often, however, we work against this by making church centripetal, drawing our most energetic members away from “the world” they are supposed to inhabit into the running of the church’s infrastructure. Those who don’t serve on committees or running pancake suppers or planning the annual bazaar are regarded as second class Christians. Is there not something wrong with this picture?
3. But we do not witness simply by starting Bible study groups and seeking to bring others to Christ, important though those are. We witness simply by living as God’s people in God’s world in God’s way. The Christian architect shows by her work that God is concerned for the beauty and usefulness of where people live. The Christian scientist demonstrates his love of God by his delight in the intricacies of God’s amazing world. The Christian accountant shows by her efficiency and love of people something of the character of God. The Christian garbage collector mirrors the love of Christ, who dealt (and continues to deal) with the garbage in our lives. And the “call” of God to such jobs should be just as clear and compelling as the “call” to an ordained job in the church. Both are part of the work of God.
Thus the good pastor will affirm her people in their “secular” jobs and teach about the value of those jobs in the work of God. I know one pastor who visited as many as possible of his church members in their place of work, so that he could appreciate the opportunities and the challenges of the context in which they spent so much of their lives. As a result, his preaching became far more connected, and he stopped acting as if church activities were the most important thing his members were involved in.
As Luther said, “Every shoemaker can be a priest of God.” And, after all, Adam was a gardener.
Originally published in Morning Star