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Reflecting on One Order of Ministry: Mardi Tindal

The “One Order” proposal provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to consider what leadership is needed within – and from – a postmodern church. My hope is that our conversations will break us open to fresh understandings of ordered ministry, to equally fresh understandings of ‘unordered’ ministry, and to new forms of mutual support and accountability.

As the Study Guide for the Remit explains, “Various surveys have pointed to congregations not being concerned about the differences between the various streams of ministry, but rather deeply concerned about effective and faithful ministry leadership.”

These days such vocational conversations are alive and well in every arena. It’s been said that postmodernism is marked by a “pasting together” of elements of previous leadership styles in order to create a new narrative. For example, Choose your own Adventure books are an illustration of a postmodern view of how the role of the writer has changed. Rather than ‘standing apart’ from the reader as before, the author asks his or her readers questions and invites them into deciding about the course of the narrative. Both writer and reader participate, bringing personal authenticity to the process of authoring, writing the story together.

We need effective and faithful leadership if we as a church are to write a new story together, not only for our sake, but for the sake of society. How will we as members of the body of Christ bring together elements of previous styles and forms to create a new narrative of leadership?

Parker Palmer’s words about leadership come to mind: ”Leadership is a concept we often resist. It seems immodest, even self-aggrandizing to think of ourselves as leaders. But if it is true that we are made for community, then leadership is everyone’s vocation and it can be an evasion to insist that it is not. When we live in the close-knit eco-system called community everyone follows and everyone leads.”

The proposal before us represents one way of allowing for further variety and intermingling of leadership styles and roles. But it also begs other questions about roles and relationships among our varied roles and responsibilities. I wonder about new ways by which we might unleash the potential we share when every one leads and every one follows, in particular times and circumstances. How might we better support – and hold one another accountable – in a messy, postmodern church?

Grappling with this question helps us become more adaptive and effective in our witness to God’s love. Our remit discussions might offer glimpses of what is possible when we embrace our conviction about “the priesthood of all believers”, or as Our Song of Faith puts it, “the ministry and discipleship of all believers”.

Forty years ago as a young adult, I heard this conviction about the priesthood of all believers echoed far more often than I hear it today. Back then I became convinced that everyone within our community of faith shares in Christ’s ministry for the sake of both church and world. The task of discerning God’s call and following accordingly, was central to my emerging identity, and that of others, regardless of whether or not we would be called ‘ministers.’

So while the proposal before us suggests that there may be more ways by which to be called an ‘ordered minister’, I’d like to see us imagine even more. We will, I trust, become clearer about matters of identity, equity and education within a more explicitly diverse order of ministry. But let’s not end the conversation there. What might a fully adaptive response be if we are to live anew into “the ministry and discipleship of all believers”?

Each of us within the body needs help to discern our vocation as members of Christ’s church, a vocation that may call us to serve within the church and/or beyond the church. We can’t afford to be without each one’s leadership in one way or another, at one time or another. And every one of us needs support and to be held accountable if we are to be faithful to our call and respectful in our relationships.

Creating new forms for such support and accountability will be necessary as we move from less static roles to more dynamic relationships. While we need to support and hold professionals – ordered ministers – accountable, let’s also explore how we might support and hold accountable non-professional believers as well.

Congregational concern about “effective and faithful ministry leadership” reflects a longing for fresh, inclusive approaches to the demanding, diverse work of ‘participating in God’s work of healing and mending creation’ (Song of Faith).

It grieves me to hear the sadness of ministers who feel unrecognized in their particular role and identity. They come from every stream represented within this proposal. My hope is that whatever decision we make, professional ministers of the United Church will have reason to be clearer and more confident about the nature of their leadership – and how to support others’ leadership. Let’s give one another the opportunity to ‘choose our own adventure’, through mutual discernment, within the ministry of Christ. Our communal narrative will be richer for it.

Mardi Tindal is the 40th Moderator of The United Church of Canada, the fourth lay Moderator of the church.

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