At a recent council meeting, we discussed several trends affecting the church in 2021. We discussed how many churches are now hybrid congregations: having both an online and in-person presence. We breeched the subject of how we might conduct Holy Communion with people in their homes and in small groups.
At this point, I raised a concern regarding such things. "Whatever we do, I just want to make sure the meaning and understanding of the sacrament is not diminished."
Not that the sacrament can be diminished. It's the real presence of Jesus. You can't diminish that in and of itself. But it can be diminished in peoples' hearts and minds. This is why Martin Luther wrote certain explanations in regards to petitions of the Lord's Prayer in the following manner: the will of God; the kingdom of God; certainly comes without our prayer, but in this prayer we pray that it may come to us... The kingdom of God; the will of God are certainly undeterred by us, but we don't want such things diminished by our failure to see them or bow before them or even work against them.
My colleague offered some insight into this as he shared that in a very real way, administering the sacrament of Holy Communion is the only thing that really sets clergy apart from everyone else in the church. For those who do not know the terminology, the church is broken down into clergy (pastors, priests, etc.) and lay folks (congregation members, teachers, elders, etc.). Lay folks certainly preach and teach. Lay folks can administer the sacrament of Baptism in special circumstances. Lay folks forgive sins; lead worship; read Scripture; and so on and so forth. In all of these things, there is not much distinction between clergy and lay!! And the line has become even more diminished.
There are some internet sites which offer people "ordination" so they may preside at weddings of family members and others. Therefore, with no training; no formal education; no discernment, a person can become an ordained minister.
Now, I am no fool. I know there are plenty of pastors and ministers who have gone though the ordination process who probably should not have made it. The numbers of clergy who have committed heinous sins of sexuality attest to that. The numbers of clergy fired from their churches for financial mismanagement attest to that too. Pastors who have bullied their congregations or people in their congregations add to the numbers. A theological education is no guarantee that an ordained minister is going to perform the duties of the office well.
But there is something that will: a calling. Perhaps I am just too isolated in the setting I serve, but I remember a time when we talked deeply about a sense of calling in the church. We talked about sensing a call to the ordained ministry. This was a deep feeling/sense/intuition that God had set you apart to proclaim His Word and lead His people. This call could have come dramatically (as did mine), or it could have risen in bits and pieces over a long period of time until you knew this was what God had given you as a vocation in life.
But simply sensing this call was not enough. The larger church took it upon itself to examine whether or not it believed the call you sensed was genuine. Along with seminary training, we had to go through a candidacy process. There was psychological evaluation. There was evaluation of your prayer and spiritual life. Was there evidence of the Spirit working in your life? Was there evidence of the Spirit working in your preaching and teaching? Did you exhibit compassion? Were you able to comprehend theological concepts? Did you adhere to the doctrine of the Lutheran Church? All of these things were evaluated to see if indeed God had called you and set you apart for ordained ministry.
I get the sense that this understanding of calling is greatly diminished. For certain in our society. For suspicion in our churches. One of the last recruitment videos I watched put out by my own denomination never asked the question, "Are you called?" Yes, there was language about God calling a person, but the main, driving question was, "Do you want to change the world?" Note to ELCA seminaries: The hard truth is that no one really changes the world; they can hardly change a congregation; and you will be lucky if you can even change yourself. The calling to serve as an ordained pastor isn't about changing the world. It's about proclaiming Christ and Him crucified.
The calling to become an ordained pastor isn't about wanting to officiate at a loved one's wedding. It's about proclaiming Christ and Him crucified.
The calling to become an ordained pastor is about serving the church, but it is in the capacity of proclaiming Christ and Him crucified.
"Are you called?" That's the question. It is a wonderful, terrible question to wrestle with. And I wonder how often it is being asked.