A Failed Rationale for Ministry

This is the rationale for ministry I developed for the church I served until recently. In the end, while many in the congregation were enthused, the leadership rejected it wholesale. Because of the way the relationship was terminated, I will probably never know why this raised the ire of the leaders. This was not delivered as one document, but as several. I have compiled it here and I would love to have feedback from readers telling me where I went wrong. Don’t worry about being subtle or reserved – brutal honesty would be appreciated.


The vocational aspects of professional ministry that are traditionally understood, and still widely taught in seminary, are Scholar/Teacher, Priest and Pastor. While the first is generally the primary function of ministry in Anglican and Lutheran denominations, the second paramount in the Catholic faith, and the last the chief ministerial pursuit in Baptist and Pentecostal churches, these three aspects usually take relatively equal importance in the Reformed traditions. In the PC(USA), there is a fourth aspect that includes active participation in the functions, committees and governance of the Presbytery, especially for ministers who are new to a particular Presbytery. Of course, individual churches and pastors can look at their histories to determine what they consider “normal” with regard to time allocation. The differences between the church’s and the pastor’s expectations or assumptions, however, represent common opportunities for tension in new calls. As Rev. Cass Shaw rightly pointed out, communication is paramount.

There is yet another aspect of the ministry at XYZ Church that changes the perspective considerably. Based on XYZ Church’s CIF and conversations with the PNC, it became clear that “Grassroots Organizer” would be not just another role, but the primary concentration of the minister. “The primary focus of this position is congregational redevelopment and revitalization. The priority is working in the neighborhood among its diverse population with the goal of connecting with the many un-churched local children and families” (from the XYZ Church CIF).

The aspects of a pastor’s ministry often compete for time and resources. The time allocation for each, when a church’s ministry focus or needs change, can also become a cause of some confusion, consternation or even conflict as the new ministry does not fit the patterns or time considerations of the former ministry. In the case of XYZ Church, the ministry focus pointed to calling a different sort of pastor than that previously sought or called – one that may not quite fit the image or pattern of pastor with which the church is familiar.


While I may not be an “alien in your midst”, I have no doubt that there are certain of my practices and ways of doing ministry that may seem foreign or may not be easily understood. This is an attempt to communicate my vision of ministry in this place and time, and to engage creatively with the session and congregation in formulating a shared rationale for moving forward into the great unknown. It also serves to provide insight into where I have expended my efforts thus far.

Despite not be as clearly demarcated as the titles would seem to indicate, I will attempt to organize this narrative into the five categories discussed above – Grassroots Organizer, Scholar/Teacher, Priest, Pastor and Presbytery Member.

Grassroots Organizer

The Grassroots Organizer, as something of a ministry entrepreneur, HAS to assume certain things are true – even if common sense and experience says that one or more may not be:

  • There is a perceived need to do things differently.
  • He/she was hired because they were perceived to approach things differently.
  • These different approaches are very likely to cause some tension or discomfort, which will need to be openly discussed in order to encourage consensus.
  • Lone Ranger doesn’t work – it isn’t his/her job to be a lone “doer”, but rather to organize people from the grassroots.

In reality, of course, no minister can be purely a grassroots organizer – and I am no exception. I am a risk-taker, but I’m not reckless. While ideas for change are generated by those at the root of the problem/situation, not all ideas are tenable or appropriate. In ministry, especially, entrepreneurship is a pilgrimage – a series of journeys out into community, and back into the church to talk about and process what has been seen. A vision needs to be developed, but in an atmosphere of trust and dialogue that includes the congregation at its core. Like any entrepreneurial endeavor, however, the first steps are exploratory – fact-finding, analysis, meetings, analysis, conversations, analysis, etc. The first steps are heavy on the learning curve, and light on the doing curve. Why? Grassroots organizers have to understand the local needs as expressed by the local people.

Part of my way of doing this has been to spend time with people from groups like Quest (homeless and transient youth populations), the YWCA, The Community Justice Center, police officers, firemen, SICM, Neighborhood Watch, Schenectady Community Action Program, and others. This process will continue as I plan to meet people from the school system, Bethesda House, DSS, Union College, and others as I become aware of them. This is only one part of the process, however. Another other part is talking with people who live on these streets. Being winter, this is best done not actually on the street, but in places were people gather. The most educational conversations I have had have been with the non-employee people I have encountered at each of the aforementioned places, and in  places like gas stations, restaurants, bus stops and the library (where you find a surprising number of people just striving to be warm), where my presence for extended periods has sometimes not been welcome.

One of the ways I meet people is to look like everyday people. If I were to venture out into community looking like “the minister”, I will be received as “the minister”. Admittedly, that is the long-standing expectation of a pastor – to be visible as “the minister”. That might be all well and good, but you tend to only get to see and hear the better sides of community that way. People are more open with other people with whom they feel they have some commonality. My initial expectation has not been to evangelize or get people into Sunday worship, but to find first hand what the needs and concerns of the community are – to look for future ways in which the church can serve the community, and the people of the community can participate more fully in the life of the church. Like it or not, the community is now overwhelmingly made up of the unemployed or underemployed, homeless or transient, legal or undocumented immigrants, polite or not so polite youth, the sick, the poor and the hungry. Less common in our city and neighborhood are the comfortable and well-fed. Not surprisingly, after it eventually comes up in conversation that I am a minister, people are still fairly comfortable speaking with a pastor who doesn’t “stand apart” from them.

Research has also been integral to the process, much (but not all) of it over the internet. I have developed or renewed contacts with former professors, Sharon Tan and Eleazor Fernandez, and others who are actively engaged in multi-cultural, social justice and/or urban ministry. Believing that “new” doesn’t equate with recreating the wheel, I have sought to learn from existing ministries with which I am already familiar in places with populations very much like Schenectady – the Associated Church in Owatonna, MN; Church of all Nations in Minneapolis; Indianola UCC and Crestview Presbyterian in Columbus, OH. I also made a trip to Burnside UMC in East Hartford, CT, to discuss similar efforts in that community. Demographics, history and culture are all significant in being able to do social analysis, which is integral to doing ministry from the grass roots.

The ultimate goal of all this is to formulate, with the congregation, a vision for community or “street” ministries. “Street” ministry, in hindsight, requires some unpacking. It isn’t a literal phrase meaning evangelizing on a street corner or going house to house (although sometimes that can be part of it), but rather a process of developing ministry based on the needs of those that live on the streets of the community. The name, street ministry, derives from the process of bringing ministry up from the streets. It is a grass-root endeavor – one that springs FROM those being served, not developed FOR them. Their voice is extremely important – hence the “newsletter” idea and some others being considered that are simply aimed at community conversation. Another idea is one that Jenna is developing for a video-taping ministry among children of the community (definitely a warm weather idea).

Kathy Jensen is also very excited about her retirement and now being able to start a free, after-school, reading clinic for dyslexic students who are poor and not served well in the school system, including for kids in our own back yards. She is working with three others who are committed the process, as well as some others who are interested. I have been helping with research and preliminary grant-writing processes, and Jenna is providing her organizing and advocacy expertise. We have not approached session as yet, since the plan is still being thought out, but the initial intention includes seeing if XYZ Church facilities can be used for some of the activity. The reason I am very interested in Kathy’s project is that it is the kind of ministry that exhibits “life” to the surrounding area – far more so than my car parked in the lot, although that is at least a place to start. There are, I believe, many more opportunities like this that can stream up from the needs of the people on the streets.


This aspect includes primarily the sacerdotal functions of ministry – the fancy way of saying preparation for and delivery of worship services – as well as administrative functions.

Every seminary teaches that 15-20 hours a week be spent on service and sermon preparation. Every minister knows that, while this may be the ideal, this is the area that gives and takes with time required for other things and, let’s face it, 20 hours is virtually impossible. Not being a “seasoned” minister, which translates to not having twenty years worth of sermons that can provide fodder for new ones, I am in the category of people who spend 12-15 hours a week on exegesis and sermon writing. Since I love it, and the days are many times over before I can begin to think and write, much of this is done in the evenings. I take the priestly role very seriously, and try to provide sermons and services that are meaningful and meaty.


Administratively, there has been little demand of time other than in the recent week or so with the congregational meeting and presbytery reports. This will ebb and flow with need and future developments.


Unlike other aspects of ministry, this is a largely personal, solitary endeavor, but informs all other aspects of ministry. That is why so much denominational attention and encouragement is given to study. It is recommended that 1-2 hours of each work day be dedicated to study, which is another great idea that is difficult to maintain. Besides worship preparation, I try to invest a minimum of an hour a day to devotions, scripture study and reading. This is supplemented by the fact that, when it comes to pleasure reading, I am a theology and social science geek – with pleasure and need overlapping in this case.

Apart from teaching in the sermon, I have not had opportunity to teach in other venues. This I would like to change, but not in Sunday school. Cara is a gifted facilitator/ teacher and I would encourage her to lead as long as she wants.

I do envision Bible and/or faith studies on a fairly routine basis during the month, although this is dependant on the entrepreneur aspect. I would also like to engage the community by facilitating dialogue about social and faith issues – treating the church as a “social commons” around which people can gather. This is all in the “hoped for” category at this point, as relationships with the congregation and community need to be developed first.

One area I would like to explore more is the opportunities to be a speaker or presenter at various community or non-profit organization meetings. This is both an opportunity to teach and one in which community networking can occur in a much more wide-ranging and efficient manner.


I have had the opportunity to sit with Delno and family, who have found it difficult to arrange a time because of health. Pastorally, Stanley and Pat have been my primary focus, along with a few “street” pastoral situations that I have encountered unintentionally. As is common, the time immediately after church is the most used opportunity for engaging people, but that is also obviously true for member to member care.


This has turned out to be the other “biggie”, with several meetings and other events.

I have been asked, and I agreed, to serve on the Budget and Finance Committee of the Presbytery. As is common in most areas, the Presbytery is going through a discernment process to determine what the future might look like, and a part of that is the BFCom’s formulating 5-year financial projections based on various assumptions. The basic projections were sent to me a few days before the initial meeting on January 15, and I spent the better part of two days analyzing them in order to make recommendations. We have since met again to discuss ways in which we can interpret the financial data for the Presbytery Council, when we meet with them on February 12. Several more hours of writing and analysis have been required as a result.

I also attended a Synod consultation on January 23 and 24, with the rather grandiose title of “DOING THEOLOGY AND ETHICS IN THE CONTEXT OF GLOBALIZATION, MIGRATION AND SUSTAINABILITY”. In reality, the conversation was about grassroots organizing in local churches and communities with regard to social and economic justice issues, so it was very useful. The contacts made may prove very useful in XYZ Church’s future exploration of ministry opportunities. Perhaps the most interesting aspect was the way in which the Synod and denomination are envisioning the changing landscape of ministry, and the ways churches can do ministry and mission differently in the future.

The presbytery requires a mentoring relationship for a new pastor, which has taken some time to establish. My mentor is Rev David Moore, and we have so far had meetings while “en route” to the Synod function and a BFCom meeting, since David is the chair of that committee.  

Over the last three weeks or so my primary focus, besides the usual ministerial duties, has been to dream – to contemplate ministry opportunities based on needs that I have been told about or witnessed. As is not uncommon in changing neighborhoods like ours, there can be a distinct lack of a sense of community. Community building, then, is the first step in developing new ministries. XYZ Church can work towards being a center of the community, without being a “community center” (which wouldn’t be too bad either), by strengthening the community relations between residents – being a catalyst for helping neighbors in self-development processes.

Overarching concern: Poverty and its causes.

Poverty is more than a lack of money – it is deprivation caused by lack of access. To live fully people need access to access to nutritious food, decent housing, health care, education, literacy, information, political power and a supportive community, in addition to earning a living income. Generally, if two or more of these criteria are lacking, poverty results.

In this neighborhood, many people – especially those in poverty – appear to lack a sense of community. Without this essential ingredient, it only takes one or two other criteria in which individuals lack access to equal a life lived in poverty. I have been envisioning developing ministries revolving around improving or facilitating access, rather than providing a service directly. Very often access for neighborhoods or groups can be gained by functioning as a catalyst and/or incubator for entities that are grown from the people themselves. This tends to build ownership and helps develop senses of empowerment and self-development.

To not be overwhelming, I have thought about doing this in sections – almost like an “adopt-a-block” process. We could begin with a one or two block are immediately surrounding the church and work on building community ties and empowerment programs there. If it was done in a way that encouraged neighbor-outreach – selecting or recruiting key people in a section – they could then take the initiative to imagine and develop ideas that they own, as well as be available for “teaching” another block or area at a later time.


Possibilities for ministries with and for the community: This is a variety of suggestions – a possible menu from which to choose. I would suggest beginning with two types of ministry and develop them fully before any other ministries are undertaken. Since resources are limited, we cannot be all things to all people. Please let me know which of these possibilities speak to your passions and which you can help bring to fruition.

Community communications:  The “newsletter”, “A Voice Crying Out”, was one of these ideas – a venue through which neighbor can communicate with neighbor. It is still a viable opportunity, but I have left it to be developed in the Spring rather than launch it too early. This may work better, also, if we do an “adopt-a-block” approach.

Tenants Rights:           Landlords have the Schenectady Rental Property Owner’s Association but, despite searching for one, I have found no Tenant’s Association. Especially in low income housing owned by absentee landlords, tenants frequently have problems getting serious problems addressed without appealing to an unwieldy bureaucracy. Like food, liveable housing is a critical component of serving those in poverty. A place for advice, referral and advocacy could help a great many people. This is one area in which the church can be a catalyst, but have the actual tenants take the lead and provide most of the services.                               

The Goose Hill Neighborhood Association could be a catalyst in this also, but there seems to be a sense among many of the low-income renters that this group caters largely to the property owners. That may or may not be accurate but, if the tenants believe this to be true, it still represents an impediment. The flipside is that if the Association were to function as a catalyst, it could lead to stronger community ties between owner-residents and tenant-residents, as well as allow owner residents to serve as resource contacts.

Provide venue for lectures/talks of interest to students/residents (Shawn’s idea): I’ll let him tell you about it. Ask him!

This could also be a center for Christian studies – discussion topics on issues of faith.

Coffee Time/ Minister-is-In: A simple, regular time during which we serve coffee and the minister and other congregation members are available just for talking and communicating – or for more serious discussions in private. The key would be having it regularly and having volunteers to serve coffee, tea and cookies. People could come just for the heck of it, too – just to have a place to be once in a while.

Computer training center:  Formal classes and computer access to adults and children from the neighborhood. Volunteers (especially from Union) provide training on up-to-date machines in basic word processing, spreadsheets, and other Office programs necessary to succeed in today’s job market. Those who would be shut out of the information age have access via e-mail and the Web during open drop-in hours. Children might have a separate computer lab where they can use educational CD ROMS, participate in group learning projects, and do research for homework assignments.

Pre-natal care advocates:  People in poverty have the lowest levels of pre-natal care and the highest levels of low-birthweight births and infant mortality. Programs are available, for which the church could scholarship one or two neighborhood women, on how to network with and advocate for pregnant women in poverty. The church could serve a base of operations and a resource center.

Information classroom:   Provide space and organizational efforts for monthly information sessions aimed at teaching people how to advocate for themselves and how to maneuver their way through bureaucratic organizations or governmental units. We could arrange speakers from DSS and other service groups to address the people who have the most difficulty with accessing services.

This could also extend to budget and finance education for families, small business advising by networking with SCORE, and asset/skill assessment help in developing home-based, additional income. Cottage industries (a similar program in an immigrant area of Columbus OH helped African and Hispanic immigrants use indigenous textile skills to earn extra income).

Emergency transport network:   Many residents have limited, unreliable or no transportation with which to het to medical, social service, educational or other appointments or meetings. A neighborhood network of drivers could be developed in which neighbor helps neighbor by providing occasional transportation.

Moms & tots:              In England, a common church ministry is a program by which mothers and grandmothers can bring their children to the church to engage with other children, while they stay and have coffee or tea with neighbors they may not have met. It usually lasts about two hours. It is especially effective in communities populated by recent immigrants, as they tend to have a higher proportion of stay at home mothers. This does take sizeable investments in toys/games, and efforts to find “safe” people to interact with the children, so it does require serious reflection. Many of these programs are “staffed” by local neighbors as a way of building community.

For safety, this kind of program must exclude men – not based on bias, but out of concern for safety. Men are, unfortunately, more commonly the perpetrators of violence. Where this kind of program was most valuable in England was creating “safe networks” and “safe places” in which women and children can disclose domestic violence, and DV is more common in low-income communities because of the existence of so many other stresses and frustrations associated with poverty.

Adopt-a-grandparent:  Not unlike Moms & Tots, but aimed more at developing relationships between older community members and younger parents/children who do not have supportive family structures locally. This may also be effective with the Union college student body.

Expanding food pantry to include refrigerated/frozen foods.  In talking with Bill, whose idea this is, this would be an opportunity to serve more people, and provide more food. This bears talking about when we consider the short-term and long-term economic outlooks.

Gardens:                      Sometimes it is easier to use a passion or skill already possessed when establishing connections with the community. One of mine is gardening. Considering the fact that many residents do not know the church still exists, a distinct opportunity to send the message of a living church, is to take “living” to a literal extent. For consideration: remove fence; dig several garden areas in which to cultivate flowers (especially fast propagating perennials), and change or improve the sign. As I love to garden, and it is a great way to be “on the street” to talk with people as they move about, I would plan on one full morning a week working the gardens – probably Tuesday to coincide with Food Pantry. If neighbors were interested, we could also help develop gardens in their yards.

I worked with a group in Minneapolis called Youth Farm that developed a children’s afterschool, but school housed, program that taught about food and nutrition – everything from growing vegetables in community gardens to having a “market day” when they sold veggies to having simple cooking lessons. To my surprise, they had over 50 young people ranging from 12-16 involved regularly. There is no reason positive results can’t be attained locally.

3 Responses to “A Failed Rationale for Ministry”

  1. May 17, 2009 at 8:06 PM

    Rev. Andy,

    This sounds like a church I would love to be a part of.

    The churches I have attended, been on session at, etc. have been white, middle class churches in fairly affluent areas. The last was mission oriented, sort of. What we encountered was, while everyone supported what we did on the mission committee, it was the same small group that showed up. When we would present a new idea to session, the main concern was, who was going to support it. The pastor cannot be everywhere, in my opinion, that’s not his/her role. If the leadership is unwilling to put the time, effort and emotion into “street ministry”, they may feel threatened. I have no clue what was wrong at your church, but if you do ever get to implement your plan, beware of burnout. It takes the full support of the congregation to pull something like that off.

  2. 2 DennisS
    May 18, 2009 at 9:16 PM

    Maybe they just wanted a chaplain to take care of them?
    I’m thinking that what you wrote about would work best if there were a co-pastor who was a “stay at home” pastor who wasn’t out and about taking care of widows, orphans, etc. I’m thinking that you were suggesting something that was too far off their radar screen – or what they put on paper was really just lip-service, and not views they really held.

    Personally, I see nothing wrong with what is written. Maybe if there were fewer choices? I think this could be quite overwhelming for the average Elder. Most Elders don’t read much, and especially don’t read about church leadership. In some ways I could see what you wrote as racheting up the anxiety – especially if money were tight and people were complaining that the pastor should be taking more care of them (rather than reaching out to others).

    It’s one thing for people to realize that something needs to be done – and quite a bit more to actually do something about it. You come across as actually following through on this, and I’m guessing that was scary to those who thought they were in power (since they weren’t sure how to proceed).

  3. May 19, 2009 at 7:01 AM

    Thank you both for your replies. I know I scare the crappe out of them, but that is specifically what they said they wanted in the beginning. One of the elders said recently, “You have turned out to be exactly who you said you were and done what we said we wanted, but we don’t like it.”

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That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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