I had a conversation this week with an Episcopal clergyperson who is really excited about some major changes his congregation is making to their building. As he described the design, he began to tell me about the kind of ministry he envisioned in this new physical plant. He is going to invite social service agencies to use the space. He’d like to have a community garden, and maybe even outdoor meeting spaces for the community. He wants their space to be a community meeting space where lots of needs are met.
Then he laid this statement on me:
“No one should get a Master of Divinity degree,” he said (an MDiv is the standard degree most clergy pursue ahead of ordination). “What a waste of time that is!” he declared as he told me that he was pursuing a Master of Social Work. “That’s what the real work is,” he said.
I’ve often thought the same thing myself.
For the last five or six years I have taught Bible to first year ministry students, and I’ve often had this same thought myself. Church culture has set them up to expect that theology and Bible will be important parts of doing ministry, and they are important things to understand. When the class is focused less around where Noah’s ark was last sighted or memorizing the kings of Israel in the order of their reign, some students are disappointed. They don’t immediately see the relevance of the contemporary cultural pieces we interpret alongside the Bible during class. Interpretation is the intersection of the Bible and everyday life.
Most of ministry is about meeting people where they are and leading them to discover the divine spark inside. You don’t need to go to divinity school or be a pastor to do those things. You don’t have to be ordained or know the kings of Israel by memory. You simply have to be ready to do the ministry that is right in front of you.
We sometimes hear harsh rejection in Jesus’s words to the people who want to follow him after they finish “one more thing.” Sometimes it sounds like Jesus believes they are not committed to discipleship. But I think Jesus is encouraging them to do the ministry that is right where they are. There is no hierarchy of ministry. It is not better to travel with Jesus than to do other kinds of ministry. To the person who wants to bury their father, Jesus says, “Those who mourn need to hear you proclaim the kingdom of God!” To the one who wants to say goodbye to people at home, Jesus says “You would be homesick with me. The kingdom of God is where you are, too.”
You don’t need a pilgrimage to follow Christ. You don’t need seminary to be in ministry. You don’t need an epiphany to be a disciple. You only need to love the people right in front of you.