I have been thinking a lot lately about ministers. All ministers, whether bishops, priests, deacons, or lay people. Our church is based on ministers—ok, no, our church is based on Christ; but what happens next happens through ministers.
When Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church, formal ministry titles hadn’t really been invented. There were simply people, whose ‘work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope’ took others’ breath away. In a land riddled with idols, these people heard news of the resurrected Jesus and ‘turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God’. Something about a living and true God made untrue, dead idols boring. They wanted in on something different. Everyone noticed it: ‘in every place your faith in God has become known’.
That, basically, is the essence of ministry. Something springs from you that you can’t help, a response to Jesus Christ that you really cannot make go away. As Paul also puts it, ‘our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction’.
People like this keep turning up at St Mark’s for us to teach and train and form. The Holy Spirit has started that happening—in these parts, we call that a ‘call’ … the sense you cannot suppress that Jesus Christ is taking you somewhere new, and that he is worth it. At our best, St Mark’s only cooperates with the Spirit. So far, so good.
But as I think about ministers, I get so mad about what is asked of them. I don’t mean by congregations, although that is a part of it. I mean something bigger. They need to respond to the enraged disappointment Australians feel about Christian institutions. They need to gently dislodge Australians’ misinformed prejudices against Christianity. They need to team-build, lead change, manage organisations. They need to assess risk, provide safe workplaces, do safe church. They must run ‘human resources’, read a balance sheet and maintain buildings.
Yet they also need serious biblical knowledge, and an awareness of Christian history. They need to wed people, preside, and run funerals without being a klutz. In times of stress they need rigorous, intentional awareness of their flaws, shame, vanity and ego. Within all this, they need continually to introduce people to Christ, in both word and deed.
On it goes. I have been collecting such lists, and they are horrifically long. Realistically, people need to learn all this in several goes over several years.
But what do we do? Bishops are usually now forced to find people trained at no cost to their Diocese. Our own Diocese cannot
pay for training due to several legacy debts (arising from schools, historic sexual abuse, and a superannuation scheme).
Elsewhere in Australia, some people get less than a year of training that is supposed to set them up for life. Learners are
expected to pay for everything themselves, or borrow money for tuition, or rely on some form of government assistance, often
juggling part- or full-time jobs at the same time. St Mark’s regularly writes off debts for people who cannot pay us, which stretches us thinner and inhibits us developing much-needed new courses.
And then we wonder why people are under-equipped, or burn out, or move on quickly. Or why, in forty years, some legal process will come after them to name and shame the ineptitude that has been forced upon them. This situation is completely, totally and utterly unsustainable.
A letter from the famous fourth-century figure Augustine of Hippo begins obviously enough. ‘During our life on earth,’ he writes, ‘and especially in our own day, nothing is easier, pleasanter and more likely to win people’s respect than the office of bishop or priest or deacon, if it is performed negligently and with a view to securing their approval’. But ‘there is nothing in this present life, and especially now, more difficult, toilsome, and perilous than these offices if they are carried out in the way our Lord commands’. I am sure you’ve seen both kinds.
As it happens, Augustine has recently been dragged into ministry by one Bishop Valerius, and without any training. He pleads
with, begs and cajoles the bishop for just a little time off to read the Bible, pray and learn. Then he throws this spiritual grenade:
For what shall I say to the Lord my Judge? Shall I say, ‘I was not able to acquire what I needed, because I was engrossed wholly with the affairs of the Church’? What if he replied ‘You wicked servant! … How do you allege that you had no time to learn how to cultivate my field?’ Tell me, I beg you, what could I reply? Are you willing for me to say, ‘Old Valerius is to blame’?
How’s that for spiritual blackmail!?
People like Augustine keep turning up at St Mark’s for us to teach and train and form. They remind me of what Paul said to
the Thessalonians: ‘our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction’.
But I fear we are in the position of old Valerius, expecting these people to do a high, noble and cosmically significant task with
an increasingly shabby, cheap and ramshackle foundation.
So on the evening Monday April 23rd, we will gather at St Mark’s to consider our next forty years. We will hear from Rev. Dr
Mark Short about the ministry needs he has seen as Director of Bush Church Aid. On the fortieth anniversary of the founding
of St Mark’s College of Ministry, Bishop Trevor will rededicate us to the next forty, when we will be Christians in more sceptical,
hostile and resistant terrain.
People will need a training institution that can teach Scripture to such depth, in dialogue with the best thought and practice
from other disciplines, as to enable canny, wise, competent, resilient and godly ministers whom people talk excitedly about—like those Thessalonian Christians of long ago. Over these next decades and as existing funding sources dry up, St Mark’s will
need a fighting-fund of tens of millions of dollars to finance this kind of ministry formation.
I will therefore be launching the Ministry Future Fund. We do not need this fund for regular operations. It will expand our capacity for good training and formation. We need it to attract and support additional excellent staff; to develop significant new courses (even a cheap new course costs $25–$40,000 to develop well?); and to subsidise future students.
I’ll propose that it accrue over time as people bequest a portion of their estates. Of course, direct donations will also be great, just as Beth and the late Chris Heyde recently donated $500,000, both flexibly and endowed, toward ministry formation. The point, though, is that the luxury of ‘someone else’ paying for minsters—whether Diocese-central, some government, or the candidates themselves—has passed. As an entire Church, we need to take responsibility for the next forty years. The Ministry Future Fund will be a good way to do it.
Come and help me form a better ministry future for Christ in Australia. www.stmarks.edu.au.
by Reverend Dr Andrew Cameron