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“We are all ministers”

Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16

(Sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church, SF, on September 30, 2018)


In my many years of ministry, and in every church I have served, I have lost count of how many times I have been asked, “What do you do the rest of the week”?  Behind the question is the assumption that ministers only work on Sundays.  If that is the case, you would think that our seminaries would have to turn away applicants and our churches would not have any difficulty finding pastors.  The task of preparing a Mission Study and the work of the Pastor Nominating Committee would be easy and simple.  As you all know, Calvary is at that critical moment in its history—we have begun the hard work of seeking the next Head of Staff.  On this special Sunday, which we have designated as “Faith in Action and Volunteer Appreciation” Sunday, I want to impress upon you that all the volunteer work that you do is no less a ministry than what Joann and Victor and I do as your called ministers.  We are all ministers.  So the question I want to address is, “what does ministry look like if you’re not a minister like Joann and Victor and me”?  Before answering that question, what I want you to hear is that everyone is just as spiritual, just as capable of speaking to God, and just as called to deliver God’s message to the world as the pastors of the church.  Everyone is equally called to do God’s work and to minister to God’s people.

I. Those of us called as Ministers to serve congregations undergo rigorous academic work in a seminary.  It is typically a 3-4 year residential program.  Presbyterian pastors are required to learn Hebrew and Greek, study the scriptures—both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  We read church history and study theology.  We take courses in preaching and teaching, in pastoral care and leadership.  Graduating with a Master of Divinity degree is only half of the process towards ordination; the graduate also has to complete successfully a candidacy process with the Presbytery, pass a series of ordination exams, and then receive a call from a church before the graduate can be ordained a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PCUSA.  We Presbyterians pride ourselves in an educated clergy. Is this model the only way God equips saints for the work of ministry?  Seminaries today, faced with declining enrollments, and rising tuition costs, are beginning to offer 2 year programs, with many courses that can be taken online.  Change is already happening.  I have dreams of other ways to accomplish the task of equipping the saints for the work of ministry.

I received an excellent theological education from San Francisco Theological Seminary.  But as soon as I began my ministry, I discovered the huge chasm between my excellent seminary education and the realities of the local church.  Hebrew exegesis, which I loved, was no help to me in my ministry with young people whose primary interest in the church were the trips to the beach and to Disneyland.  One of my best instructors in pastoral counseling was the woman who came to the church looking for a minister to give her a reason not to commit suicide.  There were 4 ministers on the staff.  I was the least experienced; but I happened to be the only one in the office that day when the woman came to the church looking for help.  Because of my participation in the Selma March when I was in seminary, the Black Student Union at the local community college invited me to speak at one of their monthly meetings.  I shared my experience of that march and my commitment to integration and racial justice.  During the question and answer period that followed, a raised hand slowly appeared in the back of the room.  And the questioner, a black student, asked:  “If you are so committed to racial justice, why do you believe in the white man’s religion”?  As hard as I tried, I could not answer his question.  Nothing that I had learned in Systematic Theology or Church History had prepared me for that question.  All the theologians and biblical scholars I read and studied were Western European men.  When I was invited back to SFTS in 1978 to serve on the faculty, I became acquainted with an Eskimo student from Barrow, Alaska.  He and his family were as comfortable as a beached whale in San Anselmo, CA.  He was miserable.  His local church and Presbytery had sent him to Marin County to receive a theological education so that he could legitimately serve his native people in Alaska.  The seminary education he was receiving did not help, much less prepare him for his ministry among his fellow Eskimos.

II. An academic administrator of a large alternative metropolitan school that serves students in special education, drop-out recovery, and substance abuse rehabilitation, and other students who have been abandoned by the school system noted:  “Teaching is simply responding to how your students learn.  If you are unwilling to adjust your methods to their ways of learning, then you simply aren’t teaching.”  Notice the words used to describe the school—alternative, special ed, rehabilitation, abandoned by the system.  Such words suggest that there is a norm, an acceptable way, an establish system to education.  Such words suggest that there is a right way and any other way is an alternative.  I believe that theological education is servant to the church, whether it is for the purpose of training future pastors or elders, future trustees or deacons, future choir members or bible study and small group leaders, future children’s, youth, young adult, adult, senior fellowship leaders, future cookie army members or ushers and greeters, future scripture readers or home communion servers; future volunteers in the community and around the world—for mission trips, blood drives, boys and girls club, international rescue committee, Martin de Porres, New Door Ventures, Pack-a-sack and Homeless Outreach, Raphael House, SAFEHOUSE, SF Achievers, Sanctuary Response Team.  By virtue of baptism, God calls us all into community and ministry, and all of us, regardless of the particular function to which we are called, need equipping and empowering to fulfill that calling.  Theological education is not just a residential academy for the chosen few.  As the church continues to grow in diversity—racially and culturally, theologically and socially, economically and politically—the question is how can theological education be made available to equip the saints of the church and to build up Calvary Presbyterian Church?

III. I have taught both students enrolled in the Master of Divinity degree program at a seminary, and students in various seminars and bible studies at local churches that I have served.  And I have found no difference in ability nor intelligence nor commitment to serve.  The parishioners at the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown who took my Biblical Hebrew class did just as well as my SFTS students!  I came across an article recently that was titled: ‘Let’s make the church a center for theological education again.”  The author, a seminary scholar and teacher, writes:  “for almost 500 years, the church has been outsourcing theological education to seminaries and divinity schools.  It’s time to return some of that task to local churches.”  My dream is that here at Calvary, we can equip church leaders and volunteers to engage in active ministry.  

A typical conversation about going to church revolves around 3 questions:  Do you go to church?  Where is your church?  What does your church do?  And typically, the responses to these 3 questions fall along these lines:

  • Do you go to church?  “Yes, usually about twice a month except for the Senior Adults Tuesday program which I attend weekly.
  • Where is your church?  On Fillmore and Jackson Streets.  You’ve probably seen it if you ride the #3 or #22 MUNI buses.  We have several banners hanging from our church.
  • What does your church do?  Well, let me show you our church calendar.  The activities listed here will best answer your question.  Look:  Sunday Studio & Children’s Ministries, Youth on Sunday & Beyond, Calvary Young Adults, I’ve already mentioned the Senior Adults Tuesday program; and we have an excellent music program and our outstanding Chancel Choir rehearses on Thursday evenings; and we have many volunteer opportunities.

A Christian with a New Testament view of the church would answer these questions quite differently:

  • Do you go to church?  “I am part of the Church.  But the Church does meet together, if that’s what you mean.
  • Where is your Church?  “Well, let’s see, about this time of the morning, most of it is at work, except for those on the night shift, or those who are sick.  Some are at work down at the financial district, some do a lot of traveling for their work, some are in school, some work at home; the church is infiltrated through the whole city right now.”
  • What does your Church do?  “I’ve already told you.  It’s scattered and spread all through the city involved in all sorts of work, doing that work in such a way and talking in such a way as to let others know what is already true:  that Jesus Christ is in charge of the city and all that goes on in it.  This is the Church’s work.  And then, one day a week, we rest from our Church work and gather together to hear again our Lord speaking to us, that we may go back renewed to the task he has set before us.”

A volunteer chaplain, whose ministry is at truck stops, writes:  “If I listen long and hard enough to anyone, eventually every conversation will come around to God, and the deepest matters of one’s life.  It never has to be forced or even guided.”


I once heard this definition of leaders:  “the people with the fullest plates”.  At Calvary, we seek to nurture and inspire us all to respond to God’s call in our lives.  We want you to serve out of a conscious desire to hear your call and claim your gifts, with discernment of vocation as the basis for serving and leading.  So where does that leave your pastors—Joann, Victor, and me?  We heard these words that Robin read from Ephesians this morning:  “And to some, the gift they were given is that they should be apostles; to some, prophets; to some, evangelists; to some, pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ...”.  Our job, better our calling, is to equip and empower you for ministry; walking neither ahead nor behind, but to walk alongside you.  As jazz virtuoso Charlie Parker put it:  “If it’s not in your heart, then it’s not in your horn.”  Your vocation is lived from the inside out.  Be it, and then live it out.  It is more journey than destination!

4 thoughts on ““We are all ministers””

  1. A profound and needed alert “Hey, you’re going in the wrong direction!” Wonderful and so true saying, “If’ it’s not in your heart, then it’s not in your horn.” You can’t solve problems by mandates, legislations on top of legislations, ban this and ban that, create more task forces, etc.

  2. Wow, all so very eloquently put! A reverse altar call: summon all to their ministries. You were so encouraging that day! I wonder whether there was a noticeable response from people there that day. One complaint, the phrase “the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.” I oppose this way of referring to the OT and NT. The “Hebrew scriptures” (alias OT) are not a whit less “Christian scriptures” than the Greek scriptures (alias NT). This was pretty much settled by the end of the second century, with the withering of Marcionite churches. Of course you know all this. You probably had some good reason for the expression anyway.

    1. Bob, thank you for calling me on my labeling (better, mislabeling) of the scriptures as Hebrew and Christian. How can I ever forget your memorable explanation of why you chose to be an Old Testament scholar and not the New Testament. “…because of my LOVE of the New Testament.”

  3. I love the final quote! What Parker apparently said was, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.” Well enough said, but your version strikes me as more powerful. The two versions work together, complementary truths.

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