Frederick Schmidt: Four Models of Ministry

One of the great honors of my life was the opportunity to preach at my wife’s installation as the Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Brentwood, Tennessee. The text of that sermon appears below and was offered under the title, “A Service of Implication”. The sermon was also about models of ministry and that is the title used here. For those interested in the biblical background for my comments, the texts read during the service were these: Exodus 28:1-29; Psalm 84:1-10; Hebrews 10:19-25; and Matthew 27.50-54

“Installation.” I bet that label got you excited. Even the Prayerbook which labels this service, “A celebration of new ministry,” sucks all the fun out of it. The rubrics or instructions in the Prayerbook describe it as the order that is used (quote) “when a priest is being instituted and inducted as the rector of a parish.”

But there is a bigger problem with the label than the boredom factor. The description of this service also sounds like something that happens to someone else. You come, you watch, someone starts a new job, you go home, nothing changes.

As a priest of the church, standing in front of a bishop I have just met, I am going to skate out on thin ice and suggest to you that the description of this service is deeply misleading. This is not a service of installation. It is a service of implication. Implication — that’s not really a sexier description. But it’s closer to the truth. You and I are enmeshed, entwined, and caught up in what we are doing in this service, because whatever we say tonight about the priesthood, says boatloads about what we think the church is all about. And when we talk about the church — pound for pound, head for head — there are lot more of you than there are rectors in this parish.

So, what I want to do is talk about four ways of thinking about the priesthood and the ways in which you are implicated. Spoiler alert. Three of them are only part of the picture. The fourth and last way of thinking about this service makes sense of all the others. But, again, think about how you are implicated – involved, entwined, and caught up in each of the definitions, because the way you think about these four models of ministry makes all the difference about the way in which you think about your place in the church.

One way to think about priests and the installation of rectors is to think of them as professional, full-time “religious people.”

This is an understandable conclusion. Both the ordination rite and the installation service talk about the responsibilities that a priest and rector assumes on behalf of the parish. And, in a few moments, Mother Natalie will receive symbols of her office.

But this view of what a rector does can degenerate into something particularly unhealthy. Years ago when I was working at Washington National Cathedral, I invited Jack Miles to speak in a program I had developed. Jack had written a New York Times Bestseller called God, A Biography.

What I didn’t know about Jack was that he was an ex-Jesuit. As he began his remarks, he confessed that he had left the Jesuits because he was tired of praying the prayers for others, preaching the faith for others, believing for others – in short, being the resident, religious person. Of course, what Jack was reporting on was his own sense of exhaustion – of feeling of being spent and alone — and that is certainly one of the problems with this way of thinking about the priesthood.

But Jack’s observation alerted me to a pattern that I had noticed for a long time: There is often a silent contract between congregations and their priests. Laypeople are implicated, they are caught up in this way of thinking about the priesthood as well. The contract goes something like this: “We will hire you – the priest, the rector — to be our resident religious person and we will be your audience. You do the religious stuff and we will be your fan club.”

We all know this unspoken contract is not enough. God did not love the world so much, that he sent his son into the world in order to organize a group of fans. But too often this way of thinking about priests and people lulls us into this anemic version of discipleship. And the amazing passion of God for his people, which is meant to transform and empower them, is – instead — reduced to little more than a nice sentiment.

I can tell you that — as tiring and lonely as it can be to be treated like the professional religious person — it is much harder to watch laypeople sleepwalk through the graced lives that God has offered them. And I can’t begin to tell you how exciting and encouraging it is to watch people trade their seats in the balcony for a place on the stage.

Some of the most passionate servants of God that I have met over the years are not ordained. They are people from every walk of life: Mark, a lawyer who does pro-bono work for people who can’t afford his services. Kit who works with women who have been sexually assaulted. Dave, a surgeon who worked late into the day, operating on the indigent. Martha, who tutors students struggling with developmental delays. John, who is one of the best spiritual directors I have ever met, whose day job is helping small municipalities dispose of toxic substances. God’s world would be a poorer place, if they were sitting in the cheap seats, waiting for the professional religious person to finish her or his work.

The second and common reading of this service is that we are installing the person responsible for the church’s sacramental life.

Here, too, there is a certain amount of truth. Rector’s take responsibility for the liturgical life of the congregation, and they are accountable to both their bishops and the Book of Common Prayer for the way in which we worship.

But clergy can struggle to get the balance right. One of my early mentors was The Reverend Canon Kermit Lloyd. Canon Lloyd, who over the years became a dear friend, shepherded those of us who were in the process and we – affectionately, of course – referred to him as “Mr. Decently and in Order.”

Our preoccupation with the details of what happens behind the altar had predictable results, and many of us fell out at two extremes: Acute performance anxiety on one end of the spectrum and self-important prissy-ness on the other end. To save us from both of those extremes Canon Lloyd eventually told a story about his own struggles with liturgy.

Kermit, it turned out, had grown up in the River Brethren tradition, which had no liturgical life at all. Early in his ministry he was called upon to celebrate at a diocesan service. Located at one of the more Anglo-Catholic churches in the diocese, the clergy were seated in the choir near the altar and the laity were seated in the nave.

When it came time to celebrate the Eucharist, Canon Lloyd recalled that an acolyte approached him with “a stick with something hanging from it.” The thing hanging from the stick was, of course, a thurible for incense. Canon Lloyd did not know what to do, so he walked to the center of the choir and stopped opposite an Anglo-Catholic colleague. Bowing, he whispered “Dear sir, they want me to cense the altar and I have never done it. Please come help.”
Kermit’s friend bowed in return and responded, “It is high time you learned,” and didn’t budge. Rebuffed, Kermit walked back to the altar, and the acolyte produced a spoon for the incense. Canon Lloyd snatched the spoon from the acolyte’s hand and drove it deep into the incense three times: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Eyes wide open, the acolyte simply said, “Wow!” The incense filled the choir with a deep blue haze and the people in the nave disappeared.

That story made us all laugh. It also put things in perspective and that was Canon Lloyd’s goal. Rectors do have a solemn, sacramental responsibility, but focus there in the wrong way and you can be overcome with your own sense of unworthiness to stand before God or – like many others – you can be tempted to deeply pompous, self-important behavior.

Remember, though, you as a congregation are implicated in this understanding of the priesthood, and there are difficulties for the laity as well. Enmeshed in this model of ministry, the laity can be tempted to become passive consumers, who attend the required services, discharge their responsibility, and do little more. I have lost track of the number of laypeople who talk in terms of “getting their card punched” on Sundays.

This, too, is not enough. The ancient church treated the Eucharist with reverence. It was reserved for the baptized. To be baptized was to turn and face in a new direction, and with every celebration of the Eucharist, the early church believed that it ventured more deeply into the life of God. “You are what you eat,” they believed, and to consume the body and blood of Christ was to take the life of Christ into themselves and to become more like Christ as a result.

The third assumption is that when we install a Rector, we are installing a leader and an administrator.

No one can doubt that the church is and always has been in need of leadership. If Jesus had been able to consult a human resources expert, he would have been advised that the only person among the 12 with significant leadership skills was Judas Iscariot.

As we move more deeply into the 21st century it is becoming clear that mainline Protestantism will face challenges that were all but completely invisible to us fifty years ago. Membership is shrinking. People who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” now out-number mainline Protestants. And we remain largely reactive and scattered in our efforts to address the challenges that we face.

But understanding how to respond requires what the Christian tradition calls discernment — the ability to see where and how God is at work in the world — because only when we see where and how God is at work in the world will we know how to respond. And that task requires that everyone pray, listen and look. No one individual can see all of the needs or notice all of the opportunities. Nothing is more exciting for a rector than to see the individual members of a congregation notice a place where God is at work in the world and come alongside God in that work with energy and imagination. Pope Benedict put it this way: lay people “should not be regarded as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy, but, rather, as people who are really ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and acting.”[1]

But even this task, as important as it is, fails to completely grasp what we are doing here this evening. The essence of the Gospel is not “Jesus is coming, look busy.”

All three ways of thinking about the church’s ministry come together in a fourth understanding of this service that is set out in the Scripture we have read.

The Old Testament does not envision a priesthood that has private access to God. The breastplate that the priest wears, bears 12 precious stones, each of which symbolizes one of the 12 tribes of Israel. The priest, then, carries the people of God into the Holy of Holies and the people enter that space with the priest, even though the inner-sanctum of the Temple could not accommodate them.

In the New Testament, that understanding of priest and people remains, but this time it is Christ, who is both priest and sacrifice, who enters the Temple. That is why the Gospels go out of their way to note that the curtain to the Holy of Holies is torn in two. And in baptism, together, we become a part of Christ’s body.

The church, then, is not just a place where ministry is practiced, the sacraments are celebrated, and the will of God is discerned. The church is the body of Christ, where God and humankind are reconciled, and where what was once done in a physical space is now done in the life we share with Christ and with one another.

We are not saved as individuals, who gather with our discreet relationships with God as priest and people. We gather as what we have become – body parts of Christ, where the primary way of understanding ourselves requires the first-person plural, not the first-person singular.

In that new way of being, Christ gives us the gifts of ministry, not as something we do for personal or institutional gain, but as a part of the body-life of Christ — graced activities that flow from a gracious God. And like all of the gifts that God gives us, when Christ is at the center, they find their proper place and they are filled with divine purpose, new energy and freedom.

It is that shared life that we celebrate this night. It is the embrace of Christ’s body for which the world longs. We are implicated, entwined, caught up in, and empowered by that vision this night, and it is out of that reality that we are called to live.


[1] John Cavadini, “Taking the Role of All the Baptized in Church Leadership Seriously,” Church Life Journal (November 19: 2019):