Tony Sundermeier: Are All Ushers?


Several years ago, while serving a congregation in Pennsylvania, I received an email from a pastor friend who detailed his plan for an upcoming sabbatical.  Part of the plan included worshipping one Sunday in the congregation I was serving.  That day eventually came and I told my friend (his name is John) that I would be on the lookout for him. After I wrapped up a Sunday school class, I walked toward the sanctuary, and to my surprise I saw John standing by one of the doors, bulletins in hand, welcoming people who were coming to worship.

I approached my pastor friend and curiously asked, "Are you ushering?"  John smiled and quipped, "At least I don't have to preach."  He then explained how it came to be that he was ushering as a first-time visitor to our congregation. He came into the sanctuary, found a seat, when all of a sudden a member of the church who possessed great ambition and moxie - she approached him and said, "Hey, our usher team is short-handed today.  Would you pass out these bulletins by that door and greet people as they come in? Thank you, so much."  John read her cue and clearly understood that he was being volun-told to serve. And, being a gracious person, he politely agreed and took his post as an usher for the morning.

While John and I have enjoyed some laughs over the years about his experience, I have come to think about this story in an illustrative way.  Here is what I mean: so many in congregational leadership have been burdened by trying to fill gaps within their church's ministries.  With dwindling membership rolls, aging congregations, and cultural changes that require new ways of bearing witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it seems that many churches are short-handed.  The refrains go something like this: "We can't get any new Sunday school teachers.  We can't find anyone to volunteer for our Habitat build.  We don't have anyone to run our Advent festival.  We don't have any new recruits for Stephen Ministry. We don't have any ushers lined up for today to hand out bulletins and greet people."

Many in congregational leadership feel as if their ranks are depleted and with numerous gaps to fill, we are happy with just a warm body.  The challenge with this approach, I think, is brought to light within our text from Paul's correspondence with the church in Corinth.  He asks these questions, "Are all apostles? Are all teachers? Are all miracle workers? Are all healers? Are all prophetic speakers and interpreters?"  This section, when placed within the larger point Paul is trying to make, leads us to the realization that the answer to these questions is, "No." "No, not everyone is an apostle.  No, not everyone is a teacher. No, not everyone is a miracle worker."  And the same can be said of the ministries "we just have to fill" within the lives of our congregations.  Are all ushers? Are all Stephen Ministers? Are all Advent festival co-chairs? I think the answer is the same: no.

What happens in so many of our congregations is that we are so desperate to fill the gaps that we fail to have meaningful conversations about call and giftedness.  In writing to the church in Corinth, Paul knows that we need each other to be a fuller expression of the Body of Christ because we are all good at (and not so good at) different things. And in some way, do we not undercut the meaning of Paul's teaching on the Body of Christ by making people try to fit into our ministry gaps?  To put it another way, wouldn't we more faithfully embody Paul's vision if we stopped asking, "What ministries need to be filled?" and instead asked, "What ministries are our members and friends actually called and gifted for?"  I think one of the challenges facing many churches today is that we do not ask people what they are passionate about.  We rarely ask people to share the gifts they hold in exile - gifts that are on the margins and perhaps even assumed not to be there at all.

First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, the congregation I currently serve as one of the pastors, has a deep commitment to those living on the streets and to those coming out of prison and to those who find themselves entrenched in systemic poverty. On Sunday mornings, we host a community breakfast and have about 200 guests each week. And following the breakfast, many of our guests stay for a chapel communion service.  At that service, we don't pass an offering plate but we do have offering stations for anyone who feels called to give at any point before, during, or after the service.  I always invite folks who are gathered (whether they are the CEO of a bank or someone living in our transition center), I always ask them to consider sharing what God has put them in charge of. Many of our friends who are living on the streets take me up on that offer.  Like my friend, Josh, who puts a $1.80 in the offering station every week.  Or my friend, Mr. Woodson, one of our members who lives on the street (by choice, he is quick to tell you!) who passionately believes in the tithe.  Not too long ago I had a well-meaning member say to me, "Why are we asking our guests to give financially when they have so little?" I explained, "We believe that everyone has something to share. We believe everyone has gifts to lend.  And to invite people to share those gifts is not only empowering and dignifying, but it brings to center gifts that have been on the margins or have been held in exile. It brings to center gifts that may change the whole trajectory of our faith and life together. It says to people, 'We need you if we are going to be the Body of Christ.'"

You see, I believe we need to ask our members and friends to share their gifts, to share their passions, to share their hopes for a future that is distinct from the past.  This is a challenge but we have to be willing to spend more time asking people about what spurs them to action and what they are willing to give instead of spending so much time trying to fill our gaps.  Are all ushers? No.  So, what are people being called to? What gifts do our church members possess that no one knows about? What gifts exist on the margins that need to be brought to the center of our community life?

A few years ago, during a long-range strategic planning process, our congregation believed we were being called into the ministry of social entrepreneurship.  For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, social entrepreneurship describes economic enterprises that meet a social need or fulfill a social good.  Our project is called Epiphany: Big Ideas for a Better World.  We solicited proposals from social entrepreneurs from around the city of Atlanta who want to address particular social challenges and transform how people participate in God's mission in and for the world.

We received 90 applications and through a screening process, we narrowed down the pool of proposals to 22 semi-finalists.  Now, here is the part that connects to the point of this sermon.  We asked our congregation, "What are you good at?"  We asked about their passions. We asked about what gets their blood pumping and what gifts they might have to offer that are being underutilized in the life of the church.  And what we have done is connect over 100 church members who are entrepreneurs or branding experts or who are leaders or developers or who are directors of non-profits or attorneys or CPA's or HR reps or strategists or designers; and through an incubation process, we have matched these gifted church members with these young, burgeoning social entrepreneurs and the projects they are pitching.  So, what happens is that we have members in our church who are using gifts they have never used before in a faith-based context and they are helping these big ideas come to life for the Kingdom of God.  These are folks who are not necessarily ushers or miracle workers but they are people who have unique gifts from God who can help our church, our city, and the world enter and receive the Kingdom in new and faithful ways.  Our church has not only committed these human resources but we have committed a quarter of a million dollars to help launch five of these social ventures into the world.

What we are learning in Atlanta is that our time is well spent not just trying to fill gaps, but by trying to discover the gifts in our congregation that have gone untapped and underutilized.  We want to spend more time discerning what gifts have been silenced or held in exile so that we, as the Body of Christ, can participate in what God is doing in and for the world today and into the future. Are all ushers? No. So, what are we? Who are we? What has God called us to be and what has God uniquely gifted us to do?  Those are the questions we ought to ask one another and ourselves. For the sake of the Gospel and for the sake of the world, may we ask them! Amen!

Let us pray.

Lord, we give you thanks for the diversity of gifts that you have blessed your church with both in its local expressions and in its global form. We pray that we would be courageous enough to ask one another what gifts you have given us. We pray that we would be courageous enough to live out those gifts, to deploy those gifts, to bring them from the margins to the center so that we would be found faithful to your mission in and through Jesus Christ. It's in his name and for his sake that we pray. Amen.