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Charge to a New Minister

By Ian Gregory.

The wife of a vicar in the Churnet Valley of Staffordshire has been inducted to the pastorate of the Oakamoor Free Church adjacent to his parish. Mrs Joy Leathers (50), mother of four grown children and until recently working in customer services at Alton Towers leisure centre, is married to the Rev Brian Leathers, (also 50), Vicar of Alton.  She is also a licensed Reader in the Church of England. Brian shared in the induction service, and pledged to give his wife support and encouragement in her ministry at the 134 year old village church, built by a local industrialist to provide ‘free church’ worship for his employees in the now long-demolished copper works.

The service was led by the Revd Ian Gregory, former President of the Congregational Federation, and this is a section of his traditional ‘charge’ to the new minister and church members.

There have been 16 ministers at this church during the 134 years since it was formed. All of them have been men, but this is a unique event because you are the wife of the local vicar, taking ecumenicity to a new level. It would be interesting to know what your predecessors would think about it, although I believe they would rejoice as heartily as we do.

Your ministry will be to the whole community; there is no call now for a church of limited membership to engage a chaplain on their behalf. Once a minister would address himself exclusively to the needs of his ‘flock’, being at their beck and call to marry them, baptise them, bury them, teach them, inspire and comfort them, even wipe their noses. He would do all those things which the austere Richard Baxter, a 17th Century puritan, expected: to rescue them from the certainty of their condemnation to the torments of hell.

It is still important to remember this: you are offering men and women the urgent choice between life and death, and that is no light matter. It is to be undertaken with understanding and enthusiasm. The pagan world is more than ready for a wake-up call from beyond politics and economics; people need to hear that there is a point and purpose and judgment to their lives. Despite the pumped-up certainties of atheist philosophers, the eminent Bible scholar Marcus Borg and many other academics assure us that there are no serious intellectual obstacles to being a Christian today.

When we have mastered the mysteries of the Hadron Collider, and searched the hidden secrets of the laughably-named God particle, somebody must say, with authority, not just how things are as they are, and how they work and what they cost, but why things are as they are. You are to reveal things about which Higgs Bosson has nothing to say: that the world is held in the love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ.

This gospel is dynamic. It continually places new aspects of the truth about God’s love in our path and dares us to examine them like the old preacher who prepared to preach like this: “First I reads myself full. Then I thinks myself clear. Then I prays myself hot. Then I lets go”. Preaching requires us to keep up with the galloping Holy Spirit in modern scholarship; to think, to pray and to deliver God’s truth with energy. It is not a fireside chat about how nice we have to be to one another; the agony aunt will tell you that. We are handling living truth fired and forged in history and hard reality. We must not let the devil out-think us or out-care us.

‘It is sometimes thought that Christian ministry is a vortex of busy-ness, chasing after this programme and that, chivvying people who seem not to have any sense of urgency for the work, of always being on the phone, at meetings, visiting, at the computer, making lists, never quite catching up. This will be your hazard. You will make mistakes and get cross in direct proportion to the amount you care.

Unlike other human and commercial activity, ministry never actually succeeds. A surgeon can send a patient home cured, head for the golf course and pour a G&T. A firm may meet sales targets, a politician may work on an idea until it becomes law. An athlete can win medals. But a minister of the Word can never say that a target is achieved. We may not know how a conversation, a hug, a sermon, a gesture, a phone call, a visit will work to the glory of God. I have been in ministry for 40 years, and a man recently told me that something I said 20 years ago changed his life. What was it? He couldn’t remember what it was, and nor can I!

To that extent everything you do here will be a work in progress. It will never be complete. You receive a baton tonight, and eventually you will hand it on. There is no finishing line. It may be that your predecessors undertook ministry which at the time was a disappointment, and only now is it bearing fruit.

So having done all you can and being exhausted – and you will be exhausted – just go on being yourself. You will feel guilty because voices will insist from inside your head that you do more, do it better. Go here. Go there, pray longer and deeper.

For the sake of your sanity and health, you must learn to say that infuriating word “no”. And the congregation here must remember to put a notice on your study door: “precious; handle with care”.

Having preached, prayed, been upset and been comforted, dropped clangers, talked and listened, got hurt, been misunderstood, and rejected, you may collapse at the end of the day wondering what the job is all about. But remember, you have not been called to save the world, or even the Churnet Valley. You are not even Church of England!

But feel the weight of the challenge: politicians are searching for a formula that may restore moral values and economic hope to this nation. These two things go together; they are firmly linked, as we have no economic hope without moral values. They speak of the big society and responsible capitalism. And nobody knows what they mean. But Jesus did not speak in riddles. We all know what he means when he teaches moral values, and speaks about loving our neighbour and behaving honestly.

Our hope is not in the obscure pronouncements of politicians. We have a £trillion deficit, apparently, but there is a far greater and more perilous deficit - in personal integrity and faith in a living God. The love transformation that we all long for will not begin in some stately hall at Westminster or even Brussels. It will begin in cell groups like this church, where we learn together about the patient, persistent, painful way of life that we saw in Jesus.

When we say that “Jesus is Lord”, we are not mouthing a bland religious motto. It is the greatest political and social manifesto in history. It is a privilege for you to be commissioned as a minister of the Word in a nation crying to be healed and forgiven. Be sure that the God who has called you will equip you, and not forsake you.

Ian Gregory

Minister of the Congregational Church at Cheadle, Staffordshire

Ministry Today

You are reading Charge to a New Minister by Ian Gregory, part of Issue 56 of Ministry Today, published in November 2012.

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Ministry Today aims to provide a supportive resource for all in Christian leadership so that they may survive, grow, develop and become more effective in the ministry to which Christ has called them.

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