by Tim Morris
At the recent Consultation on Local Ministry at Swanwick the question was regularly raised about what defines Local Ministry (with capital L and M). It is argued that most – if not all -parishes claim to be “local”, to be exercising “ministry”, often also defining themselves with some other necessary keyword like “team”, “collaborative” or “shared”.
So are there any particularly distinctive features that might lead us to think that this way of being church requires or justifies a particular category or definition? It might be helpful to think of a parallel in the way that all parishes claim by their very nature to be evangelical (i.e. gospel based) or charismatic (i.e.Spirit-energised). But there are some which are defined or define themselves with the label “Evangelical” or “Charismatic” because their way of embodying those principles gives them a particular identity.
Over the decade during which I have been involved in ministry development of some form or other as an observer in and of the Anglican church in England, the United States and New Zealand and as an active participant in Scotland and Canada, I have concluded that there are at least 3 features which when taken together produce a category of church that can be distinctively identified as Local Ministry. (I have a personal preference for the longer title “Local Collaborative Ministry” but recognise that the shorter one is more widely used and referred to in the Church of England.) All three will be found in various other ways of being church but brought together and focussed they offer to me a definition of Local Ministry.
The Ministry of the baptised
The first distinctive feature of Local Ministry is the belief in and the practical outworking in church structure of the principle of baptismal ministry. All who are baptised into Jesus Christ are both gifted with the Holy Spirit and called to ministry in God’s mission. Baptism is the universal ordination of all Christian people, and other descriptions of this same principle focus different nuances such as “the priesthood of all believers” or “every member ministry”.
Four consequences flow from this principle. The first is that Local Ministry is fundamentally a missional way of being church. It is primarily concerned with the fullness of God’s work in the world, whether that is seen in terms of missio dei, kingdom- building, outreach or evangelism/service.
The second is that the locus of most Christian ministry is in the ordinary daily life where we live out our baptisms, what is usually called “the world” (i.e. work, home, recreation, voluntary service) as opposed to “the church” ( i.e. the Christian community and/or the building).
The third is that as in baptism there is no discrimination (Galatians 3.28), so in the ministry of the baptised there is no place for hierarchy or status. The gifts of the Spirit are distributed equally to all people (the laos) for their divine vocation so there can be no sense of higher, more important or necessary ministries. Exercised together (i.e. fully collaboratively), the Christian community is fully equipped for all to which God calls it. One implication is the undermining of all ideas of clericalism or that there might be some special status reserved for the ordained (priests, deacons or bishops).
The fourth consequence is that such a theology of baptism grounds the responsibility for the church with and in the local Christian community. It is God’s church which God entrusts to the baptised in their giftedness for God’s work. Psychological ownership is vested in the “us”, the people of God and not the “them”, be it Rector, Vicar, Priest-in-charge or Bishop. Leadership is discovered and exercised within and with the authority of this community, through which it is enabled to move out of infantile dependency on one person (or a Team) into adult maturity in Christ.
Formation for all the Baptised
Local Ministry assumes that all Christians need to grow up into maturity in Jesus Christ (to be formed) so that they may better exercise their baptismal ministries. Consequently some process of intentional Christian nurture for all lies at its heart.
In Local Ministry general Christian education and particular skill-training for ministries in mission is by invitation made available and accessible for all. There is no “creaming off” for select (and selected) gifted individuals who – uprooted from their local communities – receive special treatment in the hope that the knowledge with which they are entrusted will be handed on and “down” to others. The emphasis is on providing opportunity and motivation for everyone to learn. Training in a particular ministry may be offered but in the context that it is there both for those who have this gift to exercise and for those will receive its exercise.
There are obvious implications here for the ways in which church institutions shape their training bodies (theological colleges, diocesan courses etc) and local communities their processes of learning (sermons, study groups etc). For theology is not seen as an esoteric subject to be studied by the few but is part and parcel of every baptised person’s experience. Learning and growth in formation is understood as being about reflection on and discernment in all of life’s situations using the resources that we all can bring from within our Christian heritage.
There is no “dumbing down” in such democratization of Christian learning. Scholarship is still needed and those called by a Local Ministry community to exercise teaching (and probably preaching) gifts will need to apply both their intellects to understand and their imaginations to communicate to others. Vibrant Local Ministry parishes are often the most exciting and radical learning communities as they begin to grasp their need to grow in understanding to meet the challenges of their mission.
A Local Ministry parish is only true to its name so long as it takes its locality with the utmost seriousness. It can never be a predetermined programme to be followed slavishly whatever the social, economic, geographic and political context. These principles outlined above of the ministry and formation of all the baptised need to be worked out in practice on the ground. This is a grass-roots (“bottom up”) regeneration of the church, and parishes always need the time and space to explore what Local Ministry will look like for them. Most will have some form of Ministry Support Team, those called by the community to offer support, help and guidance to all the baptised, and usually commissioned to lead in worship.=
Such a team may or may not include members who are ordained (to episcopacy, priestly or diaconal orders), members with traditional theological training, members who are paid by the community etc. The shape of any Team will reflect local circumstances but what is normally emphasised is that it is not there as providers or proxies but as enablers and developers of ministry.
Locality will determine the size and shape of a Local Ministry unit. What is appropriate to context appears a better criterion than what might be the historic ecclesiastical unit (i.e. the existing parish boundary) or the latest diocesan administrative convenience. Again experience seems to suggest that smaller units where intimacy and mutuality can develop lend themselves to this style of ministry.