Caring Ministry And Clericalism

Josh Kerr —  December 17, 2013

Photo Mar 02, 5 54 52 PMThe following is an article I wrote for Austin Seminary’s quarterly publication Windows.  The theme of this issue was “Caring Ministries,” and it included contributions from faculty, alumni, and students like me.  Here is a link to the whole issue.  I share this article for a couple of reasons.  First, it will allow you to hear about a formative experience in my own life.  Second, it touches on an issue that comes up pretty often in the church.  I’ve highlighted a paragraph that particularly points to the issue I’d like to address.

Seven months ago our family was shocked by news that my wife, Tara, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 31.  Before we even had a chance to process this news, she had undergone one surgery, and started receiving aggressive chemotherapy through a port in her chest.  When we heard her diagnosis I knew we were headed into a dark valley, but it felt more like we had fallen off of a cliff.

Yet before we hit the ground, we realized that there was a community around us ready to soften the blow.  As soon news spread around campus, the seminary community rallied around us.  A calendar was made to arrange meals, help with our toddler, and provide other forms of support such as caring for Tara while I went to class and making hats to keep her newly exposed head warm.  As soon as word reached our hometowns, we received cards, blankets, and even financial support from our friends, family, congregations, and even strangers.  Like ripples in a pool of water, the news of Tara’s diagnosis spread, and each ripple was met with support and love.

Even with all of this support, treatment was trying in every way possible.  Tara’s treatments were very difficult for her to endure.  Nausea, dehydration, exhaustion, and pain were her new normal.  Our son Kellan went through phases of stress and emotional volatility.  I was struggling to hold things together while keeping up with classes as much as possible.  It was a very exhausting, very trying time for the whole family.

So what does our experience dealing with cancer tell me about caring ministry?  Well, first is that all are called and equipped to take part in caring ministry.  I grew up thinking that “pastoral care” was the pastor’s job.  The reality is that we all have something to contribute towards the caring ministries in our communities.  Some can clarify confusing medical issues.  Some can sit and listen while pain and loneliness are expressed.  Some can watch a child to give a tired parent a chance to nap.  Some can help lessen the financial burdens of others.  Some can write a perfectly-worded and timely note of encouragement.  Some can prepare dinner.  Some can take a caregiver out for margaritas.  Some can simply acknowledge that things are rough.  These examples are just a fraction of the various and creative forms of care we were offered.

Tara is now cancer free and although recovery is slow, we have begun our journey out of that valley.  We give thanks for the benevolence of God shown through every act of love and compassion towards us.  As the Church, we are called-out and equipped to serve the world in the name of Jesus Christ.  Our experience overcoming cancer and the struggles that accompany it remind me that the redemptive love of God shines brightly in even the darkest of valleys.   “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

One of our faculty at Austin Seminary has mentioned to me more than once that clericalism is one of the biggest challenges many congregations in the PC(USA) face.   In this case, clericalism is the belief that ministry in its various forms is the work of the ordained staff, leaving the rest of the congregation free from such responsibility.  It can be a problem in our biggest and smallest churches, and affects the whole theological perspective.

While there are certain functions we reserve for people with particular training and call, ministry is indeed something every baptized Christian is called to do.  What my own experience mentioned in the article above demonstrated for me was that we all have something to offer, that we all have a ministerial role to fill.  That we all have unique gifts and exist in unique contexts is one of the most amazing things about the way God created us.  In serving one another in whatever ways we can, we glorify the One who gave us everything we possess.

Josh Kerr

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Josh is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Perry, OK and completed his seminary studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is a father, husband, and hater of cliches.