For forty years, I was an electrical power systems engineer, so it may not come as a great surprise that when Dean and I married, our honeymoon was to the exotic province of New Brunswick where we were able to tour three electrical power plants. The most exciting was a tour of a Candu nuclear reactor. Nuclear power has a bad reputation for being dangerous, thanks to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukashima. But Candu reactors are a very different technology. Candu reactors need heavy water for their cooling water. If they lose cooling water, as happened at Fukushima, all that happens to a Candu is the reaction stops. But it’s actually safer even than that. A Candu’s heavy water needs to be continuously cleaned, so if circulation stops … the reaction goes out. Control rods are held above the water by electromagnates, so if anything goes rwong with the system, the rods fall into the water … and the reactor goes out. And if all those systems somehow fail, and the reactor actually overheats, the first thing it burns through is the ceiling, which dumps 2.2 million gallons of water (times 4 if you need that in litres)down from the roof of the containment building and cool the reactor. Engineers love to build things, and love to make sure the things they build are safe.
We engineers see our Creator God is as the Divine Engineer. Which is why we can be certain that God would not design the Church, of which Jesus Christ is the Chief Cornerstone, to have a single point of failure. And indeed, the Church throughout the world across all denominations, has a tremendous network of backup systems: two billion of them, as many as there are Christians. The church exists to glorify God and to serve those whom God cares about: to reflect both the vertical dimension of the cross by lifting our hearts up to God, and the horizontal direction of the cross by reaching our hands out to our fellow creatures. Every confirmed Christian is called to both a personal relationship with God, and a personal ministry to their family-in-Christ.
“Ministry” is an interesting word. In common speech, most people use “minister” to refer to an ordained church professional; even some churches use “minister” and refer to the seminary and ordination process as “entering the ministry.” But the more basic meaning is that a minister is someone who “ministers” — that is, helps or cares for something or someone. That’s the meaning we use on the front page of the bulletin where it says: “Ministers: The People of Emmanuel”. As people who are sent out into the world, we can easily slip into using words the same way the world does, but I would urge you to lean against that trend. The way we use words colours the way we think. When we talk about “ministers” and “ministry”, we should NOT just mean the Pastor, lest we also fall into the error of expecting the Pastor to do the majority of our ministry. And if any one person – ordained or not – takes on the entire work of a congregation, then that congregation has a single point of failure. We become a “Fukushima” church, instead of a “Candu” church, ready to melt down when one person inevitably succumbs to their human frailty. Because, do not deceive yourself, Pastors are just as human as the rest of us. Like us, they burn out when too much is expected of them. Like us, they watch our society paying more respect to a high salary than to a high calling, and wonder whether accounting might have been a better career choice. With declining congregations comes declining salaries, limited resources and mounting stress. 75% of clergy suffer emotional exhaustion. 50% of clergy experience episodes of depression. Fewer men and women are choosing to attend seminary, and with those statistics it’s easy to see why. A Pastor plays an essential, invaluable role in the church. It’s the Pastor’s sole authority to consecrate the Lord’s supper, and it’s the Pastor’s responsibility to ensure that the members of the congregation are taught and guided to become all that God is calling them to be: to enable them to discern and take up their many individual ministries.
With fewer pastors graduating, 50% of all current pastors achieving retirement age in the next 10 years, and multiple years of interimship between one pastor and the next becoming the norm, how is a church like ours to continue functioning? Perhaps we should look to a previous time when the church flourished despite a complete lack of professional pastors: the church of Jesus’ own lifetime and the years immediately following. The people Jesus called did not have four years of post-secondary education and a seminary diploma to hang on the wall. He called fishermen and workers. Some followed him as disciples; some he subsequently sent out as His apostles; and some did the work that he called them to in their own homes and villages. A lovely example is Martha of Bethany. In Luke 10:40-42 we read:
Martha … came to [Jesus] and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.’
That Martha! We’ve all heard how she was so busy polishing the glassware and mopping the kitchen floor, that she missed enjoying Jesus’ presence. But Luke 10:38-42 doesn’t mention housework. In the original Greek, Martha says she is doing her “diakoneo” alone. Diakoneo: ministry; the same word that Saint Paul uses in Romans 15:25 when he says “I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints”, or in his instructions to Timothy about having members of the church “serve as deacons”; the same word that describes the work that Stephen and the other seven “deacons” were called to do. And Jesus, in his reply, affirms that understanding of Martha’s work: his word translated “distracted” in verse 41 is the Greek word “thorybazō”, which bears the meaning “burdened with community responsibilities,” or “worried about public matters.” Martha – a mere woman, probably illiterate, certainly with no university degree – was a Christian minister. She wasn’t ordained, she didn’t draw a salary, but she worked to serve her community and sustain Jesus’ followers. And she wasn’t the only one.
In today’s Gospel, the King says to the righteous “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” So many different ministries! We can be sure that no single person performed all of them. And yet, the King gathers ALL the sheep on his right, regardless of how they have served Him. There is no division: each “diakoneo”, each ministry, is valued by the King; the entire flock with all its different callings are a single group. And this is not an exclusive list: there are many, many needs in the world that Christ calls us to serve. A church can be paralyzed by trying to decide which needs to meet. That would be a mistake. In todays Gospel, the righteous reply to the King “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’” Their diakoneo came so naturally to them, that they ministered almost unconsciously, answering the calling that God placed in their hearts. They certainly were not undertaking ministry that they dreaded, shouldering it as a burden because someone else had won the debate about which ministry matters most.
In our congregation, small as it is, members will be called to a broad range of ministry. We must each serve as God is calling us to serve, and encourage the ministries of our brothers and sisters even while we focus on our own. Some of us will be called to minister to the homeless, to the most destitute of the poor people living on our streets. The rest of us must praise God for their ministry, uphold them in prayer, and encourage their service. Some of us will be called to speak truth to power, to serve in the halls of government and commerce, to people whose poverty is more spiritual than material. That ministry, too, must be encouraged and upheld. And some of us will feel intense compassion for the many members of our congregation and our community who are neither destitute nor powerful, but are nonetheless Christ’s brothers and sisters and nonetheless in need of Christ’s love and cares. In civil government, officials often talk about the “competing needs” of the citizens. Providing resources for one interest group means taking resources away from another group. But God’s economy works by different rules. God doesn’t ask us to balance the budget. God asks us to offer up whatever we have, and see what God can do with it.
We are fortunate that the civil government in Canada, here in Calgary, have managed resources to provide a safety net of concrete and professional support for many social needs; supports that most churches cannot provide. What sets apart the ministry that Christians offer, is that it is deeply personal care offered as an expression of love. Jesus himself said “By this all people shall know that you are my disciples, that you love one another” In his first letter, Peter wrote “maintain an intense love for each other, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Even their pagan Roman neighbours in the first century noticed this character of Christian service, saying “See how these Christians love one another.” Love is the essential foundation of any Christian ministry. Many forms of ministry require specific skills, and in those cases Christian love impels the minister to educate themselves and to gain those skills, and then to nurture those skills in their brothers and sisters in Christ who are called to the same ministry. An example of this is Stephen Ministry. Some of you with longer memory may recognize the Stephen Ministry banner which is hanging on the west side of the altar today. In 1990(?) then-pastor Brian Rude(?) asked two of our members to travel to Seattle to attend week-long Stephen Leader training, in order to establish Stephen Ministry in Emmanuel. Stephen Ministry is a listening ministry that provides emotional and spiritual support to members of the congregation and the community who are experiencing life difficulties. The training and methods of the Stephen ministry program are a proven and effective way to organize, equip, and supervise lay ministers, called Stephen Ministers. Often, people feel called to a ministry but feel they lack the skills to commit to that ministry. Stephen Ministers receive extensive, high-quality training that gives them the skills and confidence to provide high-quality care with appropriate boundaries and complete confidentiality. The Stephen Leaders provide the training and manage the Stephen Ministry programme using the training skills and management methods they learn at Stephen Leader training. Stephen Ministers are then paired with care receivers who are going through a life difficulty: women are paired with women, men are paired with men, and Stephen Leaders use their judgement on pairing non-binary people. The Stephen Minister typically meets with the care receiver for an hour once a week, for as many weeks as the care receiver needs. Stephen Ministry continued at Emmanuel for several years. I cannot tell you for what kind of “life difficulties” our Stephen Ministers provided support, because of the complete confidentiality practiced in Stephen Ministry – I don’t know, and should not know, what those difficulties were. But circumstances that Stephen Ministers are equipped to help with include job loss, divorce, death of a loved one, difficult medical diagnoses, and similar difficulties. Unfortunately, over the years our Stephen Leaders moved to other cities and other churches, and the Stephen Ministry programme stopped functioning without its essential trained supervision. Fortunately, we still have at least one trained Stephen Minister from that time, and as of last week I have completed the Stephen Leader training which is now delivered by online classroom over a period of ten weeks, or a five-week intensive. So we once again have the bare minimum of trained ministers to resume our Stephen Ministry, to members of this congregation, and also of our larger community, who are going through life difficulties. None of Emmanuel’s ministries – the Congregational Breakfast Ministry, the ministry to the homeless, the faithful sustaining of the green plants along our east wall, and I could go on, there are many more – none can succeed as the ministry of one person or one group. These are all ministries of this congregation, carried out by specific, God-called members of this congregation, and supported by the prayers and the encouragement of the whole congregation. So I present Stephen Ministry before you now, to add to the scope of ministry Emmanuel is able to carry out at God’s behest. I’m asking for your prayers and encouragement. I’m asking for your patience, because we are starting small within a small congregation. I’m asking you to discern if this is a ministry God is calling you to take up and whether you are able to undertake the fifty hours of training to become a Stephen Minister. And, especially, I’m asking you to be God’s eyes and ears looking for those in our congregation and community who need Stephen Ministry care. If you know or learn of someone, and you can explain to them the care that Stephen Ministers provide, please ask their permission to pass their contact information on to me. Or, please approach me for a brochure you can give them that explains Stephen Ministry. If you yourself need a Stephen Ministery, please let me know. Christian humility calls us to set aside pride and have the grace to let our brothers and sisters serve us, too. The Stephen Ministry banner shows a broken person, the cross, and a person made whole. Sometimes people mistakenly assume that the broken person is the care receiver, and the whole person is the Stephen Minister. But we are all broken people. Only by the cross can we be made whole. The Stephen Minister, by accompanying a care receiver with listening, prayer and encouragement, is blessed by the opportunity to travel with them on the journey to wholeness through the cross of Jesus.
Stephen Ministry is one ministry among many. Every ministry being carried out by any member of this congregation glorifies God, and it is God who blesses every work that we do so that it may be diakoneo, a service, to all of Christ’s little ones, to even the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters. Let your service flow from the calling God puts in your heart. Do not take pride in your ministry, since it is not yours but Gods. Do not discount your ministry either just because you think it is small, or think your resources are inadequate, because God is your co-worker in your ministry. Thank God for the ministry he is entrusting to you, and rejoice because your ministry is a sign that you are one of Christ’s flock, redeemed and alive in Him.