I have just celebrated 41 years on being ordained a Baptist minister. I say celebrated because on many days, and today especially, it seems like the best job in the world. It would be better to say calling rather than job for it has definitely been a vocation over the years.
I spent last weekend at my first church in Blackburn, Lancashire. I went there straight from theological college with a beautiful wife, a tiny baby, a Beatle haircut and an unreliable motorcycle. The church secretary commented that the baby looked as though it had been in Belsen. Rapidly, she changed the regimen, put my son on baby milk and masterminded a gradual recovery of health for my wife. She didn’t like the motorcycle either. We did look a needy family, my wife and I. They showed the photographs from that date in1972 and we look very hopeful and willing but, to be frank, very young and naïve. Yes, there was some training behind me but a huge task ahead of me. I looked at my photo with my heavy dark-framed glasses and unruly hair and realize how little I knew about anything.
Reflecting back on the four decades of ministry since I can only smile at my dreams, hopes and naivety. I guess many of us start new opportunities like that. Yet I can still claim that this has been the best job in the world.
Why? Because I have experienced the wonder of being in a Christian community that believes it has been gathered together by Jesus Christ, in the power of the triune God, with the extraordinary daring possibility of living, serving, giving, just being together as people who together ‘discern the mind of Christ.’ The genius of congregational living is that believers are giving the opportunity to grow together with mutual responsibility under Christ for the direction of their church. Rather than have a hierarchical form of church government with decisions taken beyond the local congregation, Baptist churches live with the risks of learning to obey the Head of the Church right where they are. I say risks, because with this freedom to be the people God in any particular place, there comes the need for spiritual maturity and discernment. For power-sharing unlike that seen anywhere else. For leaders to belong with people who belong with the recognition that as they worship together the Lord seeks to do something specific with them. However, sometimes spiritual maturity and discernment is missing. Power-sharing is a joke. With the bright side of community living with mutual love there is a dark side of power abuse.
But when you have tasted as a minister what it means to be with a people who are willing to listen together, to grow together, to submit to each other, then you know why it is an amazing vocation.
Critics of congregational living may likely laugh out loud at my claims. For many the model of congregational living has been tried and failed utterly and often bitterly. I must continue.