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A Ministry of Word?

In my PhD thesis, An exploration of classical and emergent theologies of ordained / accredited Baptist ministry amongst Baptist ministers within the Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB) (Garland, 2022), I resolved to identify some key theological ideas surrounding the nature of ordained / accredited ministry in the BUGB and explore the relative importance of those ideas for Baptist ministers through a survey: Ministry and You (2019). To facilitate such a survey of ministers, and to attempt to understand the theologies that are being espoused (believed) and operated (practiced), I first needed to crystallise and simplify what theologies of ministry needed to be explored. Based on what has been heard from a variety of theological voices1, I explored eight theological constructs that view ministry as:

Function: A minister who values the functional aspects of ministry is likely to espouse the idea that they are called to perform particular tasks within the local church. They may want to fulfil what they have agreed to do for their congregation and are likely to prioritise activity over reflection.

Leadership: A minister who values a leadership model of ministry is likely to espouse ideas of oversight, delegating tasks and responsibilities to others in the local church. They may look beyond the Baptist tradition for their model of ministry gaining inspiration from the catholic traditions and / or the secular world.

Ontological: A minister who sees their office as ontological is likely to espouse the idea that ministry is rather more about being than doing. This might be reflected in their ministry by an intentional rhythm of prayer-life and are likely to prioritise reflection over activity.

Pastoral: A minister who emphasises the pastoral dimension of the office is likely to espouse the idea of being shepherd to the flock. This may involve simply being available, visiting and praying for the needs of the congregation.

Representation: A minister who values the representational aspects of ministry is likely to espouse the idea that they are tasked with an ambassadorial role. They may want to fulfil the roles and functions of a minister for the congregation, including preaching and presiding, as well as being a representative for the church in public life.

Sacrament: A minister who sees ministry as sacrament is likely to espouse the idea that they are called to presidency over the ordinances of holy communion and baptism within the local church. They may also regard the office of minister as a sacrament and prioritise rites such as weddings and funerals.

Sacramental: A minister who values the sacramental notion of ministry is likely to espouse the idea that they are called to convey God’s grace to the church and the world through their actions as minister. They may want to expand on a notion of ministry as sacrament by recognising that all aspects of ministry contain the potential for being an expression of a means of God’s grace.

Word: A minister who emphasises ministry as word is likely to espouse the idea that a minister’s primary objective is to expound upon the Bible. They will usually focus their attention on preparing and delivering sermons and teachings.

The data from the survey revealed the support for the plethora of theologies held, and evidenced how belief (espoused theology) contrasted with practice (operant theology), showed disparity between what ministers think they should be doing and what they perceive they do in practice (see the table below).

Table. Espoused and operant theological voices for theological constructs ranked by the mean scores for the 295 ministers who took part in the Ministry and You survey (2019).


Although ministers highly espoused ministry as Word with a mean score of 4.43 out of 5, this is not reflected in their operant theology, where it is ranked last of all with a mean score of 2.76 out of 5. This suggests that the needs of churches who regard preaching and teaching as a priority (Garland, 2022, pp. 218-228)2, are not being met in the outworking of ministry through its minister(s). This is a significant hurdle to overcome, as the local church is indicating that a theology of Word be prioritised by its ministers (Garland, 2022, pp. 218 – 225), whilst ministers themselves indicate that it ought to be a priority, even though other competing theologies of ministry appear to crowd this out.  

Perhaps a partial antidote could be for Baptists to remember the Word-based ministry to which they have been called. Historically, many Baptists have sought to follow a Reformed theology that has included a Word-centred ideal of ministry. This theology holds a tension between the outworking of a theology of a priesthood of all believers and a theology that emphasises the importance of those who are called from within that group to exercise their gifts in the office of minister. The biblical examples of  Jesus’ issuing of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:44–49; John 20:19–23; Acts 1:4–8), his preaching and teaching ministry as found in the Gospel, and the continuing teaching and preaching ministry of the early church (as seen, set out in the Acts of the Apostles and written about in the pastoral epistles e.g. Ephesians 4: 11-12), is the template that has informed Baptist views of ministry, as acknowledged by Baptists in conversation with the Church of England in Pushing at the boundaries of unity (BUGB & C of E, 2005, p. 77).

Baptists have collectively shared the responsibility of preaching, presiding at worship, and discipling, whilst at the same time discerning those in the body who are themselves gifted to facilitate these functions. The earliest examples of charges and ordination sermons reveal something of the character of the office in the early years of Baptist life, with the minister’s role being explained as ‘minister of the Gospel’3, in which the minister would preach and teach from the Bible and to ensure the administration of the ordinances.

However, a study of the BUGB documents on ministry (Garland, 2022, pp. 45-66) suggests that during the twentieth century there was a distinct broadening of the theological parameters of accredited / ordained ministry held within the BUGB. This broadening of theological parameters also visible in the formal writings of Baptist ministers and theologians (Garland, 2022, pp. 67-88), shows that ecumenical influence and a journey of discovering ‘helpful aids’ (both spiritual and practical) from external sources has led to a once straightforward understanding of Baptist ministry as Word, primarily gleaned directly from the scriptures, taking on an increasingly complex theological dynamic. This came to the fore when the BUGB received the invitation to take up the 1948 invitation to engage with the World Council of Churches, through its statement The Baptist Doctrine of the Church, that sought to locate Baptists as part of ‘the one holy catholic church’. This meant that British Baptists had to wrestle together with questions of doctrine that they had, up until this point, not had to engage with beyond the local church, notably, questions of apostolicity and doctrine, alongside the questions of ecclesiology.

It can come as no surprise, that as ecumenism has been engaged with by Baptists, certain Baptist distinctives have become blurred. The data from the Ministry and You survey (2019) showed that a minister’s engagement with ecumenism affects their espousal and operationalisation of ministry as Word.  The data shows, that generally ministers who emphasise ecumenism are less likely to espouse or operationalise highly a theology of Word in ministry (Garland, 2022, pp. 148-151). Explanations for this could include, the possibility that ecumenically facing ministers are more exposed to influences from churches that express their faith through sacraments and historical tradition and not solely through Scripture.  

A theological trajectory of ministry, away from a ministry of Word, towards other theologies may be as a result of a combination of cross-denominational dialogue and shared experience, in response to the diverse and ever-changing challenges that confront the Church in society. It could also be explained by the BUGB, whose origins date back for centuries, being inevitably influenced by numerous voices over time, and as a consequence having undergone several cycles of theological reflection. I believe that both of these things have led to the BUGB becoming forgetful of its biblical and historical understanding of ministry as Word, allowing other theologies to take prominence. This is reflected in the recent material on accredited ministry, that is being published by the BUGB. This lack of focus on ministry as Word is in danger of crowding out a theology of Word in the ministry of local churches and in the operant theology of ministers. This is a matter that requires urgent attention, if ministry is not to descend into something other than what most ministers believe it ought to be and what our churches rightly desire: namely a biblical ministry of Word.

  1. Including early ordination sermons and pastoral charges, the formal writings of Baptist theologians, historians and ministers, the BUGB ministry documents, informal writings of Baptists, and through conversations with Baptist ministers.
  2. Whilst Leadership represented the most referred to of the theological constructs found in the PVL sample, Word was the second most prominent of theologies expressed by churches, followed by Pastoral.
  3. One such examples is: Ryland, J., & Hinton, J. (1801). The difficulties and supports of a Gospel minister, and the duties incumbent on a Christian Church.

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