I recently heard a young woman saying she was considering a career change. “I’ve been in the for-profit sector now for awhile, but I can’t get away from the fact that I feel called to ministry.”
And, of course, I knew what she meant. “Going into ministry” is common shorthand for leaving a secular job to enter church or Christian non-profit work.
I wish it wasn’t so.
I’m often the first to push back when someone comes in as the language police. But this one has been bothering me for some time.
My issue with “ministry” referring to church work is both biblical and practical.
Biblically, the Greek word for “ministry” could also be translated “service.” And this is where our translations sometimes betray us. Acts 6:2 and 6:4 are a perfect example. Compare the two verses in the ESV translation:
6:2 “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.’”
6:4 “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
This makes it sound like two very different assignments. Stephen will serve tables. Paul, on the other hand, will be devoted to the ministry of the word. But in Greek, it is the same word.
We could say, Stephen will have the ministry of waiting on tables. Paul will be devoted to the ministry of the word. Or, Stephen will committed to serve tables, Paul will be devoted to the service of the word.
My dissatisfaction comes in part because of an inherent hierarchy of words. Service is often used to describe the not-fun stuff that anyone can do. Ministry, on the other hand, is construed as an elevated, special class of work.
Using “ministry” in this way subtly reinforces the sacred-secular divide.
In addition, in the New Testament, the task of leading the church is usually described as pastor, shepherd, elder, or bishop. But not “minister.” Paul will say he is a minister of Christ Jesus (Rom. 15:16). But this is more an identity and task that transcends a specific role.
A better solution:
What might I suggest instead? I don’t want to sound grumpy without proposing a way forward. What if, instead of referring to ministry as a special class of church work, we always used an adjective before ministry?
“I’m in plumbing ministry.” Or, “I’m in banking ministry.” Or, “I am in the restaurant ministry.” Or, “I am in the real estate ministry.”
This might sound incredibly odd, and more than a tad unrealistic. But consider that many countries have ministers of defense, ministers of finance, and even prime ministers. These aren’t church workers! Ministry in each of these contexts is assumed to be a task that serves others.
What would happen if every single person in a congregation understood that their everyday work, paid or unpaid, was a ministry? What if people didn’t have to leave for-profit work to “enter the ministry”? What if, to be just a little bit snarky, the young woman I talked to had said she felt called to leave marketing ministry for church ministry?
This is the glory of the royal priesthood spelled out in the Scriptures. We are not all pastors. But we are all priests. And we all have a ministry, which certainly includes our everyday work.