Servant Leadership for Healthier Communities

This is today’s sermon based upon Mark 9:30-37.  I gave it a new title as the original had nothing to do with what I said today.  I begin this sermon with career satisfaction.  I also note that today’s New York Times had an essay on our toxic work world, which was a bit of coincidental timing.

One of my colleagues posted something the other day about clergy being the most satisfying career. I searched the internet to find its source. One published by the National Opinion Research Center also known as NORC found the five most satisfying jobs in descending order were: clergy, physical therapist, firefighter, school principal, and artist. The survey did not count financial compensation. Though I found references to a couple of other surveys, clergy remained the most satisfying occupation while other careers filled in positions two through five.

I’ve had five different careers, not jobs, careers. I can firmly attest that this one is the most satisfying. Here’s my career list in chronological order: urban and regional planner (specializing in labor market analysis), cartographer, systems analyst, IT something or rather, and clergy. I can measure satisfaction in a couple of ways. First, my overall satisfaction measured by how much I loved my work. This career is unsurpassed. Urban planning was a close second, though. Second, the length of time for this career, which is no contest. This is the longest I’ve spent in a career. IT is second, but ranks lowest among my five in overall satisfaction. On the other hand, I have to concede that if it weren’t for my dissatisfaction with IT, I would not have made the career switch to become clergy.
Satisfaction has a direct correlation to the nature of the work performed by clergy, which we call ministry.

The verb minister comes from the medieval French word menistrer meaning to serve, be of service, administer, attend, wait on. The French derives from the Latin word ministrare meaning to serve, attend, wait upon. The noun minister comes from the Old French world menistre meaning servant, valet, member of a household staff, administrator, musician, minstrel. The French word came from the Latin ministri meaning inferior, servant, priest’s assistant. Ministry, the work of the clergy, is a work of service. But it implicitly establishes a social hierarchy in that the work is the work of a servant to someone higher, particularly seen through its Latin origins.

When we ordain someone in the United Church of Christ, the ritual begins by inviting the ordinand to come forward with these words “_______________ servant of God.” And the end is most extraordinary. When I knelt down all the clergy who were my pastors up to that point laid hands upon me. Next, my remaining colleagues. Those who could not directly lay hands on me, lightly touched the shoulders of those who had their hand upon me. Then, everyone was invited to touch the shoulders of those in front of them so that everyone was connected to me either directly or through someone else. A prayer was spoken and though the touch was light, I felt a heaviness, a weight I had never felt before or since settle upon me. It was an ontological moment, meaning a change in the state of being, from ordinand to ordained.

The NORC survey noted that serving others was the distinctive characteristic which made the top five careers most satisfying. I can’t speak for the other careers, but from my perspective that’s what makes ministry so satisfying. But it’s not just that we serve others. Other people in other careers do many of the things clergy do: working with people who are sick, running institutions, and assisting people. Other people teach. Other people write. And almost everyone goes to meetings.

Satisfaction comes because we are servants of God. That ontological moment at ordination shifts our understanding of our purpose. In that moment we come to understand that our purpose is not to serve ourselves, but to serve others. We become servant leaders. Furthermore, we don’t just labor in ministry in service to others. We don’t just serve our community. We are called by God. We serve God.

What we do is ministry, even though it is work. That’s an intentional distinction. The word reflects its ancient roots. That ontological moment changed my entire sense and understanding of myself. It made clear that the weight I felt was the obligation Jesus gave to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” and now rested upon me.

Bear in mind, though, Jesus did not aim his remarks at clergy. He spoke to all of us.

We are all called, not just clergy, to be servant leaders. It’s also not a rank in the pecking order of society, but it is a way we should approach life. God calls upon everyone to be servant leaders because a community cannot be healthy without this framework. Martin Luther made clear that the church is the priesthood of all believers, meaning that the work of ministry is not the exclusive domain of the clergy, but for all people. I would extend Luther’s advice to embrace all people, Christian or not. Furthermore, Luther declared that every legitimate type of work is a calling from God. We cannot have a healthy community if everyone seeks to stand above his or her neighbor or to “win” at the expense of our neighbor.

I’m not saying, though, that we all have to work harder as members of this church or that everyone has to be part of a faith community in order to do ministry. Ministry is the way we understand our lives. It is how we work. It is how we play. It is how we live. Ministry is a way of life. Ministry is an orientation towards life.

How would your life change if you embraced your life as a ministry? Some careers would be easy to see as a ministry. Teaching is one of the ancient practices of the church. Seeing that as ministry is not a huge leap. It might shift, however, from just teaching children to recognizing it as preparing students to work towards making a brighter collective future. Certainly a doctor or someone in a medical field could see that career as a ministry – the career directly correlates to bringing healing and wholeness to a person’s body.

But what about a financial planner? This is a ministry when we understand it not by just helping people maximize their assets, but by helping people reach their financial goals in order for them to have the life they seek. A car mechanic works on a machine which is absolutely essential for many people to use so they can get to work, shop for food, or seek out destinations for pleasure. An artist not only creates and presents beauty to us, but an artist also can help us touch our deepest emotions and truths so we might be better able to comprehend the world in which we live and to open our eyes and ears and hearts to the glory of God’s creation.

I can’t go into every career. But seeing a career as a ministry requires reframing its tasks and responsibilities towards uplifting the greater good. Still, ministry is not just how we frame our careers. We cannot overlook that ministry is a way of life. It’s total. When we understand that living as Jesus asks of every disciple is service to one another, it changes everything about community. We move away from trying to grab everything for ourselves to ensuring that no one is suffering from deprivation and scarcity. We become less self-centered and more generous in spirit and in practice. We can let go of fear, especially fear of the foreigner and stranger, to embrace love. We no longer see people as beneath us, but we come to support them to live in a manner so they can reach their fullest potential. We live not for ourselves, but for everyone around us. We live to create the reign of God on earth which we understand through Jesus’ teachings and ministries.

I don’t know if you read the article in yesterday’s Berkshire Eagle on CHP’s, Community Health Program’s, 40th anniversary. Its director of Family Services, Michelle Derr, came to them as a “pregnant, single, uninsured soon-to-be mom.” Based upon the article CHP, whether intentional or not lived out its program as a ministry. The agency helped her obtain health insurance. Derr describing her experience, “were compassionate, and kind, and supportive. They did not judge me…. And they were with me every step of the way.” That was ministry. Meeting people where they are. Providing compassion without judgment. Being generous in spirit. Letting love dictate how we respond to each other. Ministry is as much about the actions to serve someone as in the manner and spirit with which we serve.

Embracing servant leadership and living our lives as ministry will strengthen community. We want a community where compassion is paramount. We need a community where scarcity and deprivation are no more. We cannot have true community without embracing all people without regard to gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, culture, physical ability, mental ability – in short we can’t be a true community if it does not resemble the celestial feast God sets for us at the end of our days.

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples were a tall order. They haven’t changed for us. They remain necessary for the true peace and true justice for which we all yearn and all deserve.

About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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