The Ever-Expanding Ministry of Word and Sacrament
Brian Christopher Coulter
Brian Christopher Coulter is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
I have been ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament for almost fifteen years now. That seems like a short amount of time as I write it, but it’s felt like an incredibly long time as I’ve lived it. Either way, a lot has changed within that span of time.
I had been doing ministry in various settings for almost a decade before my ordination. I would help with youth groups. I would volunteer to take the lead on church mission trips. I spent each summer doing camp ministry. I could transition effortlessly from icebreakers to Bible study to guitar—I thought I had this whole ministry thing figured out.
That’s what I told the Committee for Preparation on Ministry when they asked me why I wanted to become a minister of Word and Sacrament back then. I told them I had already been doing ministry, and so I just figured I would make it official by going to seminary and getting ordained. They listened to what I said, then, with good reason, questioned what my statement implied.
They asked me to go home and read the section in our Book of Order about ordination to the office of minister of Word and Sacrament and to make sure that was what I was feeling called into. And at that time, the PC(USA) Book of Order stated in G-6.0201:
As the Lord has set aside through calling and training certain members to perform a special ministry of the Word and Sacrament and has committed to them a variety of work to do, the church through the presbytery calls them to the responsibility and office of ministers of the Word and Sacrament.1
As I read these words for the first time, I quickly realized I was drawn more to words like “variety” and “special” than I was to words like “responsibility” and “office.” I was going to have to be accountable to the presbytery and the committees that seemed to enjoy assigning me homework such as this. Maybe this was going to be completely different from what I had imagined?
The next section in that edition of the Book of Order was entitled “Names Expressive of Duties” (G-6.0202). I thought it would help clarify a few more items in this ordination conundrum for me, but it only served to confuse me more. The following are the lines as they appeared in that edition of our Book of Order, written as a conversation with my own thoughts at the time:
“The person who fulfills this responsibility has, in Scripture, obtained different names expressive of his or her various duties. As he or she has the oversight of the flock of Christ, he or she is termed bishop.”2
I like this part. I like the idea of working with a group of people and helping to shape that community. But I remember a rather heated sermon in the past in which another minister of Word and Sacrament insisted that the PC(USA) didn’t have bishops?! I wonder if this ordination system is conflicted.
“. . . as he or she feeds them with spiritual food, he or she is termed pastor.”3
I like the use of the term “pastor.” It is a religious term, but still appears to go right along with the notion of community organizer that is appealing to me. But what’s this spiritual food that I’ve got to come up with? And how often would I have to feed them?
“. . . as a servant of Christ in the Church, the term minister is given.”4
This term “minister” is making me a bit uncomfortable, but I know it is what I’m signing up for. As long as we don’t include “of Word and Sacrament” as a postscript every time we use it, the term itself still seems relatively benign to me at this stage of life.
“As it is his or her duty to be grave and prudent, and an example to the flock, and to govern well in the house and Kingdom of Christ, he or she is termed presbyter or elder.”5
This line added on seems to take itself a little too seriously in my opinion. Words like “duty” and “grave” and “govern” sound too serious for someone like me who is still finding success in the ministry of s’mores and campfire sing-alongs.
“As he or she is sent to declare the will of God to sinners, and to beseech them to be reconciled to God, through Christ, he or she is termed ambassador.”6
This one also seems heavy and too much of a stretch for me. I’ve never been much of a beseecher. And “declaring” is very different from the “conversing” of my Bible study teaching style.
“And as he or she dispenses the manifold grace of God and the ordinances instituted by Christ, he or she is termed steward of the mysteries of God.”7
I feel more than a little overwhelmed. I’m beginning to think that this might not be for me after all. Sounds like these ordained people are expected to be all things to everybody. Sounds like they are forced to wear multiple hats all at the same time. Sounds like too much. Sounds exhausting.
As I finished reading these words, I also noticed an all-important asterisk, noting that this section (G-6.0202) had been added to our Book of Order at the 213th General Assembly that took place in 2001, but the content was originally from the 1789 Form of Government.
So, let’s recap. Those words were in there. They were then taken out. Then they were added back in?! They were trying to affirm and clarify our Presbyterian heritage regarding this confusing pastoral office to which I am possibly pursuing, but it just muddies things even more in my mind.
To add yet another level of confusion into the mix, the very next edition of our Book of Order removed that language once again and even changed the emphasis of our ordination by changing the very title of the office itself:
Teaching elders (also called ministers of the Word and Sacrament) shall in all things be committed to teaching the faith and equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12). They may serve in a variety of ministries, as authorized by the presbytery. When they serve as preachers and teachers of the Word, they shall preach and teach the faith of the church, so that the people are shaped by the pattern of the gospel and strengthened for witness and service. When they serve at font and table, they shall interpret the mysteries of grace and lift the people’s vision toward the hope of God’s new creation. When they serve as pastors, they shall support the people in the disciplines of the faith amid the struggles of daily life. When they serve as presbyters, they shall participate in the responsibilities of governance, seeking always to discern the mind of Christ and to build up Christ’s body through devotion, debate, and decision.8
No more language directly dealing with our former role as bishop, ambassador, or steward as well as a definite downplay of the word “minister,” which is only included as a parenthetical aside now. And even though it appeared we were trying to get away from the “Word and Sacrament” in name, the emphasis on our role to stand at the baptismal font and the communion table for the sacraments is more present here, as well as an added emphasis on preaching and teaching the Word.
Are you confused yet?
I was as well. I am as well.
I want to thank the Committee for Preparation on Ministry for sending me on the search to clarify my calling to this unique ordained ministry, but I also want to tell them that I am still unclear about what all this means fifteen years into it!
Will Willimon made a somewhat jarring comment a few years after the events of 9/11. He said we had just lived through a once-in-a-lifetime event. Our citizens were shaken. Our nation was shocked. The American people were confused and looking for answers, and they turned to the church, but we weren’t ready for them. WIllimon said we missed a huge opportunity to proclaim the good news of the gospel to a people who were desperately trying to hear it. We forfeited perhaps the greatest opportunity we’ve ever had to meet people in those moments as stewards of God’s mysteries.
In my more pessimistic moments, I wonder if this is happening again as we continue to sluggishly emerge from the pandemic.
Rewind back to March of 2020. People were baffled. Everyone was reeling. The entire world was responding differently to this novel coronavirus, and nobody really knew if we were responding in the right way or not. Scientists were arguing. Doctors were debating. And the people were simply looking for a path to get through all this. They would turn to the Center for Disease Control for the how to go on, but they were turning to us for the why. Once again people came to us with questions, and I’m not sure how well we responded.
I say all of this to simply affirm that we are living in a confusing time. The questions of our days also leave questions for us about God’s call for the church and for our ministries. What does it mean to be ordained in confusing times?
Are we televangelists? Are we front-line workers? Are we trauma specialists? It’s not just the Book of Order description of our office that has changed time and time again. The needs to which our office responds have also changed, transforming our understanding of our roles and vocational identities. Coming out of a global pandemic, ministry has changed. Have we?
I picked up a new hobby in the pandemic, a new way to spend hours upon hours of my life. Didn’t everybody?
My new hobby was fascinating to me but strange to my family and friends. Rather than baking bread or gardening, I began binge watching sermons. A lot of sermons. A massive number of sermons. For the first time ever, I could stream an almost limitless number of sermons by preachers who had never had their sermons online in the past: classmates from seminary, former peers who went through the ordination process with me, other Presbyterian preachers in my presbytery, and Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopalian colleagues in my town. Their sermons were all online, and I binged on them all!
One thing I noticed as I watched these sermons in those early months of the pandemic was that most preachers seemed to take one of two approaches. They either ignored the oddity of the moment and tried to lend people a sense of normalcy in an abnormal time by preaching in the same manner as they always had. Or they focused exclusively on the pandemic and attempted to convey a pastoral (read: parental) tone of responsibility and safety.
I have no judgement on either of these approaches or any of these preachers. Most of my sermons in those months resembled one or the other of those approaches as well. But I realized this pattern existed only after I saw someone break it for the first time. A friend of mine, Rev. Josh Kerr in Claremore, Oklahoma, preached a sermon on April 26, 2020, about the walls of Jericho falling down. As he preached, he slowly took off various pieces of personal protective equipment that he was wearing. First the mask, then the gloves, then the surgical gown. After he had stripped down to his regular clothing, he picked up the camera and walked outside as he continued filming. He walked out his door. He walked down his driveway. He walked up the sidewalk, and he didn’t stop walking until he got to the empty church building. He did all this as he continued to preach!
He compared the walls of Jericho to the walls we were using to protect ourselves—both literal as well as metaphorical. As we were all feeling enclosed, he didn’t prescribe ways to live beyond the walls of our homes without endangering ourselves or others, but he did remind us that God is not bound in the same ways that we sometimes expect God to be.
No wall would ever keep God out!
It was a creative and inspiring sermon. It made me stop. It made me think. (It made me more than a little envious that I hadn’t come up with it!) It was a sermon that broke through the convention of the moment and spoke God’s Word to me in a fresh, new way.
Paul Scott Wilson once wrote in The Four Pages of the Sermon, “Every age must find its own way to revitalize the preaching task.”9 I think ministry in the age of the pandemic forced us to learn more about what it means to keep this Ministry of Word going. Living in an age of highly glossed TED talks and sound-bite Tik-Toks, we realized that pivoting to video sermons wasn’t as easy as we had imagined, which forced us to reconsider the why of our preaching. It forced us to go back to the basics in some ways and to question the familiar form of twenty-two minutes, three points, and a poem. Yes, it was hard. No, we didn’t do it perfectly. But our understanding of the Ministry of the Word was transformed in ways that we are still discovering.
Our understanding of the Ministry of Sacrament also took on some new forms in the pandemic.
I have a sense that for the first few months many of us tried to ignore this aspect of our ministry because we weren’t exactly sure what to do with it. How are we supposed to officiate at the table if we are not together? How do we sprinkle or pour if the font is in an empty sanctuary?
After a couple of months, however, we realized that we were going to have to come up with another plan. I saw a few baptisms done in some front yards in which the pastor proclaimed the baptismal formula through a mask and cupped the water with gloved hands. I watched one baptism that was done with a water gun, perhaps not the best imagery for the moment, especially considering the simultaneous pandemic of gun violence and police brutality. And I heard of another baptism done dry-clean style in which there is no water and no physical touch—was there Spirit? All these methods respond to the challenges of the moment, but they leave something lacking. They fall short of a full baptismal experience.
As with my analysis of pandemic preaching, I realized a pattern when I saw someone break it for the first time. While many celebrations of baptism in the pandemic seemed impersonal and distant, a baptism led by a friend on Zoom from Huntsville, Alabama, in May of 2020 felt different. This one surprised me. Though the setting felt so odd, the presider, Tara Bulger, managed to make the experience familiar at the same time, with several important decisions. First. the baptism was live (imagine that!). It was an interactive moment rather than a prerecorded add-on to worship. Second, a ruling elder participated, which wasn’t always the case in other early celebrations of this sacrament. Third, there was added theological depth as they talked through how this was all going to work.
The pastor spent a great amount of time talking about what was taking place as she led her congregation through this sacrament. She noted the familiar and the unfamiliar. She noted what it meant to “gather” in this way as she named ways for the congregation to show support to this child and his family in the near and distant future. The pastor prayed over the water in front of her and connected it to the water sprinkled onto the child’s head. And as she recited the baptismal Trinitarian formula, the water actually splashed onto the camera the couple was using. Whether it was intentional or unintentional, all who were a part of that experience remembered their own baptism!
The element of chance made everyone aware of the liveness of the event, an irreplaceable element of the sacramental experience.
The Latin word sacramentum, meaning “mystery,” is where we get our English word “sacrament.” I saw many baptisms that seemed to cheapen the mystery in the moment, but somehow this baptism added a depth that enhanced the mystery in some wholly holy ways.
Inspired by Pastor Tara Bulger’s honest acknowledgement of the awkwardness of doing a baptism over Zoom, yet feeling a sense of complete awe witnessing it, I and my congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Aiken, South Carolina, decided it was time for us to parse out our new practice of communion.
In May of 2020 the clerk of session, Clark McCants, my colleagues Holly Shoaf-O’Kula and Terry Wimberly, and I recorded a video ahead of a virtual service of communion in which we spoke about the actions of communion and what we believe about what happens at table. We outlined the practical steps of getting “bread” and “fruit of the vine” to use at home. We talked about the transcendence of the Lord’s Table, that the table stretches beyond all time and space constraints, even into each of our homes. We acknowledged that practicing intinction online would not be the same as walking down the aisle together, but that our actions of holding a cup from each of our kitchens at once for the same purpose embodied the idea of a common cup. (We had just recently given out church swag that included Tervis tumblers with our church logo on them—many families chose to use that one!)
Looking back, communion online was not perfect. Some theological questions arose. We had some blips in the recorded audio. I misspoke a couple of times. But despite all the reasons we might miss experiencing the holiness of the sacrament, I think we were lifted into the spiritual presence of Christ anyway.
I had more positive comments about that communion educational video than any sermon I preached during the pandemic. This is a sad realization for me, but an honest reflection on how God can always find a way. God will not be walled in—not even by those tiny boxes on Zoom!
It’s not that we taught them all they ever needed to know about the Eucharist in the video, but that we invited them to be the people of God in a new way for that new day. We are simply called to be “stewards of God’s mysteries,”10 not defenders of the way we’ve always experienced them in the past. And through these simple words (read: Word) we participated in another expansion in this Ministry of Sacrament.
I remember the first time I heard Lee Hinson-Hasty talk about the “pig in the python” predicament we Presbyterians were about to experience. The “pig” was the baby boomers. And the “python” was the length of ministry before retirement. Hinson-Hasty noted that the pig had almost passed all the way through the python at this point—which meant that we were about to experience a clergy shortage.
I first heard Hinson-Hasty talk about this while I was still in seminary. He is still writing about it today.11 But it has become even more complicated today with declining enrollment in master of divinity degree programs, fewer ordination-track graduates from seminaries, and church leaders continuing to shift away from traditional parish ministry toward other ministries or vocations. Within the next ten years, many predict that full-time pastors are no longer going to be available to congregations with fewer than 150 members. That would leave only 25.9 percent12 of our congregations with people filling the role of minister of Word and Sacrament in a way that would look familiar to many today!
My first internship in seminary was with the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA). I went to Kenya and served in the Makongeni parish just outside of Thika, which was about an hour away from Nairobi. I learned many things in this internship. Most importantly, I learned firsthand something that may seem obvious: that “church” can look very different in different places.
Not only did most of the congregations in Thika have three worship services every Sunday in three different languages, but most pastors serving in the PCEA had several congregations under their care each week, a parish model of ministry in which each pastor partners with four to eight congregations in ministry. Ruling elders led worship and preached most of the time while the ordained minister of Word and Sacrament visited as many congregations as possible each Sunday.
My first Sunday there I preached five times with translators for three of those sermons (ironically, I was preaching on the story of the Tower of Babel). I watched the pastor I was shadowing lead communion six times in the same Sunday and baptize upwards of twenty people. It was a case in which the minister of Word and Sacrament was doing what was most needed—Word and Sacrament. Ruling elders carried out the other tasks of ministry like teaching and caregiving. (Pastors informed me that they did not like the term “teaching elder” because they didn’t have time to teach.)
Could we be heading for a parish model of ministry? Should we be planning ahead for something like this? We already have situations in which one pastor supports several congregations in yoked contexts. As we are expanding our understanding of the tasks of ministers of Word and Sacrament, we also consider changing models of ministry. How can we expand our understanding of ministry to best fit our future?
All of this brings me back to our initial list of various duties and expressive names for the ordained ministry of Word and Sacrament dating back to 1789. This is a unique calling that many of us have gone into—and it’s becoming more unique by the minute! As I read through this list from the Book of Order again, I give you some of my current inner thoughts:
The person who fulfills this responsibility has, in Scripture, obtained different names expressive of his or her various duties. As he or she has the oversight of the flock of Christ, he or she is termed bishop.13
Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss this term “bishop.” Maybe it is useful not in the ecclesiastical power kind of way, but in the oversight and jurisdiction over a region kind of way. And perhaps our notion of “flock” will continue to expand to include those not currently in the singular-congregational fold (read: mold).
“. . . he or she feeds them with spiritual food . . .”14
We will have to continue to be creative when it comes to proclaiming the Word in a contextualized, current kind of a way. Considering all that competes for people’s attention and that consumers of media can choose to consume material from within their own context and worldview, what does it mean to choose to listen for God’s Word in this post-Christendom world?
“. . . a servant of Christ in the Church . . .”15
I notice that Christ is listed first and foremost. But that the church is still a part of this equation. Do we believe that Christ is still present in our congregations, and are we willing to serve the Christ we encounter there, even if it means evolving to the point that some people might claim they no longer recognize the church?
“. . . it is his or her duty to be grave and prudent . . .”16
Our calling has never been to sugarcoat the truth, but many have been able to get away with it in the past. With declining numbers and hard decisions lying ahead, we need to be honest and practical with how we begin to restructure and reorganize ourselves in ministry. I seem to like the terms “grave” and “prudent” more as I age.
“. . . he or she is termed ambassador . . .”17
We are merely the ambassadors when we stand behind the font or the table. We are just the representatives there to help draw attention to our living God who shows up in the water, wine, and the breaking of bread. Sometimes I fear that we allow ourselves, our role, and our traditions to get in the way of our simple calling to get out of the way of God’s mysterious presence in these moments. Are we being creative for the purpose of showing off our creativity, or are we responding to and making way for God’s presence among us?
“And as he or she dispenses the manifold grace of God and the ordinances instituted by Christ, he or she is termed steward of the mysteries of God.”18
As I reach the end of these words, I once again feel more than a little bit overwhelmed! I have been ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament for almost fifteen years now, and I have seen a lot change in that span of time. God willing, I will be in it for at least another fifteen years with just enough energy, intelligence, imagination, and love to help with an ever-expanding ministry of Word and Sacrament.
- Book of Order 2009–2011 (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A., 2009), G-6.0201.
- Book of Order 2009–2011, G-6.0202.
- Book of Order 2011–2013, G-2.0501.
- Paul Scott Wilson, The Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2018), 9.
- 1 Corinthians 4:1, NRSVUE.
- “What Is the Future of Pastoral Leadership in the PC(USA)?” The Presbyterian Outlook, September 2, 2022, https://pres-outlook.org/2022/09/what-is-the-future-of-pastoral-leadership-in-the-pcusa/.
- Book of Order 2009–2011, G-6.0202.