Kriss: Paradox of the call to serve and lead

Nov 5, 2018 by

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Credentialed Mennonite ministers are a unique lot, yet our experiences are diverse. In some congregations, a theological understanding of the priesthood of all believers diminishes the significance of pastors. Other congregations magnify the pastoral role, setting expectations high, with salaries and benefits to match. Other pastors who work just as hard get barely enough to scrape by.

Stephen Kriss


In my early public ministry 20 years ago, a colleague suggested I wasn’t very pastoral. Today, I embrace that my pastoral posture is different from others in Mennonite ministerial roles.

I’m grateful to a business leader in my home church who said to me, “your gifts are meant for something beyond this setting.” He gave me a sense of footing to find my way while still holding to a pastoral desire to serve the world through the church.

I’ve been able to live into that calling with creative congregations willing to risk with a younger leader, in urban ministry and now at conference-level leadership.

The church and the world need different kinds of pastoral leaders. The work of Alan Hirsch — a thought leader in the missional church movement — on the calling of prophetic, evangelizing, shepherding and teaching leaders rooted in the Book of Ephesians, offers a framework for calling and credentialing that recognizes unique gifts for service and witness.

Not everyone’s sense of call and desire to serve is easily framed by our understanding of what it means to be a Mennonite minister. We used to more readily give credentials for different roles, such as deacons and bishops in some settings.

I have deep respect for pastors who accompany congregations in service and leadership. The sense of mutuality in leadership is balanced on a razor’s edge in most Mennonite settings. This is particularly true in our polarized U.S. context. The position of a minister is imbued with power but also diminished by attitudes of service and critical evaluation.

At the same time, pastors can develop a sense of privilege, forgetting that congregational members also experience difficulties in work, vocation and life balance.

The best leadership relationships are rooted in listening that respects and cultivates the strengths of service and leadership.

Congregations flourish when members generously and creatively give many hours of work and prayer. Congregations thrive when anyone who senses a call to prophetic engagement and evangelical witness feels blessed and affirmed.

Being a Mennonite minister is a weighty privilege. I’m still surprised sometimes by people’s willingness to respond to God’s call to serve and lead. At the same time, I’m stunned by the love and care of those who serve in congregations in addition to fulfilling workplace and family duties, whether leading the church board or making tamales in the kitchen.

Being a Mennonite minister means being rooted in the call of Jesus. The roles — credentialed or not — are divinely inspired, and also conspired with the human community.

Sermons require listeners. Shepherds require sheep. Teachers require students. We are bound together in call and calling. That might be the most terrifying and beautiful thing of all.

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.

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