Covenant or Contract?
A Dialogue Sermon for Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Conference Celebration of Ministry Service: May 29, 2005
Written by: Rev. Gord Waldie
Revised and Edited for use in Covenanting Service between Rev Gord Waldie, St. Paul's United Church (Grande Prairie) and Northern Lights Presbytery – September 2010
1 Corinthians 12:4-13
Scene opens with G sitting at a desk working. There is a knock on the door.
G: (looks up) Hello? Oh Susan, nice to see you. Is it 10:30 already?? Come in, come in.
S: I think I might be a little bit early. I can wait a moment if you are busy.
G: Oh no problem, I was just catching up on a bit of reading, nothing that can’t wait. Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about the M&P committee and to thank you for taking on the chair. As you know, Personnel stuff is vitally important work, but it is also very confusing at times. Did you get a chance to read through the M&P Handbook I gave you?
S: Yes I did, and the M&P files from the office. They were very helpful in letting me figure out what exactly this committee does. But there are a few things that I am confused about.
G: I thought there might be. M&P work isn’t exactly like Human Resources work but it is close. So what are your questions?
S: Well the first is this line from the beginning of the Handbook. It talks about “being in ministry together”. I thought you were the Minister. What does it mean?
G: (shuffling papers) Well, now, maybe this will help. See, here on the bulletin each week where it says “Ministry by: The Congregation, Enabling Minister: Rev Gord Waldie”? Well that is because we recognize that the work of the church isn’t just done by one person. All of us work together to make the church grow. All of us are part of a relationship, we call it a covenant, where we promise to work together.
S: “Enabling Minister” If you are our enabler doesn’t that make us co-dependent?
G: (chuckles) Not really, but it does mean that we are interdependent. Churches need many things to run smoothly. They need people who are good with money and numbers, people who are good with children, people who paint the windowsills and all sorts of other things. Even if I was good at all those things, which I’m not, there is no way that I could do it all. Part of my role here is to help people discover what they can do as a part of the church and encourage or help them as best as I can. Maybe Empowering is a better word than enabling.
S: Hey, is that what you meant last week when you were talking about how we are all part of one body? I thought it was about spiritual gifts.
G: Well Paul does talk about spiritual gifts like prophecy and speaking in tongues on but later he goes on to talk about the church as a body. He suggests that if all of us were an eye we wouldn’t get very far in life. So yeah, that is why we talk about being in ministry together. Really we all do a bit of the work, eyes, ears, feet, hands. And while my title might be The Minister, really I am one of many.
S: But aren’t you in charge?
G: (laughing) I Wish! Actually the congregation and the Board are “in charge” if anyone is. We try to understand what path God has laid out for us and follow it but it is tempting to find a path we like better sometimes. You know, Jesus told his followers that he didn’t see them as servants but as friends. I think that is helpful to remember when we try to run the church. No one person is in charge and no one is the servant. We are all friends trying to work together. (pauses) Actually I don’t think that any of us is really “in charge”. The congregation, the Presbytery and I are all part of a covenant. The congregation appoints a committee, the M&P committee, to work with me and help set goals, talk about how things are going and so on. But I don’t really work FOR them. Part of the time I work FOR Presbytery, not only at meetings but in helping to represent the wider church to the congregation. My best guess is that I work for the church as a whole but most of that work is focused in working with this congregation.
S: OK, I think I am starting to see what you mean. We pay your salary but you really work with us, not for us. You enable us to be a part of the church.
G: Well I think that God is a part of it too. A big part of being the church is trying to understand what God is saying to us, who God is calling us to be. In fact God is a part of that covenant I just talked about. But basically that is what I mean. What else were you wondering about?
S: Well I couldn't find an employment contract? Don’t you have one?
G: Well you should have seen something called a “call form”. It lists things like salary, vacation and study time, housing allowance. It is pretty much a contract. And you should have be a copy of the Joint Needs Assessment report. It included a position description.
S: Yeah I saw both of those but they don’t aren’t as clear as I think a contract should be. But I guess there are lots of ways people get hired.
G: Yes, the church sometimes isn’t as clear as we would like. But there is another point to raise. Although we agreed to those terms of employment when I was called (and a lot of them have to meet or exceed minimums set by National Church Policy) I don’t really work just under that contract. We work together in a covenant relationship.
S: You keep using that word, covenant. What do you mean?
G: A covenant is, well it is sort of hard to describe. A covenant is a way of working together. It is the same word we use to describe a marriage. Each party to the covenant makes promises about how they will behave and what they will (or won’t) do, just like the vows at a marriage ceremony. Actually it is a term that is used a lot in the Bible. God makes a covenant with Noah, and with Abraham, and with Moses. Jesus spoke of his followers as being part of a new covenant. Actually, I think Jesus was thinking about the prophet Jeremiah when he said that. Jeremiah talked about a covenant that wouldn’t be written on stone tablets or on scrolls but would be written on people’s hearts.
S: What do all these stories have to do with how we run the church though? I mean I understand why it is important to tell them and why it is important to talk about God’s promises and our promises to God. But when it comes to employment wouldn’t you rather have a hard and fast contract instead of this loose covenant thing? At least a contract would hold up in court.
G: In some ways you are certainly right. When things go sour it would be nice to have things a little bit more cut and dried. But unfortunately that doesn’t always work in the church. When we talk about the arrangement between a congregation and a minister we are really talking about a relationship. In fact when the time comes a minister doesn’t quit or get fired, but either the minister or the congregation asks Presbytery for a “change in Pastoral Relationship”. The best way I have found to describe it is like a marriage. And another thing, in any marriage things change as the relationship develops. The same thing happens in this covenant. Over time the position description will develop and evolve as the needs of the congregation change. That is easier to do when things are not cast in stone.
S: That sounds like a bizarre way to talk about someone’s job. How are conflicts worked out?
G: That really depends on the people involved. But for me, that is where that idea of a marriage helps. A covenant is a set of promises we make to each other. When a couple comes into problems we hope that those promises will support them, the same thing happens in a church. We remember that we promised to work together through our difficulties. When that happens a contract can be helpful in reminding us of what our legal and moral obligations are (what my salary and position description are for example) but the love and promises of the covenant are what help us to keep trying. At least that is the ideal.
S: Is that what you mean about the covenant being written on our hearts? That if we truly let ourselves live into these promises they become part of who we are? They become part of how we run our lives? I see. Then we act out of love and commitment instead of duty and obligation.
S: You know, as you talk about this I can see how this covenant ties in with that idea of us all being in ministry together.
G: I think it does, actually I think it is integral. But how do you see it?
S: Well, if we hired you and signed a contract it would be really easy to look at your job description and say that you do the ministry and we don’t. But when we make these promises to each other then we all have a stake in making sure they get lived out. The promises push us to take a bigger part in helping the church thrive, or even survive.
G: I agree. And don’t forget that these promises are made in a worship service. So God is part of our covenant. The book of Ecclesiastes talks about a threefold cord that is not easily broken. If the covenant promises had to rely on all of us as people then it would be easy to see how they would never work. But with God as the third strand in the cord we add strength and stability. I use that passage a lot in weddings.
S: So let’s see if I have this straight. We pay you but the ministry is done by all of us. We have agreed to some conditions of employment, like a contract, but really your work with us is guided by a set of promises we make to each other. And we include God in those promises to help when we don’t feel that we can live up to them by ourselves.
G: That just about covers it. It may seem confusing but I am sure that with time you will see both the strengths and weaknesses of the way we do things.
S: I sure hope there are some strengths. It seems like an awfully silly way to have people’s employment handled to me. But then I guess that the church doesn’t always have to do things the way everyone else does them.
G: And that is a good thing. Amen.