On Monday I moved into my new office as Director of New Brunswick Theological Seminary’s Reformed Church Center. It is a shared office that I won’t be in much, but it has a window, and is up amongst the faculty offices in the Seminary’s brand-spanking-new building. This is, I think, a marvelous improvement from the large closet off the mailroom in the old building which my predecessor used.
As I arrived on the campus, the first thing I found was that, while the new building has a gorgeous new parking lot, the new parking lot didn’t yet have a connection to the street. Everyone was parking in the upper part of the old lot and hiking around Sage Library to find our way in. So I did just that with the first box of files that filled my trunk. By the time I had walked around the library with it and located my office—in the not-quite-complete building—on that warm July morning, I decided to be more efficient.
And so it was that, on my first day working in the new building, the first day I really had an office—since the old one was already mostly packed when I got the job and I never really had a day in there—my first act was to haul a wagon around the property to drag boxes back and forth. And I flashed on my first full day of ordained ministry, 27 years ago, when I walked into my office to find it flooded, and spent the morning mopping (the property chair was away).
How is this important? When I was in Seminary, I did a certain amount of grunt work in order to pay the bills and pay my dues, and I thought it would come to an end once I was ordained. When I was a fairly new minister, I did a certain amount of grunt work—both physical this-isn’t-what-we-pay-ministers-for-is-it work and just somewhat dumb committee work—and I thought that, after I had paid my dues for a few years, this would end. Now, as I reach the end of my third decade as an office bearer, I realize that this is not likely to change.
This, I think, is reflective of what we believe office to be all about in my corner of the Reformed tradition. We hold parity of ministry to be a central tenet of how we are organized: ministers are not more important than elders, neither than deacons, and we all need each other to make and govern a church. Professors of Theology—which are unique in the Reformed Church in America among Reformed traditions—are a select, special group, but they are not “above” the rest of us. Calvin and those who followed him were worried about creating a privileged class of people in ministry, which they saw as an abuse in the Roman Catholic Church of their day.
At its worst, it leads to the idea that office is nothing but a function for us, that anybody can do what we do. While there certainly is a functional aspect, and while I have often suspected that anybody can do what I do, particular people with particular combinations of gifts, whose callings are recognized by the larger church (in congregations and classes) are set aside by the church—and, more, importantly, by God—to live out their work in their particular ministries. While elders and deacons can sometimes function as pastors in certain ways, we do not believe they can be ministers of Word and Sacrament, with special responsibility for maintaining and sharing these means of grace. Likewise, ministers do elder and deacon things all the time, but that doesn’t make them interchangeable. To confuse office with function is problematic and dangerous.
But, at its best, our parity, our Reformed resistance against equating office with rank, keeps us all connected. We relate to each other, not in hierarchical ways, but as brothers and sisters in Christ, all of us working together and informing each other for ministry. There should never come a time when any of us is too big or too important to do anything, for we are, always, all the same in the eyes of God. And that is a crucial element in what saves us each and all.
Remembering that, I haul my boxes around the yard and into my office, being very careful not to be the first person to scratch the new New Brunswick Seminary. And I look around, and see the things yet to be done (that will all be done by October, I am sure), and I glibly tell a couple members of the office staff to give us fifteen years or so, and we’ll get the place broken in.
It is a bit comforting that even the new place is still under construction, for that is true of all of our ministries.