A priestly kingdom – inspired and created by Exodus

“See what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings.
You shall be for me a priestly kingdom.” (from Exodus 19).

A “kingdom” is a proper collective noun for priests. God’s call of priests is for the whole people, the whole nation – for the many, not just the few. It is for all those who have been borne on eagles’ wings through the harshest circumstances imaginable – in the case of these people hearing God’s call in Exodus, it is people who have suffered slavery and all kinds of oppression. There are no priests who don’t belong to the kingdom, and outside of the kingdom there is no call for priests.

This priestly kingdom is more than the “priesthood of all believers” – this is a priesthood of all those who have been liberated. Their liberation defines their identity and identifies their function of being a blessing for the whole world, for all the nations. (It defines “blessing” as nothing less than liberative, nothing less than redemptive even from the worst evil imaginable.)

How have we got our understanding of priesthood so spectacularly wrong? In common parlance priests are those who are ordained. Peter writes to those who were “nobodies” – “aliens and strangers in the world”: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his own marvellous light.” (1 Peter 2:9).

The Ordination Service takes up the call: “God calls his people to follow Christ and forms us into a royal priesthood”. This is the vocation of the whole church, not just a few of its members, “to declare the wonderful deeds of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light”. The liturgy of the Ordination of Priests continues: “To serve this royal priesthood, God has given particular ministries” – ordained priests being among them.

What distinguishes those who are ordained priests is that they can be trusted with the power of ordering the life of this kingdom, co-ordinating its energy for the purposes of peace, making its wonder ordinary in the community’s DNA. The discernment and formation processes are supposed to see to that. The charge they accept is to do those things which serve this royal priesthood, the whole people of God, borne on eagles’ wings through times of trial and trouble in order that this kingdom of priests will be blessing for the whole world.

For that they will share with their Bishop as messengers and stewards, watching for the signs of God’s new creation. They will teach and encourage. They will guide people through temptation and confusion and they will declare in Christ’s name the forgiveness of sins.

With all God’s people they will baptise new disciples, preach faithfully in and out of season. They will preside at the Lord’s table and lead the kingdom of priests in worship. They will bless people in God’s name. They will resist evil, supporting the weak, defending the poor and interceding for those in need.

These things and others they are trusted to take on in order to serve the work of the kingdom of priests (aka “church” and “Israel”) – always for the purposes of the kingdom of priests: for the blessing and praise of all of God’s creation.

Self-Supporting Ministry – a practical guide by John Lees

John Lees has written a truly practical guide to self-supporting ministry and here I am reviewing it as someone who sees himself far more clearly as a self-supporting minister after reading John’s challenging chapters. John Lees is Bishop’s Officer for Self-Supporting Ministry for the Diocese of Exeter. He has served as an SSM for fourteen years. He is a career coach well known for his books including How to Get a Job You Love and Secrets of Resilient People.

There is considerable lament in this guide for the ways in which the energies and expectations of self-supporting ministers are increasingly focused on the support that they give to local churches. Lees explores what has happened in the twenty years since the publication of Tentmaking in 1998. The authors then, Francis and Francis, focused on worker priests, MSEs (ministers in secular employment) and bridge ministry. Lees traces these preoccupations of ministry further back and leaves us with a sense that we have lost missional opportunities as energy has focused on local churches rather than ministry which is more liminal. He reminds us that self-supporting ministry is the New Testament model, with Paul being the first self-supporting minister.

Lees reports on the findings of Teresa Morgan’s research[1] (2011). Part of her summary states “few respondents [her sample of self-supporting ministers] saw themselves as having much, if any ministry outside the formal structures of the church”, (Lees, p39), yet “most SSMs spend much of the time outside formal church structures. They are, together with lay people, the natural missionaries to our society.” (p40). The case studies with which John concludes each chapter are testimony to the enormous range of contexts of ministry, but also, there is a unanimity that there is very little done to prepare or encourage SSMs and lay people for this ministry.

Lees is particularly strong when he talks about ministry in the world. His confidence in the world is borne from his ministry in the secular. He writes: “We seem to have lost some of the eagerness of past generations to find God in contemporary life, and we may have lost sight of the way Church and society learn from one another.” (p59). We have become a “frightened church”, an institution under stress, and institutions under stress “respond like human beings, becoming more self-protecting”. (p59).

I was left wondering what the influence of Tentmaking was on John Lees’s call, theology and ministry and what the effect on vocations would be if we were to support, encourage and celebrate the ministries that so many tentmakers, teachers, hairdressers, bankers and waiters have. I was left feeling affirmed in my understanding of my own ministry as being “self-supporting” (albeit with many freedoms and privileges).

And I was left with a strong sense that the most common model of ministry is that of self-supporting ministry, and the context of that ministry being secular. Just a small proportion of those self-supporting ministers are licensed. An even smaller proportion of them are ordained. They represent 29% of licensed parochial clergy in the Church of England (2016). It seems a shame if ministry training, formation and deployment is seen to be organised around stipendiary clergy – a small part of the ministry of the church of God which by and large has to be “self-supporting”.

Arguably Lees should have had a wider focus on other forms of self-supporting ministry than those who are ordained, but John writes from the heart, from his experience as a coach and a priest, and his heart has gone out to his fellow priests who are often left unsupported. There is challenge, care and common sense suggestions that merit a reading for the sake of all those who are self-supporting ministers (often unrecognised) and particularly those who are ordained self-supporting ministers.

This is adapted from a review I wrote for Parson and Parish Magazine.


[1] Self-supporting ministry in the Church of England and the Anglican churches of Wales, Scotland and Ireland: report of the national survey 2010.Oxford: Teresa Morgan.