THERE ARE THREE basic views of ministers:

1. Ministers are nice people. They'll take a drink if you offer them one, and when it comes to racy stories, they can tell a few right along with the best of them. They preach good sermons, but they're not like those religious fanatics who think they've got to say a prayer every time they pay a call. When it comes to raising money, they're nobody's fool and have all the rich old parishioners eating out of their hands. They have bridged the generation gap by introducing things like a rock group at the eleven-o'clock service and what they call rap sessions on subjects like drugs and sex instead of Sunday school. At the same time they admit privately that, though the kids have a lot going for them, they wish they'd cut their hair properly. They're big on things like civil rights, peace, and the environment. They send their children to private school. They make people feel comfortable in their presence by showing them that they've got their feet on the ground like everybody else. They reassure them that religion is something you should take seriously, but not go overboard with.

2. Ministers have their heads in the clouds, which is just where you should have your head when your mind is on higher things. Their morals are unimpeachable, and if you should ever happen to use bad language in their presence, you apologize. They have a lovely sense of humor and get a kick out of it every time you ask if they can't do something about all this rainy weather we've been having. They keep things like sex, politics, race, and alcoholism out of their sermons. Their specialty is religion, and they're wise enough to leave other matters to people who know what they're talking about.

3. Ministers are as anachronistic as alchemists or chimney sweeps. Like Tiffany glass or the queen of England, their function is primarily decorative. Although their various perspectives are admittedly limited, rapists and rape victims, drug addicts, victims and perpetrators of child abuse, and the like are all to be listened to for their special insights. The perspective of ministers, on the other hand, is so hopelessly distorted and biased that there is no point in listening to them unless you happen to share it.

The first ministers were the twelve disciples. There is no evidence that Jesus chose them because they were brighter or nicer than other people. In fact the New Testament record suggests that they were continually missing the point, jockeying for position, and, when the chips were down, interested in nothing so much as saving their own skins. Their sole qualification seems to have been their initial willingness to rise to their feet when Jesus said, "Follow me." As Saint Paul put it later, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong" (1 Corinthians 1:27).

When Jesus sent the twelve out into the world, his instructions were simple. He told them to preach the Kingdom of God and to heal (Luke 9:2), with the implication that to do either right was in effect to do both. Fortunately for the world in general and the church in particular, the ability to do them is not dependent on either moral character or IQ. To do them in the name of Christ is to be a minister. In the name of Christ not to do them is to be a bad joke.

-Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words

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