The first chapter of Acts shows Jesus telling the Apostles to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Spirit. With understandable impatience, and some initiative, they decide instead to fill the absent spot in their number left by the betrayal of Judas, with the essentially backward-looking criterion that the candidates have been witnesses to all that Jesus had done from the beginning They elect Matthias, who is enrolled among their number — and about whom nothing else is heard.
For it appears that the Holy Spirit, for which the Apostles were too impatient to wait, had other ideas about the shape of ministry for the emerging church. The Apostles were concerned about office while the Holy Spirit was more concerned to raise up ministries.
The pattern repeats a few chapters later when the Apostles are called upon to address the complaints of the Greek-speaking community’s widows, cleverly appointing seven Greek deacons to this newly created office, to placate the complaints and address the concerns. But once again, Stephen, notable among the deacons, very quickly overleaps his job description and engages in a prophetic ministry of preaching and proclamation that ends in his martyrdom, perhaps even sowing the seeds of Saul’s later conversion.
The church — and let’s face it, almost any institution — is very often caught between the expressions of charismatic ministry emerging to meet unexpected needs, and the tendency almost immediately to stamp these ministries with some kind of official recognition. In many cases the office is maintained even after the need for which it was created may have changed or ceased altogether. In doing this the church loses the flexibility to address the actual needs presented to it by the world, and stumbles about trying to fit people with a truly rounded charismatic call to serve an emergent need into the square hole of an office not ideally suited to that work. Or the leaders may despair of finding a suitable candidate for an office that is really no longer needed — such is the power of the office itself to conform or induce conformity. There is an old saying that if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and this can happen with ministry as well as carpentry.
This is true not just of individual offices but of programs — a church begins a ministry of feeding the homeless, for example, to meet a real need. But after some years, when changes in the neighborhood or the demographics have reduced or eliminated the homeless population, the church still feels that it must perpetuate this program even though the need has lessened or disappeared. The church has become so identified with that program that it is no longer able to see the new and emerging needs staring it in the face.
The Spirit calls us to sit lightly in our offices and our programs, to keep our eyes open to the world around us. Parishes, dioceses and even national churches can be paralyzed into inaction when they become so set on filling offices that they miss the crying needs, and the Holy Spirit’s abounding grace providing ministries emerging in their midst.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG