Imani Jones, Guest Cultural Resource Commentator
Chaplain Resident, The Ohio State University Medical Center, Columbus, OH
I. The History
One significant characteristic of the black church that in many ways sets it apart from other religious institutions is its commitment to celebrating those who sacrifice in service to the church. From the ushers who rest on their feet during worship services to the deacons and deaconesses who faithfully visit the sick, the black church has traditionally recognized the ministry of others through special services, certificates, flowers, plaques, and other gifts.
For associate clergy, however, such recognition and celebration is not as common. Often overlooked and under-acknowledged, associate clergy live out their calling in service to the church with little to no financial support or public affirmation of their sacrifice. These preachers, teachers, evangelists, and leaders are vital to the daily functioning of the church. They faithfully assist the pastor and other church leaders in meeting the spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of God’s people week after week, month after month, and year after year.
There are several historical factors that contribute to the under-acknowledgment of associate clergy in black church culture. First, dating back to the days of the invisible institution and following, the role of the senior pastor as central preacher, teacher, and community leader was the most important and highly esteemed role in the black church and in the black community. He (rarely she) was able to operate in ways that most members of the black community could not. The pastor, though not embraced by whites, was in many cases (not all!) during slavery and following permitted to operate in his calling within certain boundaries. Also, it was sometimes the case that the pastor was one of few members of the community who could read. As more educational opportunities became available for blacks, some pastors even received theological training. Most other leaders within the church, such as deacons, deaconesses, trustees, clerks, and Sunday school superintendents, functioned as lay leaders. Regarding gifts and skills, the pastor had the spiritual, physical, and rhetorical ability to proclaim God’s Word in a way that touched people to their very core. Simply put, the pastor was set apart from all others. He was thus expected to be all things to all people.
It has also historically been the case that the call to ministry within the black church almost exclusively meant a call to pastoral ministry. There weren’t many clerical positions in place in the infancy stages and evolution of the black church that envisioned much beyond clergy pastoring and preaching. In essence, there was no cause to celebrate a branch of ministry that did not yet formally exist. In recent decades, however, there has been a dramatic shift in the number of black men and women who have expressed calls to ministry that extend beyond the pastorate.
Associate clergy are more commonly expressing calls to Christian education, church administration, youth ministry, pastoral care and counseling, missions, community development, assistant pastorates, and outreach ministry. Seminaries and Bible colleges are providing budding ministers with opportunities to learn about and engage in specialized ministries, and to apply their skills and experiences to the black church.
Clearly times have changed. Those reading this material cannot remember a church without associate clergy. Gone are the days when the pastor was expected to be all things to all people. Many of the responsibilities that were once expected of the pastor to fulfill have now become shared with associate clergy. These faithful servants spend countless hours in prayer, study, preparation, and service. They attend theological and biblical institutions, investing their time and financial resources in order to support the ministry of the Church. They create lesson plans and teach the Word of God to the people of God. They step in for their pastors when necessary and ride in the second chariot when their services are not needed. Their active roles in ministry assist in preventing pastoral burnout by senior pastors.
In today’s personality-driven church there continues to be a focus on the senior pastor and less acknowledgment of the significant roles that support staff play in the life and sustainability of the church. Associate clergy build up the Body of Christ with their gifts and sacrifice. Their efforts must be celebrated by the church as their ministry blesses and builds up the saints within the church. Additionally, it is past time that churches begin to ordain those associate clergy who provide consistent ministry to the church. If a person is competent to lead the teaching ministries of a church, they should be ordained to do so. The same for leading youth ministries, women’s ministries, 501 (c3) ministries, etc.
II. Personal Story
As a chaplain in a teaching hospital, I recently had the opportunity to observe an open heart surgery. The objective was for me to draw theological connections and conclusions based upon what I witnessed in the operating room. While I was struck by the proficiency of medical technology and the amazing knowledge base that led everything the medical staff said and did, I was even more amazed at the significant roles of the support staff during the surgery. Although the actual heart surgery would be performed by a heart surgeon, there was a considerable amount of preparatory work that needed to be done before the chest was opened and the heart was stopped. I watched the nurses as they thoroughly sterilized the patient from head to toe and wrapped him in a protective plastic to minimize the risk of infection. With amazing skill and precision I saw the anesthesiologist inject anesthesia to put the patient to sleep. Physicians’ assistants hooked the patient up to a central IV line and a heart and lung machine. I watched in amazement as the vascular surgeon removed a vein from the patient’s leg and prepared it for surgery. Once the surgeon entered the room he relied on the skill and expertise of others in order to accomplish the work he and the medical resident set out to do. He was given and relieved of the proper operating equipment by the surgical nurse when necessary. He received ultrasound reports and was alerted to changes in the patient’s body. Finally, when it was time for the patient’s heart to be stopped and to start up again yet another medical technician stepped in to do his part. From beginning to end it was clear to me that the open heart surgery I observed was only possible with the support and expertise of those who assisted the surgeon in making the surgery a success.
The type of support that I witnessed in the operating room bears similarity to the work of associate clergy in the church. While the pastor is very visible on Sunday mornings during worship and the prime time preaching moment, like the surgeon he or she does not stand alone. As the pastor seeks to metaphorically perform open heart surgery on God’s people through delivering a word that will impact their hearts, associate clergy are there supporting, praying, assisting, and leading. Before a spiritual scalpel can be taken up there is also a great deal of preparatory work such as organizing, researching, writing, and delegating that associate clergy will have done well before the rising of the Sunday morning sun. The same is true for a large majority of church programming, special events, and classes that the Church provides during the week. Like the medical staff, many associate clergy study for years, both inside the classroom and in personal devotion in order to effectively serve as leaders in the church. They show up when called upon, from Sunday morning to Saturday night, in times of contentment, calamity, and crisis, in order to equip the saints.
While standing in the middle of the operating room, I realized that just as the medical staff support the doctor and serve the patient, associate clergy support the pastor and the people by doing what they can to run with the vision of their leaders and to carry out the calling of the God they serve.
III. Key Roles without Pay
Now more than ever, associate clergy along with laity are keeping churches open and functioning. Without the trillions in unpaid and low-paid labor provided by associate clergy each year, the black church and all churches would either close or be sorely lacking in providing the services that they offer to members and communities.
In 2011, here are the most common NON-PAID jobs performed by African American associate clergy:
Worship leaders Christian Education/teachers/Bible teachers Hospital visitations Home visitations Prison visitations Children’s Ministries Youth Ministry leaders Young Adult Ministry leaders Office assistants Armor bearers Chief errand runner Media and Technology Ministries Music and Arts Ministries (mime and dance troupes, work with video screens) Assist with Seniors Ministries Work with homeless programs, clothes closets, and food programs Committee Stand-in for the Pastor Preaching Stand-in for the Pastor Community event Stand-in for the Pastor as needed Handler of concerns that the Pastor does not have time to address Assist with 501 (c3) work attached to the Church (i.e. things such as Family Life Centers)
My goodness, what would the Church do without associate clergy?! Imagine churches paying (even part-time) just the mandatory federal wage for these services, which are often provided by multiple clergy at each church. It is clearly time to pay associate clergy for their work (if only monthly stipends), and it is certainly time to honor their work with an annual day of celebration.
The Hands That Uphold
Hands that touch
Hands that join hands in prayer
Hands that hold the mini hands of jittery mini-saints right before they sing “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine”
Hands that rub broken-down backs till they straighten up a bit
Hands that wipe cascading pain-laden tears
Hands that dip and dunk in the cool redemptive pools of water that cocoon the body and flow down the faces of new babes to the faith
Hands that caress fragile souls
Hands that engrave a word of hope into the bowels of hopelessness
Hands that write liturgies and homilies and eulogies and papers in seminaries and plumb the pages of lectionaries and commentaries in libraries as they study to show themselves approved
Hands that uphold pastors’ hands when pastors’ hands can’t possibly manage to be two places at once on the Lord’s Day
Hands that, when called by God to be evangelists, preachers, and teachers, shot up in submission or shook and trembled in fear but nevertheless in their raising proclaimed “Lord, here am I, send me!”
Hands that lead hearts to the very heart of God
Hands that organize, mobilize, and energize
Hands that grip and turn steering wheels as they travel highways and byways and long winding roads to see the folk, from pulpit to pew, doing what God say do
Hands that open the word and eat of its abundant and abounding nourishment
Not stingy and selfish hands, but hands that eagerly share the meal with the hungry in a magnificent Lord’s Supper
Hands that Wednesday nights, even after a hard day’s work at a nine-to-five gig, still work some mo’
Anointed hands, appointed hands
Hands that stretch far and wide to the heavens, scooping up grace and laying it at folks’ feet
Hands that reach low to the flo’ of the depths of the unknown and touch the dormant, the dismal, and even the dead
Hands that ain’t too clean to get dirty
Risk-takin’ care-takin’ hands not afraid to reach beyond the four walls to touch those deemed
“untouchable” on street corners, under benches, in prison cells, and lost souls living in a living hell
Hands that hold pain in their palms
Hands that release hope through their fingertips
Hands that withstand cultural rain as it pours down, down, down, drenching dreams
Hands that rarely feel the caress of appreciation but still give from a wellspring
Hands that are seldom at rest, but like the branches of a tree these hands reach, extend, uphold, and draw everybody in. And in. And in.1
Released in August 2002, “I Need You to Survive” by Hezekiah Walker and the Love Fellowship Choir has become a mantra for many churches that endeavor to promote unity, inclusion, and diversity. Simply written but powerful in its message, this song serves as a reminder to the Church that all of its members, from the pastor to folks in the pew, need one another to survive. Associate clergy, whose works may not always be noticed by the larger congregation, are an integral part of the operation and daily functioning of the Church. The Church needs associate clergy to survive. Without their dedicated and committed service the ministry that currently flows from the church as a result of the work of their hands and the desire of their hearts will decrease in its ability to reach out to God’s people.
I Need You to Survive
I need you, you need me.
We’re all a part of God’s body.
Stand with me, agree with me.
We’re all a part of God’s body.
It is his will, that every need be supplied.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.
Associate clergy make daily sacrifices in service to God and the Church. Upon accepting God’s call to ministry they actively support the Church as they give of themselves time and time again. Oftentimes putting aside their own personal desires, associate clergy pursue God’s plan for their lives by investing their time, resources, and talents in service to the Church. As they give themselves away to be used by God Sunday after Sunday, after hours during the week, and even in the darkest hours of the night, the Church must celebrate associate clergy by acknowledging how blessed the Church has been and continues to be as a result of the work that they do.
I Give Myself Away
I give myself away
I give myself away
So You can use me
I give myself away
I give myself away
So You can use me
Here I am
Here I stand
Lord, my life is in your hands
Lord, I’m longing to see
Your desires revealed in me
I give myself away
Take my heart
Take my life
As a living sacrifice
All my dreams all my plans
Lord I place them in your hands
My life is not my own
To you I belong
I give myself, I give myself to you.3
Being available to God’s will and plan is an essential ingredient in embracing the call to ministry. The associate minister who is called to preach, teach, evangelize, and speak prophetically to God’s people gives himself or herself over to God time and time again. Though the journey is difficult and the personal, familial and financial sacrifices are great, these faithful servants have a powerful awareness of the vast need in and outside of the faith community and respond with their very selves. They make themselves available to God and in so doing edify the Body of Christ. The song “Lord, I’m Available to You,”by Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers, makes this clear.
Lord, I’m Available to You
You gave me my hands to reach out to man
To show him Your love and Your perfect plan
You gave me my ears, I can hear Your voice so clear
I can hear the cries of sinners
but can I wipe away their tears?
You gave me my voice to speak Your Word
To sing all Your praises to those who never heard
But with my eyes I can see a need for more availability
I’ve seen the hearts that have been broken
So many people to be free.
Lord, I’m available to You
My will I give to You
I’ll do what You say do
Use me Lord to show someone the way and enable me to say...
My storage is empty and I am available to You
Now I’m giving back to You all the tools You gave to me
My hands, my ears, my voice, my eyes
so You can use me as You please
I have emptied out my cup so that You can fill it up
Now I’m free, I just want to be more available to You
VI. Ways to Celebrate Associate Clergy
A Short Skit—Create a short skit to be performed during the worship service enacting the work of the associate ministers in the church.
Picture/Video Slide Show—Take pictures of associate clergy as they provide ministry over the course of a few months leading up to the day you will celebrate them. Create a Power Point slideshow set to music that includes the pictures and video footage. Share the presentation during the church service or during a lunch or dinner in celebration of associate clergy. Be sure to use social media to advertise the lunch or dinner and to invite the family, friends, and co-workers of the honorees.
Minister of the Month—Celebrate a particular minister or two each month in order to create a culture in which the pastor is not the only clergy person that is regularly celebrated yearly. Display their pictures on a screen and/or in the church bulletin. Take a moment to highlight their accomplishments during a designated time during the worship service.
1. The Hands That Uphold. By Imani Jones
2. Hezekiah Walker. “I Need You to Survive.” Family Affair II—Live at Radio City Music Hall. New York, NY: Verity, 2002.
3. William McDowell. “I Give Myself Away.” As We Worship—Live. New York, NY: eOne, 2009.
4. Milton Brunson. “Lord, I’m Available to You.” Available to You. New York, NY: Sony, 1989.