Let me start this post by repeating a story I was told. There was this guy who wanted to get involved in ministry. He envisioned going to the pulpit and told his pastor he wanted a more active role in church. The pastor handed him a broom and asked him to sweep the floor of the church. There are two teachings from this story:

  • never approach your pastor, or you’ll get landed with a job ;-)
  • no task is too menial. Every one is just as needed and just as worthy an occasion to serve.

But every time I think back on this story and on practices in other churches I’ve been to, something jars: that sweeping the floor is only seen as a stepping stone towards a bigger ministry. That there is a career ladder in church involvement, with the golden prize being, depending on your denomination, Archbishop of Canterbury, pope, or something else. Or, staying at the local level, preaching.


Photo: Flickr userĀ Mykl Roventine, reused under CC license

And then, you get into a rotas hierarchy that goes something like this:

1. Taking care of the tea and coffee at the back

2. Welcoming/Carrying the elements

3. Doing the Epistle reading

4. Being a server

5. Doing the Gospel reading

6. Leading the intercessions

7. Preaching, the Holy Grail of Church Involvement.

7a. Preaching on Low Sunday

7b. Preaching on any other Sunday

7c. Preaching at a special event (e.g., baptism; carol service)

7d. Preaching at Easter.

8. Presiding/Celebrating the Eucharist (at the same events)


Of course, along the way, there are a variety of other ways to get involved, e.g. Sunday school/small group leadership/being a warden/being on PCC/keeping the church clean/etc.

Thankfully, this hierarchy is usually about as far removed from the truth as coffee is from goodness. Church leaders are notorious chair-stackers, even when the building uses pews. The odd jobs that need doing are done. Until there’s a rota, that is.

As soon as a rota springs into existence (that is, for visible jobs), the little jobs turn into opportunities for leadership that the experienced leader shouldn’t hog. After all, doing the readings requires little experience (well, erm, more on that in another post…); so it’s something others can happily do. So that’s how we come to the list given above. Yes, there are practical reasons behind it too, but let’s pause and consider what it looks like from the outside.

It looks like there’s an ever smaller team of people getting involved in the higher jobs, and that the more they get involved in those, the less they have to be in the lower jobs. That’s why when I went from step 3 to step 6, and then to step 7, I was told “oooh, you’re going up in the ranks”. That’s also why I found it daunting and quite flattering to go from preaching on Low Sunday to preaching on Trinity Sunday.

But that’s the wrong way to look at it. I’ve said it before: any position is a leadership position. I consider the readings as far more important to the service than the preaching. I consider the tea at the end to be very important too, mind! And here lies the danger: that by considering some jobs to be more important/higher up than others, not only might people become prideful, but also, the actual parts of the service might be ranked by the congregation.

Readings – the Bible – might end up as less of a centrepiece than the sermon. Being a server might end up being a chore and an unnecessary embellishment, rather than a leadership role. And so on.

So we need to do everything we can to avoid this situation, and to visibly counter it. The way this goes depends hugely on the church’s organisation, but here are two suggestions:

  • remove visible elements that would lead to this perception of a hierarchy. For instance, let the preacher sit with the congregation rather than on a special chair; or get all the liturgical participants onto special chairs. (This will get tricky when you want to set apart specific parts of the service, with good reason – e.g. Gospel procession…)
  • make sure the people involved are so at all feasible levels. That means that the incumbent should deal with the tea and coffee every once in a while, do the reading, etc. etc.

Then will we have a less hierarchical vision of the bride of Christ, and leave space for its rightful head (no, not the Queen).