The ministry of shared suffering

Published January 14, 2016

Many of us have been shaped by the norms of a way of being church that is under great stress: this is the idea that a church is, at a minimum, an academically credentialed priest with a stipend, presiding over a building and a staff (paid and/or volunteer) that is able to provide services and program. This is a rugged expectation, even though this pattern is increasingly inaccessible, unsustainable and, in certain ways and in certain contexts, ineffective. For Indigenous communities, this has been true for a long time; in most places, decades. It might be more accurate to say that it has never been very effective in Indigenous communities.

Over the past few decades, Indigenous communities-drawing upon their values, spiritual traditions and a lively Indigenous reading of the way of Jesus-have learned a lot about maintaining church community where there are few material resources. In the continual poverty and stress of Indigenous communities, a way of being church is emerging. In these principles, we are finding a way forward:

? The presence of Jesus, wherever two or three gather in his name, is the true power, glory and goodness of the church.

? In this sacred circle, the gospel is the heart of our work, the agent of change and the motivation-in the Spirit-of a spiritual movement that is seeking growth throughout the land.

? Although the competence of clergy has been the emphasis of much of the church’s leadership development in recent times, we must focus on the competence of congregations. Can the congregation bring people to spiritual birth and rebirth?

? A circle of clergy and elders is the best way to provide spiritual and pastoral care to a community. If there are no stipends for clergy, as is most often the case, it is no longer permissible to allow them to shoulder the work of a full-time clergy person with stipend.

? Recognized ministries of those who are not ordained-catechists, music ministers and readers-are essential to the growth and well-being of the church.

? Churches grow, especially in the context of great stress and human need, not by program but by shared suffering. This is the ministry of Christ, and it is the way of those who would follow this service and life.

The clergy and congregations of Indigenous communities certainly deserve a share of the greater wealth of the larger church and its congregations, but that is not what will make it work. The clergy and other leaders who serve sacrificially without support-whether Indigenous or not-should receive more attention and substance from us all. The horizon of the churches, however, is not equal to its material resources but to its spiritual resources, and, much more critically, depends on the grace of God. It is in these that a lively future will be found.

Bishop Mark MacDonald is national Indigenous bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.


  • Mark MacDonald

    Mark MacDonald was national Indigenous Anglican bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada from 2007 to 2019, and national Indigenous Anglican archbishop from 2019 to 2022.

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