No Clergy, Just Ministers

by Kathleen Kettler Lehman

Appeared: 08/26/2005

2. minister
Function: intransitive verb
Inflected Form(s): -tered; min·is·ter·ing /-st(&-)ri[ng]/
1 : to function as a minister of religion
2 : to give aid or service

(Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

One of the first things that one notices about the Bahá'í Faith is its lack of formal clergy. Some, perhaps, find this liberating on becoming a Bahá'í--no Vatican, no strict church governing bodies. Some might find this characteristic of the Faith enlightened.

When I became a Bahá'í, I felt the "do-it-yourself" character of the Administration was rather refreshing. It was fun to meet in one another's houses, like the early Christians did, and electing the various Assemblies was a novel experience. Twenty-four years down the road, however, I'm beginning to notice when the lack of clergy--or, rather, the lack of individuals who are trained in the various things in which clergymen are trained--becomes a problem.

For instance: last winter a community member, long estranged from his family, died. (Those who are regulars here may remember this incident.) The local community thus became responsible for his burial and legal affairs. The Assembly members involved were placed in the difficult position of learning what must be done while in the process of doing it, under time pressure from the state, which as I recall gave us three days to figure out what we were going to do, after which the body would be donated to a medical school. Somehow (and this was definitely "on a wing and a prayer") we found and paid for a burial site, undertaker, and casket; settled his bills and tied up legal loose ends; and located and notified his distant family.

Which brings us back to here:

1. min·is·ter
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English ministre, from Old French, from Latin minister servant; akin to Latin minor smaller
1 : agent
2 a : one officiating or assisting the officiant in church worship b : a clergyman especially of a Protestant communion
3 a : the superior of one of several religious orders -- called also minister-general b : the assistant to the rector or the bursar of a Jesuit house
4 : a high officer of state entrusted with the management of a division of governmental activities
5 a : a diplomatic representative (as an ambassador) accredited to the court or seat of government of a foreign state b : a diplomatic representative ranking below an ambassador

(Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

What stands out about the various forms of the word minister is that they all contain variations on serve--servant, service, serving. One is an agent--that is, one acts. One assists. One is entrusted. One represents. And while Bahá'ís don't frequently use the word minister, they do use the term service. Constantly. Do we assist God? Has God entrusted us with something? (The poor on the earth, for example.) Are we to represent Him on earth?

I think all of us would answer "yes" to the previous three questions. So the Bahá'í Faith, albeit clergyless, nevertheless has five million ministers worldwide.

While the word "minister" might indeed to some people conjure an image of a Puritan divine preaching from a lofty pulpit, we might do better to consider what a minister does Monday through Saturday. (I can speak from direct experience: my great-uncle Henry was a Roman Catholic priest, Dale's uncle is a Methodist minister, his cousin Jerry another, and his aunt, who married into the family, is the daughter of yet another minister. Talk about following in the family tradition!) Granted, somewhere along the line, sermons must be written. But couples about to be married must meet with the minister, hospital visits are made, confessions are heard, the depressed and confused are counseled, and the minister has to squeeze in time for his own spiritual refreshment and renewal. If he has a family, he needs some time for them as well. The phone rings in the middle of the night--someone is dying, someone is desperate. How many assistant pastors and deacons are available to help with the workload? And this is just the short version. The hideously familiar caricature of the alcoholic priest is simply the symbol of what happens when flesh and spirit can no longer cope. Most of the active work of any ministry takes place outside the context of Sunday. Saying Mass, or delivering the sermon, is just the tip of the iceberg.

How, then, are Bahá'ís to minister? Outwardly, the question will become increasingly crucial as the Faith grows and encounters new situations. For instance, the U.S. Bahá'ís have already begun to grapple with difficult questions involving issues such as substance abuse and domestic violence. To effectively minister to, say, the victims of domestic violence requires specialized knowledge that not everyone--and not even every community--possesses. Christian ministers, who study such counseling in the course of their education, have an advantage over the average person, nine of whom are probably sitting on your local Assembly. I confess that this is a situation I would prefer not to be in, yet we unconsciously ask it of our Assemblies. The potential for disaster is great. It behooves us to gain equivalent skill.

This is not a cry for a Bahá'í clergy. However, it seems to me that the time has come for everyone to consider how he or she might minister to the local community. And Assemblies should be responsive, even to the point of seeking knowledge from community members.

In the first century, St. Paul wrote:

For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching: Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another; Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.

(Romans 12:4-13, KJV)

Paul clearly understood how to get the best from his churches. As each of us is different, let us each minister according to our talents. Teachers and librarians can help with Sunday School plans; poets and musicians with devotions. Lawyers can give legal advice or work for social justice. Doctors, nurses, and psychologists can go about the work of healing and help with support groups and AA meetings. Carpenters, painters, plumbers, and electricians can help build or refurbish the local Bahá'í center. Everyone, even children, can sort items at the food pantry or pray in the prayer circle. A few years ago we were all being asked, "What can you do?", yet I'm not sure that the question was fully answered. Are we living up to our capabilities?

Inwardly, the commitment to ministry is nothing new. In the final analysis, the Bahá'í Faith, like every other (for there is only one), is about ministry--giving aid and service. How frequent are the occasions in which God calls us to minister? Are we listening for His voice? Did we pass a homeless man on the street and ignore him? Do we know that the man next door gave his wife a black eye again, but don't want to get involved? Did someone ask us to do something for them that we could have easily done, and did we say no because, well, we just didn't want to? Or did you give ten dollars to the volunteer firefighters? Did you go out of your way to help someone? Did you do it unasked? Did you listen to a friend? Did you carry out your work cheerfully and to the best of your ability? All this, and more, is ministry. 'Abdu'l-Bahá tells us:

Act in accordance with the counsels of the Lord: that is, rise up in such wise, and with such qualities, as to endow the body of this world with a living soul, and to bring this young child, humanity, to the stage of adulthood. So far as ye are able, ignite a candle of love in every meeting, and with tenderness rejoice and cheer ye every heart. Care for the stranger as for one of your own; show to alien souls the same loving kindness ye bestow upon your faithful friends.

(Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 34)

O ye lovers of this wronged one! Cleanse ye your eyes, so that ye behold no man as different from yourselves. See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness. And in this new and wondrous age, the Holy Writings say that we must be at one with every people; that we must see neither harshness nor injustice, neither malevolence, nor hostility, nor hate, but rather turn our eyes toward the heaven of ancient glory. For each of the creatures is a sign of God, and it was by the grace of the Lord and His power that each did step into the world; therefore they are not strangers, but in the family; not aliens, but friends, and to be treated as such.

(Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 24)

Look at Me, follow Me, be as I am; take no thought for yourselves or your lives, whether ye eat or whether ye sleep, whether ye are comfortable, whether ye are well or ill, whether ye are with friends or foes, whether ye receive praise or blame . . . Look at Me and be as I am; ye must die to yourselves and to the world, so shall ye be born again and enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Behold a candle how it gives its light. It weeps its life away drop by drop in order to give forth its flame of light.

(H.M. Balyuzi, 'Abdu'l-Bahá: The Centre of the Covenant, p. 73)

Or, as Jesus said:

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

(Matthew 25:34-40, KJV)

So, are there Bahá'í ministers? Absolutely. Zero clergy. But--five million ministers.

He is the All-Glorious!

O God, my God! Lowly and tearful, I raise my suppliant hands to Thee and cover my face in the dust of that Threshold of Thine, exalted above the knowledge of the learned, and the praise of all that glorify Thee. Graciously look upon Thy servant, humble and lowly at Thy door, with the glances of the eye of Thy mercy, and immerse him in the Ocean of Thine eternal grace.

Lord! He is a poor and lowly servant of Thine, enthralled and imploring Thee, captive in Thy hand, praying fervently to Thee, trusting in Thee, in tears before Thy face, calling to Thee and beseeching Thee, saying:

O Lord, my God! Give me Thy grace to serve Thy loved ones, strengthen me in my servitude to Thee, illumine my brow with the light of adoration in Thy court of holiness, and of prayer to Thy Kingdom of grandeur. Help me to be selfless at the heavenly entrance of Thy gate, and aid me to be detached from all things within Thy holy precincts. Lord! Give me to drink from the chalice of selflessness; with its robe clothe me, and in its ocean immerse me. Make me as dust in the pathway of Thy loved ones, and grant that I may offer up my soul for the earth ennobled by the footsteps of Thy chosen ones in Thy path, O Lord of Glory in the Highest. With this prayer doth Thy servant call Thee, at dawntide and in the night-season. Fulfil his heart's desire, O Lord! Illumine his heart, gladden his bosom, kindle his light, that he may serve Thy Cause and Thy servants.

Thou art the Bestower, the Pitiful, the Most Bountiful, the Gracious, the Merciful, the Compassionate.

(Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 319)

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