A PC(USA) pastor who knows how to ask good questions of the church

September 18, 2023 by Mike Ferguson

The Rev. Mark Ramsey

Presbyterian Foundation kicked off the third season of his “Leading Theologically” podcast on Wednesday looking at the joys of ministry alongside guest the Rev. Mark Ramsey, executive director of The Ministry Collaborative. Listen to their 30-minute conversation here or here.

“Nobody I know asks better questions of the church than you do, Mark,” Hinson-Hasty told Ramsey. “You don’t hold back.”

Ramsey served six congregations before being called to his current position six years ago. The Ministry Collaborative, a project of the Macedonian Ministry Foundation, helps pastors and congregations create leadership in their communities.

Some of Ramsey’s ministry posts proved more satisfying than others. “I think of some of the relationships and some of the partnerships we did with civic organizations. It wasn’t perfect, but there was something there that was a source of joy,” Ramsey told Hinson-Hasty. “There’s a lot on blogs about ‘quit lit’ and ‘lament lit’ from pastors, and I get that … It’s a hard job and it’s largely an underpaid job.”

“Yet the church is God’s idea, and until God tells us the church is no longer God’s idea, I don’t think as a Christian I have any choice but to invest in it,” Ramsey said. “As one who feels called to be a minister of word and sacrament, I don’t have a choice but to find a place I can land and do something. That makes me come alive, even amidst all the pain and hardship.”

The challenges are especially acute for rural churches, Ramsey said. But despite how difficult ministry can be, “I’m seeing really faithful pastors day in and day out getting out and doing the work of ministry. Even though they’re despairing what’s next, they’re doing it. That’s a reason for both joy and gratitude.”

Ramsey and his wife, Elizabeth Lynn, write a blog they call “Digging a Deeper Well.” They’ve learned that “one of the paths for pastors not to feel isolated is to figure out the most dynamic and generative way they can work with whatever group they’re accountable to.” That might be a session, council or vestry. “Quit treating [meetings] like a [homeowners association] or a PTA meeting and go deep and use scripture,” Ramsey suggested. “As the church has lost its cultural traction, which I think is a good thing, now we have to earn our own way at the civic table. We’re not going to be given the clergy slot. It’s a marvelous opportunity to put our heads down, do the hard but good work of ministry, and earn people’s respect and the right to be heard.”

The Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty

Hinson-Hasty asked: How do you describe what healthy engagement with the culture looks like?

In some ways, “I think we try to chase the culture sometimes,” Ramsey said, figuring, “we’ll just be the Christian version of what’s popular in culture, and then people will come. I think culture has picked the carcass of the church clean, frankly. There’s not much left — except Jesus, because the culture doesn’t know what to do with Jesus, and that’s all we need to be the church.”

Culture tells us “We are lonely, we are isolated, we’re searching for a creative and imaginative way to live our lives, and we don’t know where to go. Church is not even thought of in that equation as a possibility,” Ramsey said. “You’d think people would give church a glance.” But when we greet visitors “with a signup sheet to be an usher, they are going to keep on going,” Ramsey said.

The cohorts formed by The Ministry Collaborative include 23 denominations and non-denominational groups, with 1,5000 pastors having been through the program or currently enrolled.

“I’m excited about what people are figuring out coming out of the pandemic about how to reconnect people with one another,” Ramsey said. “Our smallest church is a house church of 20, and our largest is a church with 6,000 people. I’m seeing faith and vibrancy from every end of the spectrum. I’m also seeing some really painful situations where things are not moving.”

“I don’t trust anybody who says they know what the church will look like in five years. It’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Everything is up for grabs,” Ramsey said. However, “when God calls, God equips … My first question to pastors I am working with is, who’s walking with you? Not just colleagues, but in your faith community. We don’t give enough attention to partnering with faithful church folk who want to do this work.”