What is a Parish Ministry?
What is a “Parish church?” The ancient English churchly word, of Latin and Greek origins, and which deserves much more study, reflection, and critical thinking than this cursory response, has received a good deal of attention these days. Of course the phrase is quite familiar to those in the Roman Catholic Church, in Anglicanism, and in some branches of Protestantism. They will recognize the word as referring to a geographic district assigned for ministry. The word “parish” is also used to be synonymous with “local church,” or even, “congregation” in mainline Presbyterianism, Methodism, and other denominations.[i] While 20th-century American Presbyterian and Reformed Christians don’t often use the word —until now, at least—the conception of “parish” has a rich and robust history (one thinks of the ministry of the great Evangelical social reformer-professor-minister Thomas Chalmers [1780-1847] of Scotland, whose prodigious life and prolific ministry have been studied and popularized by the American Presbyterian minister, educator, and author, Dr. George Grant of Franklin Tennessee—who founded a congregation with a name befitting its vision: “Parish Presbyterian Church”). The work of Dr. Grant, recent articles, reactions to the mega church movement and its notable failures and abuses, along with possible reactions to the impersonal damage left by the technological revolution, widespread liturgical renewal throughout the body of Christ, and a renewed appreciation for the power of community have all contributed to a resurgence of interest in “Parish.” Given that the “parish,” as a concept, has deep roots in biblical teaching and church tradition, and particularly in English-speaking Christianity and in Presbyterianism, in particular, we can only hope (and work and pray) that this is not one of several evangelical trends to become a polarizing, passing interest of what frequently, painfully can degenerate into a movement untethered. But, to our question.
What is a “parish church? What is a “parish ministry?”
A parish ministry is a missional value—a way of doing ministry, as well as an attitude about ministry—that says,
“We are called to this place and to these people. We minister to this place and to these people in the name of Jesus Christ for the welfare of this place and for all of these people, regardless of their faith or their background, even though we joyfully proclaim Jesus to everyone.”
A cornerstone principle of parish ministry is “we do more together.” Another principle of parish ministry is “cooperation without compromise.” Therefore, we seek collaborative relationships with others in our community, both within and without the Church, to bring about good for this place and these people.
Parish, also, speaks to a liturgical commitment that places leiturgia—the centering act of historic Christian worship—at the very heart of our life together. In short, a parish church is a public witness to the life of Jesus Christ in the midst of a given community that says, “This is our home and these are people. This is our parish.”
There is no greater example of parish ministry and the ministry exhibited by the apostle Paul in Ephesus. He reflected on the parish ministry — a hard ministry, a passionate ministry, a personal as well as a public ministry, but a very fruitful ministry—in the 20th chapter of Dr. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles:
“And when they came to him, he said to them: ‘You know, from the first day I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time —serving the Lord with all humility, with tears, and with the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews —and that I did not shrink back from proclaiming to you anything that was profitable or from teaching it to you in public and from house to house. I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus.'” — Acts 20:18-21.
Parish ministry is a return to a Richard Baxter-Reformed-Pastor approach of “claiming the land” for Christ, knowing the flock, and trusting the “ordinary means of grace”—the rule of faith— to transform sin-sick souls by “walking the beat” systematically and reaching the people as the shepherd, a cooperative shepherd, to be sure, but a shepherd who lives and works and prays for total transformation of his parish for the glory of Almighty God and the good of his fellow-man. In short, the parish is the assigned territory granted to a minister of the Gospel, together with the Covenanted community of Christ, wherein they will spend and be spent fulfilling the Great Commission until Jesus Christ comes again.
“Claim this Land” © 2016 Words and Music by Michael Anthony Milton from the album, Through the Open Door (Bethesda/Faith for Living, Inc., January 31, 2011).
 “păroecĭa , and, corrupted, părŏchĭa , ae, f., = παροικία, I.an ecclesiastical district, a parish: “castellum ad paroeciam Hipponensis Ecclesiae pertinebat,” Aug. Ep. 261; Hier. Ep. 51, n. 2: “nulla in desolatis cura dioecesibus parochiisque,” Sid. Ep. 7, 6 med.: tot enim Cyrus habet paroecias, Ep. Leon. 52, 4.— II. Transf., the place of jurisdiction of a parish: “per rusticas solitudo paroecias,” Sid. Ep. 7, 6 (al. parochias).” The place of jurisdiction gave rise to the use of parish as the congregation within that jurisdiction. The use of parish in Calvinism has a broader, more comprehensive view of the conversion of all souls and transformation of all institutions in that jurisdiction or sphere.
“Păroecĭa.” Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, Păroecĭa. Accessed February 23, 2016. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059%3Aentry%3Dparoecia.
 See, e.g., the development of parish as centers of catechesis in Gill Boazman. 2008. “Cork and Cornwall: Settlement Patterns and Social Organization During the Establishment of Christianity, AD 450-800”. The Journal of Irish Archaeology 17. Wordwell Ltd.: 113–36. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20650870.
 See, e.g., the scholarly, reflective work of Denis Carroll, “Jesus Christ and Parish Ministry,” The Furrow 32, no. 3 (March 01, 1981): 135, accessed February 23, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/27661100?ref=search-gateway:425c45549266396c5a474e892fb7d4c3.
 Grant, George, performer. Thomas Chalmers: Man of Vision. Recorded 2006. GPTS. Accessed February 23, 2016. http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=818101348555.
 “Parish Presbyterian Church -.” Parish Presbyterian Church. Accessed February 23, 2016. http://www.parishpres.org/.
 See, e.g., Melissa Kelly, “Redefining the Parish Model,” ByFaith.org, June 2012, accessed February 23, 2016, http://byfaithonline.com/redefining-the-parish-model-an-old-concept-finds-revival-within-the-pca/.
 I appreciate the work of Thomas Chalmers on the transformation of a town into a parish. He devotes a chapter to the impact of parish work on the Gospel minister. See Thomas Chalmers, “The Advantage and Possibility of Assimilating a Town to a Country Parish,” The Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns: 89, doi:10.1017/cbo9781139854733.002.
[i] In United Methodist Church (Book of Discipline), for instance, “parish” is often used as synonymous with congregation.
Howard Cole says
Thanks for this. How do you execute a good parish ministry with so many other churches in town?
Dr. Michael Milton says
Thanks Howard. The answer is “cooperatively.” The goal is the conversion of the parish and doing ministry that will strengthen the parish for the greater good. So working with agencies within the Church, even other churches, as well as working with nonprofits and even government, to bring about help to the needy, is a way to take care of the physical needs of the parish. But the response is always cooperation and a collaborative ministry. Hope you are well down there in beautiful Charleston! Your mamma is proud of you!