I entered full-time ministry later in life after a career in business and discovered quickly the importance of training and education. Fact is, I’m still learning. I’m finding that with each new ministry context I learn more about myself, my calling, and my relationship with God.
My role in ministry is called “Discipleship Ministry,” but it could just as easily be called a “2nd Chair” role. Because I’m in a support role, I don’t carry the same kind of weekly burden that my ministry friends in the pulpit carry. It’s different. People who serve in a similar role to mine tend to find themselves serving behind the scenes. They are the education or small group ministers, the pastoral care or outreach ministers. They work with, and minister to, adults.
Ministers in these roles, are as essential to the life of the church as any other. Too often, I think, churches fail to take the role as seriously as it deserves because the tasks (at least on the surface) may seem simple and manageable. At times, leadership doesn’t see its importance either and will hire inexperienced or untrained people to take on the ministry. I call this the Holiday Inn Syndrome. Do you remember those commercials? “I’m not a surgeon (insert whatever profession), but I did stay at a Holiday Inn last night.” This happens in churches all the time. While this “priesthood of all believers” inspired impulse to hire someone without training may be well-meaning, the outcome produces all kinds of problems – which leads me to the focus of this brief article.
One of the best and most lasting works on the posture of the Christian minister is Henri Nouwen’s work, The Wounded Healer. Published in 1972, the book was meant to speak to ministers in the 70’s coming out of a tumultuous time in American history and written in a very different time than ours – on the surface. I’m struck by the way Nouwen describes the culture and find similarities to ours now 45 years later. In his description of the generation in his day and the challenge of leadership, he writes:
“Christian leadership must be shaped by at least three of the characteristics that the descendants of the lonely crowd share: inwardness, fatherlessness, and convulsiveness. The new minister must take a very serious look at these characteristics and consider them carefully…”
“In a study of college students, published in Oct. 1969, J.K. Hadden suggested that the best phrase with which to characterize those young men and women was the “inward generation.” It was the generation that gave absolute priority to the personal and that tended, in a remarkable way, to withdraw into the self.” (p. 31)
Now contrast his thoughts here with this more recent reflection on the postmodern mindset from Sandra Schneiders:
“Postmodernity is characterized by fragmentation of thought and experience which focuses attention on the present moment, on immediate satisfaction, on what works for me rather than on historical continuity, social consensus, or shared hopes for a common future. In this foundationless, relativistic, and alienated context there is, nevertheless, often a powerfully experienced need for some focus of meaning, some source of direction and value. The intense interest in spirituality today is no doubt partially an expression of this need.”
In a time when Americans are talking more and more about loneliness, with some calling it a new “age of loneliness,” Christian ministers find themselves in a similar spiritual role as Nouwen called ministers to in his day. The culture is turning in on itself and, in an attempt to find purpose and meaning in the self rather than in Christ, is losing its way.
For ministers to be effective in this culture, particularly as ministers to adults, we need to be a non-anxious presence that, as Nouwen puts it, seeks to “clarify the immense confusion that can arise when people enter this internal world [of the self-bp].” What I’m suggesting is not new, but I think needs a renewed emphasis.
Our first task then, when entering a new context, or re-dedicating ourselves in our current context, is to focus on our relationship with God and our relationship with people. In other words, for ministers to be effective, we must embrace and love our churches before we ask them to join us in the work of the church. The church is a volunteer environment. Every member attends by choice and for all kinds of reasons. Like the gospel, our appeals for new ministry efforts are also by invitation. If the church discovers our love for God, they will be more likely to trust us when we ask them to risk something new for God whether it be in their personal relationship or in the practice of ministry.
Over the years, I think all of us in congregational ministry develop a list of “do’s and don’ts” for ministry that we acquire in various ways. We look back and remember those times in ministry where all seemed right in the world, when God seemed near and our dream for ministry was materializing right before our eyes. You feel like anything is possible and like every ministry “lever” you pull works. It’s as if all the effort and hard work aligns perfectly and you watch as your church courageously practices their faith in new ways.
Then there are other times in ministry where we find out the hard way that our dreams for ministry prove more difficult to realize. Sometimes, like when we were kids and found out from mom the hard way that stealing was a bad idea, we learn from our mistakes. Maybe it was that ambitious small group ministry re-structuring program that didn’t quite take off, the hospital visit with the awkward ending, or that special Sunday event when you forgot to order the catering (Recalling that great quote from “Parks and Recreation”: “Let me just say, from the bottom of my heart, my bad.”).
These experiences are important, but they lose their meaning if we, as ministers, fail to nurture our relationship with God and with our church. Only then can we help adults see again the beautiful alternative for joy, peace, and fulfillment in Christ our culture simply cannot offer.