First, a disclaimer. I am no expert on thriving in the grind of ministry. I am not sure such an expert exists. I would offer this, if someone claims to be an expert – run the other way. We would do better with less perceived experts and more companions for the journey. I am just a companion, an ally among allies who desires to see us all participate faithfully in the plan of God. Since I’m not an expert, let’s consider this a conversation starter. And as conversations tend to do, we may travel through several topics in the course of our time together. This conversation will be some sort of a cross between Biblical Theology, Eco-Systemic Theory, and Alice in Wonderland.
I hope this time together stimulates our thinking about how we approach ministry. I hope the churches represented become healthier due to our time together. I hope we are able to reframe our situations in ways that help us to see what God is up to.
We would like a formula for thriving in the grind. But, we’re realists here. We know there is no such thing. What we are able to do is explore some things to increase the likelihood of thriving.
- We are more likely to thrive when we remember we are not the author of the mission; we are participants in God’s mission.
- We are more likely to thrive when we are able to see ourselves as part of a story with a plot.
- We are more likely to thrive when we realize we are not solo agents.
- We are more likely to thrive when we understand that even our seemingly small decisions and behaviors influence the witness of the people of God.
- We are more likely to thrive when we realize God has called the people we serve alongside of.
- We are more likely to thrive when we realize crisis and complication can be opportunity and possibility.
- We are more likely to thrive when we are not seeking for easy solutions.
- We are more likely to thrive when we’re able to embrace the unknown in faith.
We serve between two competing realities. One of these leads to guys like Peter Drucker claiming that pastor is one of the four most difficult jobs in America. It can feel like endless meetings or balancing budgets or maintaining facilities. It can result in stress or feeling under appreciated. It can make things outside the church look much more interesting and profitable. This reality is in contrast with another reality. One that acknowledges we are joining in the plan of God in a Kingdom Mission. It can make things outside the church look like places of opportunity to make the gospel known.
Wendall Berry is a farmer and poet and philosopher. He has given us much to think about over the years. One of the things he gives us is this quote. “to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.” He is right. Life is more complicated than what one individual brings to it. Things will get more complex if you even add a cell phone or a Visa or fantasy football or Xbox, if you start adding people in your life, things will complicate fast. Yet, our reality is – we belong to a people, there is no way to avoid the complication. To talk about healthy individuals in the church is as strange as if we talked about having a healthy elbow, or one good eye, or healthy tendons while the rest of the body is breaking down.
In Systems Theory it is common to explore what is known as the negative interaction cycle. In a family, it will show itself. It can’t be covered up. A good systems therapist will not be looking to heal the diagnosed member of the family, but instead trying to convince the family that the whole system needs to be treated. So, a family of four comes into a session; mom and dad, brother and sister. The family is reporting all the problems brother has been having at home and now it is trickling into school and his best friend doesn’t even come around anymore. Meanwhile the therapist is watching what is happening in the room. And brother has pinched sister who is trying not to cry but is looking at mom who is trying not to be embarrassed but is looking at dad who is frustrated it always happens this way and he shames brother and proclaims “this is why we are here, help him please.”
A good systems therapist knows that if this family is given permission to think that brother is the problem then this family will fail. The system needs work or else dad will begin to isolate himself from these issues by staying longer at the office and mom will be attracted to some guy who has more executive function and brother will continue to communicate through his behavior that things at home are not good while sister will develop some disorder while trying to please them all. The fact is, brother probably pinched sister in front of the therapist hoping that the therapist would see the interaction cycle and be able to help. Here is something you don’t hear enough, pay attention to the troublemakers, they may be trying to help.
Here is some news, neither good nor bad. Churches also have negative interaction cycles. Sometimes verbal, sometimes actions… but the church is full of communication (and know this, all behavior is communication). On the other hand, we know we are involved in a Kingdom Mission. We are envoys of the King. We participate in forays and rendezvous into the world to spread Kingdom Mission. When honest we admit it is literally the greatest adventure possible. On the surface this sounds like exciting work, it sounds like something that would make a great story or even a movie. Yet, somewhere along the way this Kingdom Mission begins to feel like something else. It feels like a chore. It gets complicated. It feels like we are caught in a grind. To be a minister of the gospel is to be caught between two competing realities.
The good news is, even though churches come with complicated personalities and negative interaction cycles. Even when we see confusion and isolation and impossibility – God sees these things as opportunities for the Kingdom Mission.
This mission is real. It is not new. It’s been around for a while. Let us read an old text that reminds us a plan is in play.
Genesis 12.1-3… this Abraham story is one of our most important stories and without it the rest of the Bible would not make the same sense, yet we often look past it. This is the story that reminds us we are part of a long history of a people chosen from the world and for the world. As it turns out, God’s plan is a group project.
This becomes really important. There is a big difference between believing something and living in the narrative of the people of God. God did not make a people and say “that was fun, I better find something for those people to do.” No, God had a mission… and God made a people to do that mission. You and I will thrive when we remember that we have been born into the greatest of stories.
Everything that happens after Genesis 12 is in context with this text. We sometimes read about Abraham like he is a solo agent who will one day hand off to a solo agent. Probably because we convince ourselves we can manage things easier when we work solo.
But the idea of working solo is not part of the story. Before we know it, Sarah is playing a bigger part. She is barren, then she’s not. Then she has a baby. Things are getting more complicated and she hasn’t even got a cell phone or a visa yet. The story is becoming complex and there are sixty-five and ½ books left.
A girl named Alice went into a rabbit hole after a white rabbit with a waist coat and pocket watch and experienced an adventure she never imagined. Yet another day, it was a rainy day, Lucy Pevensie stepped into a wardrobe during a game of hide and seek with her brothers and sister and became a vital part of a great adventure. Another day Sam asks Frodo, “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?” We would do well to be asking ourselves that question.
I mention these stories because the characters were not looking for an adventure, they just found themselves in one. I propose that life is like this. We all find ourselves in a story that is not of our choosing. We do not go out seeking such cosmic drama. We do not know how we get tangled into the story that carries meaning for eternity. We just find ourselves in it.
One April day a baby boy was born. When his grandfather first saw him, he remarked “he is the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen.” I did not choose to enter the world like this; it is just the way it happened. I have never been asked to carry a ring to Mordor or had to battle a Jabberwocky or the White Witch. But I have landed in a story that is more grand than any I could have ever imagined. I suspect that my most difficult times are when I forget that I play a role in that story. Likewise, I suspect I thrive during the times I remember that.
It is the dilemma of being human and being called into the story of God. When honest, we know that ever since Abraham, the people who are called to provide the solution are part of the problem.
The Genesis text reveals something to us. God is up to something. In the midst of barrenness and other struggles to thrive God is up to something. God is calling a people. God is shaping the church to be someone that shows the world what Jesus is like. The world God so loved… this is God’s plan. We are part of a people.
The world is a place that thrives on division and power and control. It would be easy to blame the world. It would be easy to think things are beyond redemption, but ministry becomes more difficult if we think like that. When I remember that God has a plan to redeem even the worst of situations, ministry has opportunity to thrive.
When we resort to blaming and believing that things are beyond redemption, we are like the family we mentioned earlier. It is easy to forget that God is interested in the health of the whole system.
The book of Job introduces us to a day when the sons of God, Satan among them, presented themselves before the Lord. I sometimes wonder about those days. I wonder if on one of those days the Lord asked Satan, “Where have you come from?” And Satan would reply “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.”
And then Satan would continue, “I know that you desire humans be your image bearers, your representatives on earth. But the human experiment has been a disaster. They disappoint at every turn. Do you remember what happened in Eden? Have you forgotten the corruption of the days of Noah? Must I remind you what they were doing at Babel? Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that humans will never become the representatives you had hoped for.”
And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered the human Abraham? I have selected him to leave his home. His descendants will be many and his reputation will bring me glory. The whole earth will be influenced by this plan.”
Then Satan answered the Lord, “Have you considered his age? Have you considered he is childless and his wife is barren?” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, watch this plan change the world.”
Before I knew anything about God’s plan to save the world, Mom and Dad started to take me to church. We talked about God in some ways that made God sound omnipresent, but indirectly we were taught that God resided at the altar. This was the place to find Him and the primary place we could go to talk to Him. But we also believed that God could be found in revival meetings, camp meetings, and preachers. And the louder the preacher was and the more the preacher chastised the listener, the more of God they seemed to have.
We also were taught where God could not be found. God could not be found in bowling alleys, skating rinks, movie theaters, or places where dancing was permitted. God could not be found around cigarettes or beer or people who cuss. It improved the odds of having an encounter with God if we only stayed away from the wrong places and the wrong people. Even other church groups were not as holy as we were and we had doubts they would even be in heaven. This influenced the way we prayed. It became essential to pray for others; after all we wanted them to become part of the right church.
So there I was at church. And I was singing… “I’ve got a tiger by the tail it’s plain to see; I won’t be much when you get thru’ with me. Well, I’m a losing weight and a turnin’ mighty pale. Looks like I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail.…” Not gonna find that in a hymnal. Not the lyric you might expect to hear in Sunday School. But there I was in front of the class belting out the lyrics. The way the story was told to me, the teacher asked if anyone in the class had a special song they wished to sing. While older me can’t imagine myself agreeing to sing in public, apparently five-year-old me thought it was a good idea. Buck Owens would have been proud. My parents – not so much.
Soon we were attending a new church. As far as I know that wasn’t related to my song. But from early on I was part of a community called church. I had no idea what that meant at the time. I had no idea how belonging to church would shape me or where it would take me.
But in this community called church I started to learn things. They had a book there called the Bible. It invites us into a story. I have become a big fan. Sometimes I explore this literature alone. This can be enjoyable and a reasonably helpful exercise. This allows me to move at my own pace. I can reread parts that I like best. I can turn the page if the reading becomes too uncomfortable.
Yet, the Bible is intended to be relational. It is written for a group. It is best explored in community. It is to be read in twos and threes and even larger gatherings. And the Bible makes it clear that one does not join this kingdom mission in order to stay out of trouble. The journey will take you to slave camp, through deep water, into the wilderness, and onto a battlefield with giants. The narrative explicitly calls us to follow one who was sentenced to execution. If safety is what you desire, if easy is what you are interested in, this journey makes no promises.
The Bible had invited me into its story. After hearing how a nation of slaves had been rescued and how a young shepherd had taken down a giant with a rock and how three young Hebrews had survived a fiery furnace, I knew that these were the kind of stories I wanted in on. (When my ancestory.com came back I was sure I was going to be related to these people. I was disappointed that David nor John the Baptist showed up in my family tree). And I remember as a youth wondering when we were going to stop talking about cigarettes and cussing and start getting into the good stuff. When do we get to fight the giants or overnight with lions? When do we get to toss someone over the boat to get swallowed by a fish? But then I looked around the room and I highly doubted that these were the kind of people who could do these things.
Go ahead, next Sunday morning. have a look around the room. You may decide you would’ve have picked someone else for this task. For that matter, look around the room here, in your wildest dreams would you have thought this would be the people chosen to lead the way in the Kingdom Mission? Because that is exactly what God is thinking. Go ahead… take a look this is the group God has called to serve in the WCD of the CCCU. We belong to a long history of people called to put the plan of God into action.
That reminds me, I have been spending time at the compost bin. Confession… I have compost issues. (I love compost). I freeze kitchen scraps until I can dump them into the compost bin. I don’t drink coffee but I frequent coffee shops so I can collect used coffee grounds. I rake leaves from the woods into the yard so I can add them to the compost.
Compost is amazing stuff. Adding it into the garden feeds plants, holds moisture, fights disease. I have been making compost all winter and have big plans for it this spring. But compost doesn’t start out so amazing. It starts as onion peels, celery butts, potato skins, the tops of tomatoes, the inside of peppers pieces of newspapers clumps of hair, feathers, eggshells, grass clippings, coffee grounds. The list goes on. It starts out kind of slimy, kind of smelly.
As I turn the pile, I occasionally recognize some of the individual scraps but the contents are being transformed into an entirely new material. They may not seem like much before they become a part of this collection. But together, this stuff is something. Turning the pile permits air to enter and allows the pile to breathe. Turning it into the garden helps to hold moisture, fight disease and feed plants that will feed us.
I am turning the compost and can’t help but think about the church. I can’t help but think that individuals who become part of this gathering are no longer what they used to be. I can’t help but think of how God is turning this group into something new. I can’t help but think of the big plans God has for this group together as a source of blessing and hope for the earth.
Yes, we look around and we might not see the church we dream of. Individually we are a broken, wounded, divided, spent, used, messed up group of scraps. But together our individual-ness, even our natural abilities and inabilities, takes a backseat. We may not look like much as individuals, but together we are God’s plan in action. Gathered and turned by the Spirit, we bring new hope to the world.
Have you read The Fellowship of the Ring recently? You can’t help but think about the impossible odds against the company sent out to destroy the ring and defeat the evil Sauron. Yet, the task must be done and it appears the wrong team has been chosen to do it. Tolkien leads us on an interesting adventure. As necessary as this adventure may be, success does not seem likely when we look at a company that consists of a dwarf, an elf, a wizard, two humans and four hobbits. The task is great, the company appears small.
Go ahead and look around the room on a Sunday morning… you might think you’re in over your head. God keeps calling people to the Kingdom Mission who seem less than capable to accomplish the task. Things are more difficult for my ministry when I forget what God has planned for these people. Ministry becomes more difficult when I start to think I know what these people are capable of. When I remember that these are the people God has called to the Kingdom Mission – ministry tends to thrive.
You have heard this before, but we need to say it again. We did not design the mission. This is not our plan. Our ministry is to join with Jesus in his ongoing ministry as he offers himself to others through us. When we fail to understand ministry as union in Christ all things are cast back on us. What can we say about a ministry that becomes dependent on our skills? It is a guarantee we will lose our witness and probably any joy that comes with serving. It should be our prayer that we become a vehicle, not a barrier, so we might become accomplices in the ministry of Christ. We simply want to piggyback onto the ministry of Jesus as the ministers of Christ.
When we forget this is his ministry – we will struggle. On the other hand, when ministry is thriving, it is because we are getting in on His plan.
One of the beauties of working with Jesus is the company of God. God does not work alone. God works as a fellowship. We are introduced to God as a Trinity.
Trinity is not just systematic theology. Trinity is the fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit. God is in relationship. To participate in mission is to participate in the fellowship and activity of the Trinity. God is love because Father, Son, and Spirit are in relationship. Trinity is God in community.
And this God loves to get in on difficult moments. This God loves to get in on the complications of life. This God wants to move into the grind of ministry. We know this because this God has always spent a lot of time in a place called impossible. What do we see when runaway slaves are caught between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea? Not the same thing that God sees. Can three Hebrews walk into and out of a fiery furnace without a scratch? God likes those odds. Can the blind see? Lame walk? Can lepers be cleansed? Can someone be raised from the dead?
Just saying, the God I once thought resided only at the altar has been busy in a lot of different places. God is active in the Kingdom Mission. God is active in the grind of ministry. God loves to get in on difficult moments and redeem them. And this God has chosen to partner with us. No wonder Romans asks the question… “who can be against us?”
We are God’s chosen. Yet, we have not pulled this off perfectly. We swing back and forth between two realities. Still, God has not lost confidence in this plan to love the world through a people.
That is why it is important for us to keep getting together. Our gatherings are not just rituals on a check list. Not just necessary so church staff can earn paychecks. These gatherings have cosmic implications. As God told Satan in our fictitious conversation about Abraham, “’watch this plan change the world.” God gathers these groups together to show the world the ways of God. The church is God’s show and tell.
We gather because the world needs to see there are people who look out for one another when things are good and when things are not. The world needs to see there is something out there stronger than the common divisive rhetoric and behavior. The world needs to see that when Jesus enters a group, something interesting and flavorful starts to happen. We keep getting together so the world might become curious about this plan of God’s to work with a people. God wants the world to know that it is possible to thrive during complicated times. God wants us to thrive in the grind of ministry.