Ministry is not a science, at least not the way I think about it. As my friends, Ryan and Jess Woods, put it. Ministry is about the two most unpredictable forces in the world–the Spirit of God and human beings. There’s little predicting to be done, or little cause and effect logic to be implemented when these are the primary mediums involved in your work. This is not science, but art. I’m not saying you can’t do ministry as science. Many do. And these methods can even draw a crowd. I just have my doubts that ministry science is much about the Holy Spirit. Charles Grandison Finney, the prolific nineteenth-century revivalist, once said, “Revival is not a miracle… It is, rather, the right use of the calculated means.” So, you can even do revival as science. I prefer Ryan and Jess’ view. Ministry is an art.
But just because ministry is an art, doesn’t mean it doesn’t require skills or habits or methods. Painters, musicians, writers, all have skills they hone and techniques they master. For my money, the art of the minister revolves around tending to narratives–God’s, the congregation’s, the community’s, and the narratives of individuals. This work requires more than just telling stories. It’s about interpreting how these various narratives are functioning and how they might be contributing to a common story that constitutes God’s calling on the congregation.
In taking up this kind of work, I have learned from others how to name certain rhythms or perspectives that characterize my work and make it fruitful. I want to write about three of them over the next few weeks and why they are important to me and give credit to the people who helped me name them. So, here they are. Action-reflection-articulation. Managing polarities. Myth and parable.
Here’s a brief explanation of each.
Action-reflection-articulation. I try not to plan anything that relies on the all-too-often default movement of teaching to application. If you think of congregational life simply as getting people to enact the right bits of information, you’re working with a fairly weak notion of how people learn, change, grow, etc. And you get very little back in the way of narratives. So, I try to build into everything I do a rhythm of action-reflection-articulation. Quite simply, I think of ministry as calling people into new experiences that they in turn reflect upon and say something about. Sounds simple. But I’m convinced that most congregations have a narrow band of experience they require of their members. And even less do congregations ask members to reflect on those experiences and say something meaningful about them. But this is precisely where new narratives come from that in turn can lead to profound congregational changes.
Managing polarities. In ministry you sometimes encounter irreducible tensions around two different positions–a polarity. Because we think tension is bad, we tend to do everything we can to reduce it, or collapse the polarity. Often this is accomplished by declaring one side or the other the winner. Sometimes, though, polarities are a necessary part of a healthy congregation. The tension doesn’t have to result in conflict, but can produce energy. The key is learning how to strengthen the positive aspect of both poles. And often the key to this is providing a narrative that accounts for both positions.
Myth and parable. Congregations, like people, authorize behaviors according to root narratives. We live, in other words, according to the stories we tell about ourselves. These narratives are constructed and they tend to both reveal and conceal things about congregational life. It’s always important, therefore, in understanding a congregation’s life to interpret the ways a congregation’s narrative is functioning, and how it represents the truth of the congregation’s life. Healthy congregations have narrative elements that are both mythic and parabolic. By that, I mean some stories tend to function to say “everything is ok and in good order.” This is what a mythic narrative does. But some stories upset good order and say there’s more here than we have taken into account. These stories are parabolic. Not only do I use myth and parable to diagnose congregational life, but I use these dimensions of narrative as a rhythm for ministry. I always begin with the mythic and then move to the parabolic. Again, narration becomes very important to this way of thinking about ministry.
It’s tempting to think of ministry skills in relation to preaching, teaching, caring, planning, and managing. These have their place. But these narrative skills are both more primary and more powerful in terms of addressing congregational life.