You can make ministry about skills. But I doubt you’ll be in it for the long haul. Ministry is about knowing where to stand and what kind of person you need to be to stand there. Let me try to make what I mean a bit clearer. There are forces and pressures that come with the territory in ministry, and simply preaching a good sermon is not enough to prevent them from crushing you.
On one side you have the pressures of representing God, and on the other you have the needs and expectations, or wishes and desires, of people. If you’re a monk, you have only the former. If you’re a football coach, only the latter. But congregational ministry brings them together in a concentrated form. Not getting crushed is all about finding the right place to stand.
Add to this my sense that those who seek ministry possess a higher neediness quotient than the general population. They need approval, or to matter, or to be needed. So, they seek a place that will scratch what is an often insatiable itch. Ministry seems the perfect fit for this kind of neurosis. However, this makes finding an uncrushable spot to stand in ministry nigh impossible.
So, where is this place to stand? I think Paul describes it well in 2 Cor 4. “Because we are engaged in this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart…We commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God…”
Paul, in my opinion, gives us three ways to think about this place to stand. First, we stand only in or by the mercy of God. So, let’s take performance off the table as a factor in a sustainable place. God’s mercy makes us competent, not our abilities. Obvious enough, you say. But not so easy to do, I say. For a multitude of reasons, we find it easier to make this whole thing about performance.
But it’s the second phrase that I find more descriptive of space, of a place to stand, and it has two parts. First, “commending ourselves to the conscience of everyone.” This is an odd phrase. Other than Paul, I seldom here anyone else say this. What would this be, and what would be other than this? Well, I think the “other than this” might be what Paul’s opponents in 2 Cor might be appealing to. They are flatterers, entertainers. They seek to secure the congregation as an audience through a performance, appealing to that part of each of us that just wants to be happy. Don’t trouble me, please me. But Paul is aiming for a truer place, a deeper place. He does not appeal to the affections, but to the conscience. He wants to win there, because this is where transformation can occur, where our desires and behaviors can line up in a way that is true to the self, to God, and to the world.
I’ll admit, for many of us in ministry, appealing to the affections is a shorter path to security, or even to a certain definition of success. But if you want justice, mercy and righteousness, the conscience is more reliable than the affections.
“In the sight of God.” There is only one audience in ministry. There is only one to whom we offer our actions. God, the one who sees all and judges with righteousness. Not the elders. Not the congregation. Not your family. God. Duh, right? Again, not so easy to do. I think this requires, for instance, that you be less motivated by keeping your job or by pleasing your congregation. It’s a seek ye first kind of thing. There is no second. And really, if we did this, churches would be perpetually looking for new ministers, because they will insist on a second allegiance.
Here’s the thing. God is a more merciful audience than a congregation. So, we’re back to where we started. By the mercies of God, we do not lose heart.
I’m hoping to deepen my meditations on 2 Cor 4 over the next few weeks. I’d like to do this with my readers. So, make comments as they occur to you and let’s render this standing space thickly and distinctly.