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.
Looking forward to this conversation, Mark.
“(I)f we did this, churches would be perpetually looking for new ministers, because they will insist on a second allegiance.”
Do you think this is true of all/most churches? Or just some/enough? I’d hate to think that most churches are so secondarily interested in God’s Kingdom (when compared to their own Kingdom), that they’d constantly silence those who spoke God’s discomforting Word. But at the same time, I find myself constantly wrestling with this (internally), even in a relatively healthy ministry–so maybe it is the norm.
If so, is there way to fix this problem? Is there a way to grow as a congregation into a group that hears the Word with our consciences unguarded? In other words, is there a way to progressively prepare my church to hear uncomfortable things from God and say “Amen!”, not “Let’s look for a new preacher!”?
Wayne, probably a little exaggerated statement. But here’s the thing, we’re not even aware when we are doing it. Neither is the preacher who chooses security over the risk of the Kingdom. What I guess I’m saying is that the roots here go deep and saying we’ve got one audience is easier said than done. I do think that both minister and congregation can get better at this and that awareness is the first step.
I am an Elder in our Church. I want to preach next year on Psalms 1. I will talk about perspective and truth and how we sit stand and walk. What is your perspective on standing on God’s truth while the congregation wants to hear their own pwrspective massaged?
Andrew, I guess I’d confess that we all do what you want to warn us against. By God’s mercies and all…
I would also say that my post is not about standing for an idea, but standing in a faithful relational place. Psalm 2, like most biblical understandings of standing and truth are not primarily about ideas, but about relational knowledge. After all, Jesus is truth, not primarily ideas about Jesus.
I didn’t understand this sentence, until I read the first comment: “And really, if we did this, churches would be perpetually looking for new ministers, because they will insist on a second allegiance.” I thought that maybe God would be moving people around more if they didn’t insist on giving their allegiance to their specific congregation… but then the last part of the sentence didn’t make sense…
I found this a helpful post. I am currently in a bit of a state of limbo, having been declined entry into a competitive-entry course that I have been working towards for about eight years. I lead the (tiny) music team at my (small) church, and my husband has just agreed to become an elder. I am not sure what God has in store for me, and I struggle with exactly the things you talk about here: I seem to “possess a higher neediness quotient than the general population. [I] need approval, or to matter, or to be needed.” But I have found (surprise surprise) that my most effective ministry has always come out of the times when I feel I have nothing much to give but I know that God is near.
How do I live there? While still getting everything done that needs to be done and doing my best at the things I am doing and so on?
Hey, good to hear from you again. I’m not sure, exactly, how to respond. I know that it is often the case that knowing that God is near trumps whatever else is going on. “By God’s mercies, we do not lose heart…in God’s presence.” I’d say “living here” is a relational term, not a skill/competence term. Some people get ruled out of ministry because they don’t have the requisite skills or gifts. But most do well enough to pass the competency test. The sustainable space, I’m saying, is having the God/congregation relationships right. This is what allows you to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Betty and I have been involved in a small congregation in Oregon for 13 plus years and I confess that I was performance motivated for most of those years. But the past few years my motivation has been about pleasing God and depending on his mercy when self gets in the way. There was a time when preaching the whole of the Gospel was difficult because I did not want to step on anyone’s toes. However, the whole of the Gospel, even when it steps on my own toes, needs to be proclaimed and the congregation that I preach to, God’s people not mine, have come to understand that, for which I am very thankful. Performance matters very little to me now, except for this time of the year when the attraction of new people to our congregation is very important. The Christmas story is so powerful and wonderful and beautiful and I want things to be just right. And yet, “By God’s mercies I will not lose heart” at my failures.
Dave, great comments. I’m glad you’re having a good experience.