There’s a commonplace ministry experience I’ve found that many of us don’t want to talk about. Every day we have to do things we’re no good at. Our prospects for improvement are slim, yet we’re rightly called on to do them. Say what you want about our spiritual gifts working harmoniously within the context of a suitably matched ministry. I know of very few such matches that are truly made in heaven. At best, the match is always approximate.
Not every good preacher is skilled at organization. Not every good pastoral caregiver is eloquent in the pulpit. Not every manager who is good at “minding the store” knows why we do what we do, except that it says so on the organizational flow chart. Our gifts differ, and so too do our liabilities and vulnerabilities. Part of the magical thinking that infects call committees and personnel committees is the expectation that the new hire or new call will include all of the strengths of the previous occupant of the position, plus those that were conspicuously absent. At some point, a reality check sobers everybody up. Then authentic and faithful ministry can begin.
Let me illustrate. In my early ministry years, I called a pastor friend who lived in another part of the country. We had been college roommates.
“So, how’s it going?” I asked him.
“OK, I guess,” he said, “but I’m really struggling with my preaching. It’s hard.”
“How do you live with this predicament,” I asked, “since preaching is something that hangs over our heads almost every week? And after all, our tradition is big on proclamation.”
“I don’t really know,” he said with his singsong Wyoming drawl. Frankly, his response made me worry for his personal well-being. I never stopped to consider the big picture of his giftedness that stood him in good stead with his congregation.
It’s been over twenty-five years since we had that moment of long distance truth-telling. Not long ago my friend came through town, and we had a brief reunion. He’s still in the mainstream of parish ministry. His self-confessed professional limitations, true or not, have not prevented him from being a faithful and effective pastor. Somehow his unique combination of gifts has enabled him to render great service to his community.
In recent years, I had a candid conversation with a prominent pastor who is head-of-staff in a high-profile congregation of a nearby synod. “John,” he said, “I’ve always struggled with my visiting. I do it, and I work at it. But even after all these years of experience, when I’m sitting at someone’s bedside in the hospital, I have trouble being present and paying attention the way they taught us in clinical pastoral education.” Again, these particular limitations have in no way prevented him from rendering distinguished service.
Now, of course, what you want to know is what I’m willing to admit I’m no good at. Moreover, I presume you’d like me to do so in a way that does not cleverly redound to my credit. Okay, what I’m no good at is asking people to do things, or as we sugarcoat it in the church, “recruiting and equipping for ministry.” What the better angels of ministry call “empowering others,” I often experience as plain old chasing and begging. I know better. But spiritual entrepreneurship is not my forte. Just as my late father was never that good at selling insurance—Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman and the play Glengarry Glen Ross have always haunted me—I could never sell all my “Scout-O-Rama” tickets door-to-door without my sister Jane’s help. The equipping of the saints is a noble business but not one for which the Spirit has specially endowed my person and work. Yet the parish has every right to expect of me a minimum level of performance even in these areas.
At this point in the discussion, what we church professionals usually do is to say that if only we could get a fix on our inventory of spiritual gifts and then match it up with the missional needs of the right ministry setting, all would run smoothly. Or we speak with hope of continuing-education plans and covenants that might overcome our ministry deficits. We invent language about “growing edges.”
What we won’t do, however, is to admit that we may be at the end of our rope and dangling by a professional thread. After all, it’s important to stand tall as a “visionary leader.” Were it not for our limitations (“the good, the bad, and the ugly”), though, would we have any qualifications for ministry? The old medieval hymn Felix culpa (“Oh, Happy Fault!”) comes to mind. What if the beginning of wisdom, and for that matter, the beginning of effective and faithful ministry, is to confess that ministry is quite simply impossible? And what if this is absolutely not an excuse, not a clever lowering of expectations that allows us to avoid giving it the good old college try? What if it’s simply the truth? And what if embracing this truth is not only the beginning of wisdom, but also the beginning of faithful and effective leadership?
Sooner or later a Christian worker has to face the reality that ministry itself is an impossible possibility—not because it is so professionally complex and demanding, or because the minister doesn’t have all the right gifts, or even because the congregation isn’t, as they say, “healthy,” but rather because what God asks of the world—and what we are charged to proclaim—is something about which the world quite simply freaks out: dying in order to live. Nobody wants to die to self. In the same way, dying to our well-laid ministry plans calls for trust that there’s new life on the other side of their demise.
One of the questions we may ask seminarians at the several stages of their candidacy process is this: “What does Jesus’s death and resurrection mean to you? What should it mean for the life and mission of the church?” Sometimes we get a dissertation of bookish proportions. Often we get a moving testimony about heaven and the afterlife.
What is uncommon, though, is the budding leader who says something like this: “You know, Jesus’s death and resurrection should mean that we Christians are willing to let some of our ways die so that we may more faithfully answer God’s call and serve others. If we actually live by the promise of the cross, maybe we can let go of our set ways of doing everything. Because of Easter and the promise of the resurrection, maybe, just maybe, the future of our church is not closed but open.”
Humility leads to this down-to-earth approach to ministry. “Downward mobility” it’s sometimes called. Simone Weil calls humility “the freely accepted movement toward the bottom.” Count yourself lucky if you happen to work with a tested leader of this stripe.
Death and resurrection is not only the subject of preaching, the heart of liturgy, and the spirit of pastoral care, but also the unseen influence shaping the leader’s daily professional functioning. The leader is humbled by the very work of ministry: by not always having the answers, by lack of giftedness for important ministries, by the need to apologize for insensitive remarks, by failure to keep commitments, by cowardice, by laxity in prayer, by anger and resentment toward “problem” people, and by disillusionment with the once-held ideal of the church. James Barrie, the sentimental author of Peter Pan, said, “Life is one long lesson in humility.” So, too, is the practice of ministry.
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Adapted from Cross-Shaped Leadership: On the Rough and Tumble of Parish Practice by John A. Berntsen, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
On the Rough and Tumble of Parish Practice
by John A. Berntsen
For Lutheran pastor John Berntsen, those who lead are subject to the cross no less than others. Cross-shaped leaders are not primarily the providers of master plans, nor are they master builders. Cross-shaped leadership is provisional, contextual, and fallible—an open-ended ministry that is always under construction and revision. Our moment-by-moment functioning in ministry is subject to countless deaths and resurrections, few of which are heroic or glorious. But Berntsen offers hope and challenge in the midst of the rough and tumble of parish practice.
Being Radically Open to God’s Guidance and Grace
by N. Graham Standish
Humble leadership, grounded in the teachings of Jesus, means recognizing that what we have and who we are are gifts from God, and our lives should reflect our gratitude for these gifts. It requires us to be radically and creatively open to God’s guidance, grace, and presence in everything. When we lead out of such openness, God’s power and grace flow through us.
The Competent Pastor: Skills and Self-Knowledge for Serving Well
by Ronald D. Sisk
Competence in ministry is a moving target. A ministry technique that works in one parish may not work in another. What works today may not work five years from now. But a competent pastor will be able to adapt to changing locations and changing times. This book is intended to help pastors, seminarians, and lay people who work with pastors understand themselves and others and to keep a realistic perspective on their work and their lives.
Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness
by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly
Four Seasons of Ministry serves as a guide for what you will find on your ministerial journey and gives meaning to the routine and repetitive tasks of ministry. Authors Bruce and Katherine Epperly invite clergy to see their ministries in the present as part of a lifelong adventure in companionship with God, their loves ones, and their congregations.
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