Years of conversations with congregational leaders, both clergy and lay, have convinced me that attending church council, vestry, or other congregational governing board meetings is one of the least satisfying parts of congregational life for many of us. Singing in the choir, preaching a sermon, visiting a hospitalized member, teaching a Bible class, socializing at a potluck supper, or tutoring a child tends to be much more engaging than two hours spent around the table in conducting church or synagogue business.
In a recent article published by Duke Divinity School’s Pulpit &
Pew Project, the Rev. Lillian Daniel captures this reality.1 She recounts a recent trustee board meeting at her congregation, Church of the Redeemer (United Church of Christ), New Haven, Connecticut. Pastor Daniel struggles to endure the meeting. Bored by its mundane progress, she first tunes out and plans a speech she will give on theological education while the trustees discuss taking their semiannual turn preparing and serving a meal at the local homeless shelter.
Tedium and Chili Mac
Soon the trustees are mired in the details of meal planning. At its most heated point, the conversation centers on the correct recipe for chili mac. Then attention moves to whether they should purchase large or small cans of chili. Does anyone have a membership at a discount food warehouse where they can get the best deal? Should they should buy grated cheese or grate it themselves? Someone announces that the church does not own a cheese grater. A calculator is produced to determine whether it is more cost-effective to buy grated cheese or to buy a cheese grater.
After 45 minutes of such meandering, a new board member asks why the trustees always serve chili mac. The conversation spirals downward into past complaints about the chili mac and talk of whether homeless people can afford to be picky about the menu. At 50 minutes Pastor Daniel has lost it. She seethes inwardly. “This moment is eternity. I am losing my religion. I have lost my eschatology.” Discussion returns to the cheese grater. All of us, I daresay, have known such exasperating moments in congregational life, perhaps more often than we care to admit.
Grace Breaks In
And then Pastor Daniel notices something else. One member pushes deeper. “I’d hate to be homeless on a night like this.” Daniel senses the breaking in of grace and holiness as “for a moment the clerk puts down his pen, the calculator is pushed aside, and everyone is silent, and I feel as if I hear God’s pen making a scratchy note in the book of our cherished lives.”
Soon the talk moves on to space requests from groups who want to use the building, and then to broken windowpanes. But “there was a moment when we were all quiet, and we could hear each other breathe, and we could hear who had a cold, and who was a runner, and who was choked up.” That moment in the midst of all the tedium was “really eternity.”
Daniel’s article is part of a recent collection of brief essays titled What Is Good Ministry? Resources to Launch a Discussion. Each contributor points to special qualities, competencies, and capacities that are essential for good ministry to happen. Daniel proposes one quality as fundamental to the others. It is the ability that she herself demonstrates in the story. A minister is not called “to be an expert, just a person who can notice grace in earthy places.”
The other 13 authors offer arguments about various facets of excellence in ministry—the ability to proclaim the Word, the competence to form and lead a community, the skill to teach and equip people for their vocations, the presence and imagination to preside at worship, and the capacity to read and reinterpret people’s lives in light of a specific faith tradition. Those essays, along with the articles that appear in this publication and elsewhere, are the beginning of a fresh and much-needed argument about “good ministry.” What is it? What conditions are necessary for it to flourish? How do we invite people into it? How do we prepare them for it? How do we support them in it?
It is time for those of us who care about congregations to take a fresh look at the ministry. We need to see clearly that this kind of work embodies something precious and life-giving. We must discern first for ourselves and then for others what difference good ministry makes in the world. In short, we need to perceive anew and then to revalue the ministry so that it receives the support and priority it merits.
1. Lillian Daniel, “Minute Fifty Four,” in Jackson W. Carroll and Carol E. Lytch, eds., What Is Good Ministry? Resources to Launch a Discussion (Duke Divinity School: Pulpit & Pew Research Reports, 2003), 4–8.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including the Alban Institute special report on leadership.