Louisville Institute associate director William Brosend II discusses the five elements of ministry that are more important than anything else

I quit my job. It’s a long story, and I did not stay unemployed for long. The point is that I quit. Twenty-some years after ordination, five years after my installation, and a few months after writing a piece for The Christian Century called “Staying Power,” I realized that I could no longer stay where I was. So I resigned my call as senior minister of a good church with some wonderful members and an attractive salary. My wife, the church’s music director, resigned too. In part we left because we could; in part because we did not know what else to do, how else to save ourselves, and (though it was not really a factor in our equation) how else to save the congregation from ourselves. Only now, a few years later, do I realize some of the larger theological issues that lay behind a personal and practical decision. I quit my job for the sake of my ministry. Having gotten myself to a place where I was no longer doing much of anything that mattered in ministry, I needed to start over somewhere else. What matters in ministry is too important to neglect.

Ministry in a Changing Church
Those employed as pastoral leaders, lay and ordained, have seen more change in the past 20 years than our predecessors saw in the past 200. Given the changes in the rest of our lives, the changing church should not have come as a surprise. Without doubt many new developments have been beneficial: increased acceptance of women in ministry, more open and participatory decision-making structures, greater participation of lay ministers and leaders, and more. You have your own list. And you also have a list of less welcome changes: declining member participation and involvement, financial constraints in economic times good or bad, ongoing resistance to meaningful racial-ethnic integration in most settings, a tendency to politicize and polemicize every disagreement, and so on.

What has bothered me most amid these changes is the absence of adequate theological reflection, by myself and others, on what matters in ministry. We use a variety of criteria in deciding what clergy, congregation, and denominations will do in their ministries, but rarely do we include thoughtful theological reflection on what we think matters in ministry. Yet if we have not agreed on what matters, how will we decide what programs, opportunities, and options to attempt or avoid? In the absence of some considered priorities, we end up doing what sounds good, or what worked at the church down the street, or what we remember as having been meaningful to us or our ancestors a long time ago. Disaster.

Midway through my last call, the board of deacons convened a meeting of all interested members to discuss possible ministry emphases for the coming year. I appreciated the initiative, but sat in agony as the group chose to respond to the issues and needs around us—changes in state welfare requirements, the increasing violence on our city’s streets, the upturn in adolescent suicides, growing polarization in the denomination, and downturns in membership involvement—with plans for an “invite a friend to church” Sunday and a new committee to send a hot loaf of bread to the homes of first-time visitors (the bread to be purchased from a fashionable new bakery).

It did not help that in recent years at conferences, conventions, and on the airwaves and outlets of popular media, I have been declared obsolete. A dinosaur. The ways of ministry inherited in my tradition and taught not so long ago at our seminaries have been judged ineffective. I am not alone. At least two generations of clergy, and two centuries of American religious practice, have been widely denounced as impotent, out of touch, and fit for Paul’s rubbish heap (Phil. 3:8). The way must be cleared for “The Next Church.”1 Melt down the organ pipes; strip the sanctuary of religious “artifacts”; build facilities indistinguishable from a shopping mall, cinema complex, or doctor’s office. Toss the hymnals, project the lyrics on a giant screen, and crank up the amplifiers. Don’t bother with seminary—go to a seminar at Saddleback Church in California and study with Rick Warren. Who needs graduate school when the polling and marketing data are available in the latest book by George Barna? The problem, we are told, is in the presentation. Fix the appearance of things, shine the surface, and when potential congregants look, they will see a reflection of themselves, and all will be well.

Forgetting What Matters
I know, I know. I exaggerate—a little. But still I do not buy such advice. Faith is not a fad, worship is not entertainment, and religion is not about marketing. Make no mistake—the church is in crisis, and ministry is at a crossroads. But the problem is not one of appearance. It goes much deeper. At least in part, the issue is that too many of us in pulpit and pew have forgotten what matters in ministry.

“Why did you become a minister?” Tony Campolo, American Baptist house curmudgeon and provocateur, once asked of the clergy gathered for a regional ministers’ council meeting. At that point, almost 20 years into ordained ministry, I had to admit that I had pretty much forgotten. But Campolo pressed on. Why did you become a minister? What dreams, what convictions motivated the sacrifices you and your family made to put you through seminary? What vision of church and ministry kept you going through Hebrew class, systematic theology, church polity, and field-education seminars? What kind of minister did you plan to be? Put more dramatically, to what ministry had the Lord called you? Where and how and with whom did you plan to serve? What did you expect to be about? What challenges and changes and chances did you plan to make and take? Do you remember? Then came Campolo’s clincher: What happened? Why are you not doing those things anymore? Why do you settle for something else, something less? Do you know? I didn’t. And it wasn’t that I was not trying. You name it, and I had been there, done that. I was just no longer sure why.

And so the Lord, in the Lord’s infinite mercy and not-so-subtle sense of humor, forced the issue. A few months after Campolo hit me with a two-by-four between the eyes I “celebrated” a turning-point birthday. It was getting harder and harder to explain my growing confusion. Either I knew what I was about or I did not. Either I knew what mattered in ministry and dedicated myself to doing it, or I did not. Growing up is hard to do.

Like any good University of Chicago product, I started reading about the problem—no sense jumping in and acting when you can do research. I had already spent too much money and time on the church-consultant gurus—Lyle Schaller, Kennon Callahan, Herb Miller, et al. I needed sterner stuff. Eugene Peterson and Henri Nouwen were challenging guides, and a friend blessed me with Roberta Bondi’s work. From these and others I delved deeper into the classics—John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, The Cloud of Unknowing, the sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and on and on, back and forth across the ages, the faiths, the forms.

The late Father Nouwen provided my starting question. Speaking to a group of colleagues about his own turning point (at age 50), Nouwen asked himself, “Am I closer to Jesus?” I soon realized that this is not just a good question; it is the question for any Christian minister and ministry. “Am I closer to Jesus than I was before?” As a result of my ministry, our ministry, this ministry, are others closer to Jesus than they were before? Like Nouwen, I did not much care for my answer. I remembered how my friends and I would occasionally look at each other during a seminary class at Vanderbilt and ask, in our best Nashville drawl, “What has this got to do with Jeeesus?” But I had forgotten how important the question was. When I looked at what I was about, day in and day out, year to year, and asked the Jes
us question, I choked. And I cried. And I read some more.

Five Elements that Matter in Ministry
When I finally sorted through the issues, it did not take long to realize that I did remember what mattered in ministry—I had just stopped doing it. Ministry happened, but the ministry that mattered happened more by blessed accident than by ordained design. Instead I did what I thought others thought I was supposed to be doing, or did what others in my position were doing. I started to write and talk and preach a little about what matters in ministry, and received encouraging responses. The Louisville Institute provided me with a sabbatical grant (before I joined the staff), making possible more conversation and writing. But still I found it easier to do things that did not much matter, because—well, for all kinds of reasons. Now, pray God, I am done with that. Life and ministry are too short to spend on things that do not matter.

Five things matter in ministry: Prayer. Scripture. Worship. Guidance. Witness. They matter in that order. Prayer. Scripture. Worship. Guidance. Witness. Everything else comes after. I am firmly convinced that the real need of most churches, regardless of size and site, is to rediscover what matters in ministry, and the real hope for most ministers, regardless of age, is to recommit their ministries to doing the things that matter.

1. Prayer. The first thing that matters is prayer on our knees, in our hearts, through our journals, with the throng, without words, without ceasing. Prayer: intimately communing with God, sharing, making covenant; blessing and being blessed. Prayer, above all, as being present to God and enjoying God’s presence with us. “Almighty God,” goes the collect for purity with which many begin their worship, “to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.” What is that but a prayer for prayer, opening our hearts and making our desires known to the One who knows everything about us? Yet pastoral leaders find, or rather make, so little time for prayer. Each year I read hundreds of applications from those seeking a grant from the Louisville Institute to help with sabbatical expenses. Nine out of 10, if not 99 of 100, mention the applicants’ need to rediscover and rekindle their prayer lives. And if it is true of the pastor, how much more so of the people?

2. Scripture. Devotion to Scripture also is essential, not as object of adoration but as focus of study, resource, and guide to discerning God’s will. Scripture is testament, inspired and inspiring; it is our home. Scripture is difficult and dangerous. Lately, at least in my new home in the Anglican Communion, Scripture seems much more a source of confrontation than of inspiration. The confrontations will not last, but Scripture will endure. Scripture takes time; it frequently offers more than we are prepared to receive. The need for such preparation was confirmed for me last fall when I led a Sunday morning “Race thru Scripture” at a local parish. With apologies to the folks at “Walk thru the Bible,” we surveyed Scripture in 10 weeks, learning how to read the Bible fully, faithfully, and well. By the end of the class, interest was so great, the desire to learn about the Bible so strong, that 175 chairs were insufficient.

3. Worship. If our chief end is to “glorify God and enjoy [God] forever,” the chief way we do this is to worship, with pomp and pageantry and splendor; with humility, simplicity, and grace. We do it with the Word and at the Table; we do it under sheltering trees and shimmering stars. Mostly we do not do it enough. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way:

Worship is more than paying homage. To worship is to join the cosmos in praising God. The whole cosmos, every living being sings, the psalmists insist. Neither joy nor sorrow but song is the ground plan of being. It is the quintessence of life. To praise is to call forth the promise and presence of the divine. We live for the sake of a song. We praise for the privilege of being. Worship is the climax of living.2

Amen to that!

4. Guidance. To help, direct, and lead us we need a spiritual guide. We need a counselor to encourage us or to confront us, to challenge us with God’s Word for us, and to help us discern what that Word is. We need a pastor. Here I should make clear that my understanding of guidance owes much more to my experience of spiritual direction, and the classic conception of the cure of souls, than to contemporary models of therapy and pastoral counseling. Some of us in ministry are gifted, trained, and supervised for counseling. All of us are expected—I would even say “required”—to provide guidance. What shape does such guidance take? Right now my favorite metaphor is “accompaniment,” in all its meanings, both a walking beside on the journey and an offering of (musical) support while the other has a chance to solo.

5. Witness. Witness still is a troubling word for many but an unavoidable word from the One who said, “Go ye therefore” and “You shall be my witnesses.” We witness to self and others in worship, prayer, and study. We witness in fellowship around the table, not only in worship at the Table. We must witness tangibly to a world and to neighbors who have not heard or felt a good word in so long that they cannot fathom what good news might be. We witness visibly and vocally to peace and justice, love and hope; or we give the lie to our prayer and worship, betray Scripture, and offer empty guidance. When we witness, we often discover sources of strength and spiritual resources we did not know we had. Like the one who does not know what he or she really thinks until talking about it, the church discovers the depth and power of its faith only when it gives faithful witness to those beyond its doors.

Should We Be Doing This?
Five things matter in ministry. Prayer. Scripture. Worship. Guidance. Witness. The rest is show. As we struggle with our ministries, as we review programs and possibilities for our churches and agencies and outreach, we do well to ask, “If this is not about prayer or Scripture or worship or guidance or witness, should we be doing it?” The answer is no.

1. The Atlantic Monthly, August 1996, cover article by Charles Trueheart.
2. Abraham Joshua Heschel, “On Prayer,” in Susannah Heschel, ed., Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), 263.