Tag Archives: calling

What My Wife’s Job Taught Me About Ministry

betterI used to think my job was hard, and then I got married.  My wife is a physician, and I’ve been blessed to be her partner through MCATs, interviews, medical school, match day, and (most of) residency.  United Methodist clergy go through a period of formation called “residency” before we are ordained, but trust me, it’s nothing like medical residency.  I am constantly in awe of what my wife and her colleagues do: not just the technical mastery needed, not just the massive amounts of knowledge one is expected to hold or the crazy hours doctors work – but the fact lives are in their hands day in and day out, and at risk in decisions great and small.

The work of clergy is in some ways similar.  If we believe that spiritual health matters at all, or that it somehow intersects with physical, mental, and emotional health, then the care of souls is critically important as well.  In our democratized age of religion, many of us try to “go it alone.”  But I’m here to tell you: the self-guided information about physical health available on the internet is of the same dismal quality that one finds in the spiritual realm.  The care of those called to these ministries thus has some things in common, not least in the importance of formation for doctors and clergy, but also in the challenges they face.  I resonate with Atul Gawande’s description of medicine in Better:

“But success in medicine has dimensions that cannot be found on a playing field. For one, lives or on the line. Our decisions and omissions are therefore moral in nature. We also face daunting expectations. In medicine, our task is to cope with illness…the steps are often uncertain. The knowledge to be mastered is both vast and incomplete. Yet we are expected to act with swiftness and consistency, even when the task requires marshaling hundreds of people…for the care of a single person. We are also expected to do our work humanely, with gentleness and concern. It’s not only the stakes but also the complexity of performance in medicine that makes it so interesting and at the same time, so unsettling.” (4)

I contend that one could replace “medicine” with “ministry” in the above, and the description would still ring true.  As a friend of mine says, the work of a pastor or priest is full of both “blessings and bedevilments,” which is of course true for most, if not all, vocations.

My wife has given me newfound appreciation for medicine. Gawande has helped me see some fascinating connections between my wife’s calling and my own.

What other connections do you see? Have I overstated my case? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

Do Pacifist Christians “Love the Sinner, but Hate the Sin”?

Official Veterans Day 2013 poster, courtesy Wikipedia.
Official Veterans Day 2013 poster, courtesy Wikipedia.

Today is Veterans Day in the United States.  We remember and celebrate women and men who have served in our armed forces, whether in peacetime or war.  I wonder if a pacifist Christian can celebrate today?

Let me explain.  I recently preached a sermon questioning the commonly used phrase, “love the sinner, but hate the sin.”  For a number of reasons, many of which are spelled out by my friend and fellow Methoblogger Ben Gosden here, I do not think this is a phrase Christians should be quick to use.  Other good explorations of this phrase, which comes perhaps from Augustine but likely Gandhi (but certainly not Scripture), include reflections from Ken Collins and Micah Murray.  I especially agree with Murray that Christians tend to only use this in talking about sexuality.  For whatever reason, it is largely progressive Christians who have had an issue with this phrase (and in this case I happen to agree with them).  But in some recent reading a question was raised for me: do pacifist Christians display this exact attitude when dealing with the military?  Pacifists, in my experience, will go to great pains to proclaim their love for military personnel, though they disagree with the soldier’s vocation.  They “love the soldier” but “hate the war.”

Andrew Todd, at the conclusion of an excellent volume he edited exploring military chaplaincy, argues that churches who send chaplains should be sure that they can support the (limited) use of force in certain situations.  His rationale is that

“…if chaplains need to be committed to the military mission, as a corollary of their Christian mission, then the same must be true of the churches. That means that in the interests of supporting the moral role of chaplains discussed here, the ‘sending churches’ must also be supportive of the use of lethal force by an appropriately authorized military in support of peace and justice and must believe that serving the military can be a Christian vocation. Otherwise the chaplain is at risk of discovering that in seeking to live out the gospel within the military community they have become isolated from their faith community.” (168)

In other words, for chaplains to exercise their role effectively and legitimately, the ‘sending’ churches need to approve of their vocation, and that of the Christian soldiers under their care.  The chaplain cannot adequately show Christ’s love to the soldier if the church that has endorsed that ministry believes both the soldier and the chaplain to possess fundamentally flawed notions of discipleship.

As analysis of the “love the sinner, hate the sin” has shown, in practice it is very difficult to separate a person from their actions.  I would argue that the soldier’s vocation is about who they are, about identity, rather then simply actions which they are trained to do on the battlefield.  It is not merely another job that can easily be separated from one’s personality; in part, this is because the military is perhaps the most effective contemporary institution when it comes to formation.  Just try and tell someone who is or who has been a soldier, airman, sailor, or Marine that that identity is not especially important to them.  Thus, to condemn the actions of military personnel while claiming to still love and respect them as persons is to divide their identity from their vocation in way that simply does not make sense.

So, can pacifist Christians legitimately claim to love soldiers and veterans while simultaneously declaring their vocation illegitimate in the eyes of God?  And if so, is this not just another form of “love the sinner, hate the sin”?

Discerning a Call to Ministry? Ignore the “Do Anything Else” Advice

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How often do we send this message to people discerning a call to ministry?

There is a piece of advice I heard in seminary that is oft-repeated, and one that I have come to dislike.  It originates with Spurgeon, as pointed out in a great article over at Gospel Coalition:

“Do not enter the ministry if you can help it,” was the deeply sage advice of a divine to one who sought his judgment. If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fulness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit by that for which his inmost soul pants.

I have two problems with this view, especially since it is so often regurgitated. (Don’t believe me? Check out here and here and here and the comments section here.) The two are:

1. This advice assumes that ministry requires only one skill or ability.

2. This also implies that ministry is uniquely difficult.

First, the “do anything else” advisers seem to want to drive away anyone from the pulpit that has any real skills! Of course an authentic calling – both internal and external – is greatly important.  But calling does not imply a dearth of talents.  There is no one “ministry gene” that someone needs to faithfully heed the call to church leadership.  Instead, ministry requires a group of diverse skills, which will vary depending on the context.  In my own setting – pastoring a small church – a normal week could requires skills in writing, oratory, management, long-range planning, counseling, caregiving, conflict resolution, research, coaching, and staff development.  Even more specific ministry roles (for instance, youth ministry or executive pastor positions) will require a wide range of personal and professional skills.  Does anyone possess them all? No, that’s why we focus on our strengths and manage our weaknesses.

But all this goes to show that someone who will excel in ministry could likely succeed in a wide variety of fields related to leadership, communication, education, etc. To say to someone discerning a call to ministry that they should only go through with it if that cannot possibly do anything else is to drive away a great deal of talent and promise from the church.

Second, pastors are good at complaining talking about how difficult our work is. This is what the table conversation at an inordinate number of clergy gatherings might consist of, if you don’t choose your seat wisely. For me, implied within the “do anything else” advice is a warning: “This work is so arduous and frustrating that you won’t make it unless this is your last resort, unless God has made sure you ABSOLUTELY can’t do anything else!”  Much of this way of thinking leans tends to this direction.  One of the above advisers puts it this way:

On the whole (with exceptions) the hours are long, the people are a problem (indeed without the interaction with people the Pastorate world be great!) and the pay is poor. I am not even sure about the retirement benefits.

As one of my mentors taught me to recognize, “everyone works hard.” Especially in today’s economy, there is no work that is not difficult, that does not have unreasonable expectations, long hours, and little reward.  Every company – for-profit or not – is attempting to get more out of its employees while paying less.  No one makes what they are worth, with very few exceptions.  Pastors would do well to remember that our people are in the same boat we are, and often (here I’m thinking of ordained UMC elders) we have more job security than they do.  Our work is not uniquely hard.  It would be more accurate to say our work is hard uniquely.  In other words, ministry is not hard the way that a factory or office job might be, but is difficult because of the various skills needed (enumerated above) and the emotional toll that the week-in, week-out grind of church life can take – especially when funerals, sickness, conflict, and other emotionally draining parts of our vocation begin to pile up.

In closing, we should close with a word of hope.  Vocational ministry is not easy, but then, no one has it easy.  We would do well to remember that all of us look to the same source to sustain us.  Easter reminds us that death and meaninglessness do not win, that our work, when tied to the work of God (any work done for God’s glory is ministry, after all), will finally find its consummation in that Kingdom that is to come:

Ministry is difficult.  Therefore the great challenge of ministry is to be the sort of characters who can sustain the practices and virtues of ministry for a lifetime. What we require is some means of keeping at ministry – preparing and delivering sermons, visiting the sick, counseling the troubled, teaching the ignorant, rebuking the proud – even when we don’t feel like it, even when  it does not personally please us to do so.  Fortunately for the church, Easter will not let us give up, though we have ample reason, in the present age, to do so. We are not permitted to give up on ministry because God, if the story of Easter is as true as we believe it to be, doesn’t give up on ministry in the world. As prisoners of hope, we keep working in the expectancy that God’s kingdom will come, that God’s will is going to be done on earth as in heaven. (Will Willimon, Calling and Character, 55)

Preachers: Don’t be a Hack

I think there are a lot of connections that can be helpfully made between the work of excellent stand-up comics and that of preachers.  Particularly helpful is the term “hack.”  A universal definition would be difficult to find, but this one from About.com is sufficient for my purposes:

Definition: “Hack” comes from the word “hackneyed,” which means that something has lost its meaning or impact by being overused or repeated too many times. Jokes can be “hacky” when they are too obvious or familiar, but comics can be considered “hacks” as well. Comics who use the same old material, or who use jokes that are known to everyone (and which that comic most likely did not write — they more likely came from an off-the-shelf joke book) are typically known as hacks. Some comics quickly develop the reputation as hacks for other reasons. Dane Cook has widely been called a hack by his detractors mostly as a shorthand for comparing his massive success to his perceived lack of talent (and also for often falling back on the same kind of shtick). Carlos Mencia has been called a hack after being accused of stealing material from other comics; even without those allegations, his reliance on Latino stereotypes for his comedy has a reputation for being “hacky.” Carrot Top has been labeled a hack in some comedy circles because his comedy is dependent on props; the same goes for watermelon-smashing Gallagher. Being called a “hack” is about as dismissive a label a comic can receive, at least among other comedians.
Also Known As: cliched, tired, familiar, corny, outdated, unoriginal
A preacher I respect very much once said in preaching seminar: “Don’t do the sermon that everyone is expecting you to do.  Don’t take it some place everyone has been.” That is, I think, “hack” preaching. Like hack comedy routines, hack preaching relies on established directions that are crowd-pleasers, very accepted and established, i.e. “successful.”  Done well, “hack” preaching is very popular.  But it isn’t what Seth Godin would call art.  It isn’t original. It isn’t bold.  And since the congregation has likely heard it time and time again, it is unlikely to be transformative.
Pulpit colleagues: our calling is high. Our work is complex. We deal in texts with intimidating pedigrees, with which many servants of the gospel have wrestled for centuries.  It is hard not to be a hack.  But our calling is worthy of that effort.

The Cross is Not About You

Pay attention to enough old revival songs, and eventually the individualism of so much “Jesus n’ Me” theology will wear your patience thin.  N.T. Wright is an evangelical Anglican (a rare breed indeed) who gets that the Good News is not just about “my salvation,” and I continue to learn a great deal from him.

As Good Friday approaches, in which we meditate on the cross and consider all that Christ endured to effect our reconciliation with God, I found these words a helpful reminder that the cross is not merely the news about something done for me, but also a vocation that is to impact how we as Christians approach life and ministry and mission each day.  The cross is personal but also political, it is individual and communal.  Like the entirety of the Biblical revelation, it is first about who God is, and only secondarily about me.

I hope this blesses you in some way as it did me, and I would heartily suggest you add this volume to your current reading list.

The cross is the surest, truest and deepest window on the very heart and character of the living and loving God; the more we learn about the cross in all its historical and theological dimensions, the more we discover about the One in whose image we are made and hence about our own vocation to be the cross-bearing people, the people in whose lives and service the living God is to be made known…we do not – we dare not – simply treat the cross as the thing that saves us “personally,” but which can be left behind when we get on with the job.  The task of shaping our world is best understood as the redemptive task of bringing the achievement of the cross to bear on the world, and in that task the methods, as well as the message, but be cross-shaped through and through.”

N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 94-95