WHEN HANGING AROUND IS ALL YOU CAN DO
Some words for pioneer ministers
Work today is very linear. It has a beginning and an end, each day, each week. We start projects and we finish them. We set goals and achieve them. We have nothing at the start and at the end there is a product. Meanwhile, our work is monitored, assessed, audited. We have to prove our worth. Everything is highly regulated.
Christian ministry is not like this – except we’ve made it so. There’s a good way and a bad way of looking at this. The good way is that the Church, knowing God speaks through many different sources, has taken the best from the business world and sifted God’s wisdom to shake up how we do things. This is something the UK public sector has done over the last thirty years, though this might give us some pause for thought, because it’s been a mixed bag of results there.
The bad way of looking at this is that the Church has lost its original confidence in the God who brings life out of death and victory out of defeat and, judged as it is from outside and within for being unprofessional, has uncritically adopted ways of doing things that are not snug with the kingdom of God – like a child trying to fit a round piece into a square hole on their puzzle and leaving it jammed there, insecure and ready to pop out. Or to take a spiritual analogy, it has become like David who tried on Saul’s armour in readiness for battle with Goliath, only to find he couldn’t walk around in it, never mind slay a giant.
I’m not sure the Church has taken on board what it might learn from the business world about pioneering ministry, because much of its thinking has been drawn from established business. The pioneering model has more in common with the ethos of Silicon Valley’s start-up culture, where failure is accepted as part of the fabric of business, with many people failing at start-ups before finally finding their niche. There is an echo of death and resurrection in this. But how much, I wonder, does the Church accept failure as an almost inevitable part of the package of pioneering?
Ministry has its own feel. It’s similar to work and yet somehow radically different. To assess it, I want to take five examples of pioneering from Bible - all from the Old Testament, as it happens - because they each have something to say to us.
The first of these characters is Joseph. Joseph had a clear calling that he was well aware of from an early age. The good thing about being called by God slightly later in life is that you’re not as prone as the very young to a kind of messianic complex, which sees the world as a place to be conquered by your special gifts. Joseph was a spoilt big head. You probably know his story, so let me cut to the point. By some strange turns of event, he was called to pioneer for God in Egypt. An inhospitable place for the people of God. His role was to save God’s people and the wider world from a severe famine. But for a large part of his time in Egypt, Joseph was an imprisoned foreign sex offender. He had no reputation left to preserve. We take from the story that Joseph had much growing up to do before he could be a leader for God, but think about his suffering. Surely there were less painful ways for him to mature than being fitted up and thrown into a ghastly ancient prison, with all that would mean? God ensured that a large part of Joseph’s life was spent doing nothing and achieving nothing.
There are periods in the life of a pioneer minister when it seems to be going nowhere. At least in the sitcom Friends, life was stuck in second gear. Instead, you are in an endless traffic jam, with a big lorry in front of you, so you can’t even see how long the queue is or how soon it will move. You may be familiar with the words of the Methodist covenant service, where people express a willingness to be set aside for God. This feels so not what a pioneer should be doing, but sometimes it is our lot. But we’re always working to our clock, and not to the eternal reckonings of the God for whom a day is like a thousand years.
Next up is Moses. If work today is supposed to be logical and linear in how it makes progress, Moses’ example is of pioneering ministry going round in circles. Round and round. Faith as washing machine. Even the hardest journeys can be lightened by the company you keep. Moses was surrounded by a bunch of whiners: irritable, ungrateful, self-absorbed people who didn’t get the bigger story. It’s easy to be critical. Imagine planting some Anglicans into that set up. The Israelites would have the patience of Job by comparison. Pioneer ministers have fresh space to express themselves in God. But they are still surrounded by the structures and the people of the Church. God allowed that wilderness experience. And he allows it today, too. For those who pioneer.
David’s is an epic story in its sweep. You can pick any number of themes from it, but I’m going to highlight two. David was bullied over a long period of time by his boss. That may be understating Saul’s murderous rage, which he was able to sustain over several years, but it was bullying all the same. It drove David out of his place of ministry. Saul filled his waking and his sleeping moments, in the way that bullies always do. David was not able to conduct the ministry he should have had in the king’s palace. Many years were wasted in anxiety. Many pioneers will know that feeling. It’s not unique to pioneers, but special energy is needed for the role of pioneering, and this experience distracts from it.
And then something happened that is true to life. Saul dies in battle, meaning David is freed from the assault on his life and knows he will become king in short order. But that very moment is overshadowed by the death of his great friend, Jonathan. In unemotional terms, this is the two steps forward, one step back dynamic that is so true of pioneering. Jonathan would have been a brilliant chief of staff for David and also could have kept Saul’s suspicious household onboard. But the emotionally intelligent response is to see how our moments of joy and triumph, often coincide with disappointment and trauma. There is an intimate relationship between joy and sorrow, between life and death, between cross and resurrection. It should be there in our teaching, our practice. It is a component of pioneering.
The fourth example is that of Jeremiah. You get the impression of Jeremiah that he was a sensitive, easily discouraged man. He was averse to conflict and desperately wanted God to use someone else in his place. I have a lot of sympathy for Jeremiah and I expect you will too. It is as if God took the person with the least predisposed Myers-Briggs personality to take on the world in endless conflict. It wouldn’t have been easy for anyone, but God must have known someone with a thicker skin. Ministry is interesting that way. We often feel we’re the wrong person for the role God has called us to. We simply take a different view of who we are. As if God failed in his role as interviewer when he gave us the job. And having done so, we stick with our story about us rather than God’s. Pioneering should be in the DNA of all those called for God, but pioneering is, in practice, often so different to the routine experience of other forms of ministry that we can feel insecure and exposed, as if no-one gets us – like Jeremiah felt.
Joseph, Moses, David and Jeremiah. All pioneers in their own way. And here are some of the things they shared. Large chunks of their ministry looked like failure on the surface. They spent big periods of time doing nothing in particular. In some cases, this meant their goals were unfulfilled for ages. They often felt lonely and misunderstood. But it’s the time factor I want to end with. Our culture has a thirst for quick results. Everything must flow at speed towards a destination. But there is almost nothing in God that works this way. What do quick results mean to a God for whom one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years one day?
Take a look again at the ministry of Joseph, Moses, David and Jeremiah. We entirely discount what went on in the gaps. In some cases, we know what happened, but there are years of patient, loyal trust in God that glue everything else together and which find their place in the kingdom of God as much as the epic successes.
We need to own these humdrum periods of time as from God. They have their own intrinsic merit and prepare us for the bigger moments in life, ensuring we are primed and ready for them. The routine in pioneering is spiritual. We must play the full game to appreciate the drama. Where is God in the gaps?
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