Ministry Essentials: Generosity

For years I had three words taped to the top of my computer screen: gentle, generous and content. They were aspirational, character traits I desired for myself and still do. There was a time when I imagined generosity as the easiest of the three. Not any more. As I get older, I am painfully aware of just how ungenerous my instincts can be.

In the practice of ministry, generosity is assumed. After all, we’ve committed our lives to a cause larger than ourselves; we’re invested in the care and support of others; our ordination vows are to lives of self-giving and service for the good of the church and community. Generosity is of the essence. Yet the idea of generosity is quite different to a generous instinct.

The word generous speaks of a large and plentiful spirit, one that creates a broad space in which others can flourish. Honestly, though, my heart can be as small and petty as any other. No matter how magnanimous the ideal of what I do, self-interest is a powerful force. Concern for my own image, obsession with my impact, the craving for respect and recognition — these desires have a gravitational pull that’s hard to resist. Each makes small the space I have to offer.

I have learned over the years that generosity in ministry — a spirit of leadership that is wide and plentiful — is a decision made over and over again. It is realised in daily choices for a broad and inclusive horizon. There are three of those choices I’ve come to understand as essential.

First, there is the choice to be generous in my assumptions. The people we minister to and with come in all shapes and sizes, each one unique and complex. They can be brittle, bombastic, opinionated, defensive, blind, biased and insensitive. They might even vote Liberal! Frankly, assuming the best is not easy. Yet the conviction of my faith — that we are all made in the image of God — stands. As different as we might be, we are bound together. “While we find ourselves washed up on shores so different they could be their own planets,” writes Sarah Krasnostein, “the ground beneath our feet is always the same.” If I am ministering from a small and defended place, then your difference is all I see and I am prone to suspicion and mistrust. With a large and open spirit, I assume your goodness and am more able to offer you the grace I crave for myself.

Secondly, there is the choice to be generous in my affirmation. One of the most challenging pieces of advice I received as a young pastor was this: “It is only when you are at ease with yourself, Simon, that you can celebrate others with abandon.” I have discovered over the years that the instinct to self-interest flows commonly from a basic insecurity: I am not enough. When my life is governed by this sense of lack and the craving for reassurance that follows, my horizon is small and my ability to cheer for others contracts. I am more grasping than giving. On the other hand, if I am at ease with myself, my calling and my worth in the eyes of God, then I am free to rejoice in you without reserve.

Thirdly, there is the choice to be generous in my blessing. Whatever our tradition, we pastors have a privileged voice. We are the ones who stand in pulpits. What we say matters and what we bless has influence. Week after week, we model an understanding of God’s priorities and the breadth of God’s concern. To be generous in blessing is to honour the lives of those in our congregations, to recognise that their callings are larger than the church and its programs. I have long believed that my primary task is not to grow the ministry of the church as institution, but to support the mission of the people of God wherever they are — to encourage, resource and cheer them on. As much as I believe it, however, the practice is challenging. I well understand the pressures to build the church’s brand, influence and reach. I am rewarded for the growth of those things which have the church’s name on them. To bless equally what lies beyond requires a more open and generous posture.

In my experience, the value of generosity in ministry is easy to name yet so difficult to live. A generous instinct has to be nurtured. It’s like working a muscle: let the workout subside and the muscle contracts; allow those daily choices for generosity to diminish and my reach shrinks. Clearly, maintaining a large and plentiful spirit is a stretch. So I’ll keep stretching.

Ministry Essentials: Presence

As a young seminary student, I was assigned to a congregation in the suburbs of Brisbane. I arrived to a community in mourning. They had just lost their pastor, one in whom they had invested a good deal of hope. Though he arrived with great flourish, he left just two years later professing God’s call elsewhere.

A few weeks into my placement, I met with an older member of the congregation. We sat at her kitchen table in a housing commission flat directly opposite the church. A stalwart of the community, she was kind but weary. We spoke of her disappointment in the pastor’s departure. “He never really moved in,” she said as she poured tea into my cup. “They often don’t.”

In most cases, we pastors are an itinerant bunch. We come and go. Given the average tenure of four years in a congregation, it’s a reasonable assumption that a call to pastoral leadership is a call to transience. There are many reasons for this, and not just flightiness of spirit. The systems and cultures in which we minister do little to encourage stability. Regardless, there is something to be said for the pastoral practice of ‘moving in’ — the choice to be fully present in our communities for however long we are there. In fact, it’s essential to what we do.

Being present is about more than showing up to preside, preach and lead. It’s about settling in — this is now my home and these are now my people. It’s about living into a particular community as an expression of our theology, our humanity and our calling.

Theology: At the commencement of every deacons meeting at Collins Street — a central city church — we pray a prayer that begins, “God of this city, your home and ours …” If Eugene Peterson’s rendering of John 1 is an accurate indicator of God’s movement in Christ, “the Word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood”, then this prayer is more than a pleasantry. It names a theological commitment that shapes our mission. For God, this ‘moving in’ was more than a pragmatic or momentary relocation for a higher purpose. Indeed, there is no higher purpose disconnected from the ‘flesh’ of our lives and neighbourhoods. Without roots in a particular place and among a particular people, the gospel is not good news. It is simply a good idea that never lands.

Humanity: The philosopher Martin Heidegger has said that to be human is to dwell. By dwelling, Heidegger means more than just residing. To be human is to truly inhabit a place, to experience it from the inside and to allow that place to inhabit us. There is something about this that speaks profoundly into the nature of pastoral work. The real impact of our ministry arises out of the dwelling we share with a community of faith. We are placed people, confined physically and geographically in ways that both narrow and deepen our reach. Embracing those limits by pressing into the suburbs, towns and neighbourhoods in which we serve is an expression of our humanity, our God-given humanity.

Calling: For me, being present in a local parish flows most easily from the liberating discovery that this neighbourhood is as infused with the presence, grace and calling of God as any other on earth. As I walk the streets and laneways that surround my church, I may see nothing but ordinariness. Regardless, it is sacred space — every ordinary inch of it. Argentinian novelist Roberto Arlt once said, “I have come to the conclusion that he who does not encounter the whole universe in the streets of his city will not encounter an original street in any other of the cities of the whole world.” Similarly, when it comes to the presence and purposes of God, there are no greener pastures. I am called to make this one home. As surely as I am called to embody and proclaim the good news of Jesus, I am called to be present where I am.

Presence lies at the heart of ministry. In his most recent book, Everywhere You Look, the neighbourhood activist Tim Soerens names a challenge we pastors need to hear. “Don’t listen to the anxious noise,” he writes, “Don’t believe the lie that the future of the church depends on more hype, more professionals, and more stagecraft. I’ve been to enough neighbourhoods to tell you that presence trumps performance every single time.”

Ministry Essentials: Attention

All pastors have their ‘first funeral’ stories. Mine was for an infant. I remember the little casket carried into the church and placed in front of me, a small Pooh Bear sitting on top. I remember the parents’ grief, raw and without edges. I remember the looks of those gathered, each one desperate for something to contain their sorrow. And I remember me, in my early 20s, so glaringly inadequate to the task. That was years ago now and the services I’ve led since are more than I can count, but there is not one I’ll forget.

For those who lead them, funerals demand a level of attention unequaled in pastoral work. They are not everything and only occasional, but funerals require a depth of preparation and care that’s unavoidable. The truth is, I come away from a funeral exhausted, such is the emotional energy required. Yet it’s here I am more conscious of the value of what I do than at any other moment.

In my view, our leadership of funerals proves the mettle of our ministry more broadly. This has everything to do with attention. We don’t wing funerals. We don’t show up unprepared. We bring our best selves and our best preparation, every time. We are pastors and, as such, we take the stories and experiences of those we care for seriously. Indeed, in these moments there is nothing else as important.

It is this business of paying attention that is essential to the nature of Christian ministry as a whole — essential in moments significant and ordinary. In pastoral work, the commitment to paying attention is vocational. We are called to attend: to God’s presence in the world; to the sacred texts of our faith and their truth for our lives; to the experiences and challenges of those we minister to and with. What’s more, we pay attention to the unique stories and struggles of the neighbourhoods we inhabit.

This is why the notion of ‘best practice’ in ministry is nonsense. As though some universal approach to the expression of ministry is possible or even desirable. If our primary task is to pay attention to the community of which we are a part and to God’s presence within and around it, then it’s the particularities that count. Paying attention to the unique history, culture and language of our context is the bread and butter of our work — we invest deeply in the detail of where we are and who we are with. We have only to look back at our experience of the pandemic and what it has required of us from suburb to suburb, state to state and from one country to the next. The idea that there is a ‘gold standard’ for the ministry we exercise or the resumption of church gatherings is almost laughable.

Eugene Peterson says it well. “I am a pastor,” he writes, “My work has to do with God and souls — immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. But I carry out this work in conditions — place and time — that I see and measure wherever I find myself, whatever time it is. There is no avoiding the conditions. I want to be mindful of the conditions. I want to be as mindful of the conditions as I am of the holy mysteries.”

Being as mindful of the conditions as we are of the holy mysteries, right where we are — that requires a level of attention as demanding as it is life-giving. Frankly, it’s a big ask, yet it gets to the core of what we pastors are called to do and be.

Ministry Essentials: Courage

Among my predecessors at Collins Street, Samuel Chapman stands tall, literally. He arrived from England in 1877 with his wife and eight children. He was 46, an imposing bloke from all reports.

Chapman’s physical stature could fill a room. The Melbourne press described him as “rugged”, “manly”, “decisive” and “courageous”. The Southern Baptist newspaper could barely contain itself: “He looks like a strong warehouseman, a master of a hundred forges, or a keen-eyed shipowner. Imagination is taxed to realise this man is a clergyman.”

No doubt, Samuel was a good minister. His tenure of twenty-two years is unmatched in the church’s history. For me, though, following in Chapman’s footsteps is next to impossible. The words ‘rugged’, ‘manly’ and ‘decisive’ are just not me. Ask even my most affirming friends. The truth is, by every instinct I know, I am timid and risk-averse. I naturally shrink back from conflict and would prefer to be led than to lead. As for “the master of a hundred forges”, more likely I’m known as the maker of one pavlova and a good cup of tea.

Despite all of this, through decades of experience I’ve learned that Christian ministry necessitates a good dose of courage. From all of us. Not all the time, but often enough. There is no getting around it — whatever our personality, style or stature, whatever our preferences or theological leanings, effective leadership routinely requires that we step up, not back.

Frankly, stepping up is hard, especially in the current political and religious climate. As many have, I have experienced the pile-ons of social media. The bruising can be painful. Even more, feeling the displeasure of those in our own circle can be devastating. Stepping back is all we want to do.

That said, the more I sit with the gospel of Jesus and its implications — the good news of grace that I am called to proclaim — the more I understand how awkward and destabilising that gospel can be and how essential courage is to our living of it. The story of Jesus challenges narratives and assumptions deeply ingrained in us, our churches and our world. And if the experience of Jesus is anything to go by, the consequences of this are most keenly felt by the religious, those within the faith communities and traditions we lead.

Honestly, it is the religious who are most easily threatened by the demanding and far-reaching nature of God’s love. It is this radical and destabilising grace we pastors are called to embody and defend for the sake of the world.

I no more want to be manly and rugged than I want to eat Brussels sprouts for dinner. And I am happy to leave the keen-eyed seafaring to the Samuels of this world. But I do pray for the courage to be a leader of conviction and one who is always willing to declare the love of God, and to defend all those enfolded by it no matter what the cost.

Ministry Essentials: Humility

The church I pastor has been around a while. Its story stretches back to 1838 making it one of the oldest continuing Baptist churches in the nation. The congregation’s home is in the heart of Melbourne, its grand Corinthian columns testament to the church’s longevity.

There’s an honour board in the narthex. Made of heavy wood marked with gold lettering, it lists the church’s pastors from its beginning. There are nineteen of us, our years of tenure listed alongside our names. The average stay is nine years and three months with the longest period of service at twenty-two years.

Occasionally, when no one is around, I look up at that old board, rehearsing the names of my predecessors. Certainly it’s an honour to be included in such company, but mostly this record of history is a reminder to me of an important truth — my tenure as a pastor will have an ending as sure as its beginning.

I regard this a truth, and not just a fact — for all of us in this business, it conveys something essential to the nature of pastoral leadership: this is not my church. That is as much a statement of vocational humility for pastors as anything else we might say. In most cases, the churches we lead have stories that began long before we arrived and will continue long after we are gone. As those appointed to a particular season of leadership, we get to hold them for a while. So we should hold them well.

Holding a church well is an act of engagement, but modestly so. Holding is certainly not passive. It does not mean we stand meekly cradling these communities, as though our only task is to keep them from breaking. Holding well is active and proactive. It includes discerning, leading, nurturing, feeding, caring and challenging. It honours the past, values the present and looks forward to the future. Sometimes it requires change and the courage to confront falsehoods and intransigence. But we do all of this with a holder’s humility and for a particular season.

Holding well is demanding. We pastors do not get to envision and change without listening and understanding. We do not get to strategise and move forward without knowing and valuing the stories we build on. We certainly don’t get to make over these churches in our own image. God forbid! We may well leave our mark — an investment of love that endures in some way — but leaving anything more than that risks overstepping our vocation.

Holding well is also a grace. It’s a grace to our churches and ourselves. We pastors lead with the people of God, not over or ahead of them. The churches we lead do not belong to us. Instead, they are communities of faith in which we belong. The church’s flourishing does not depend entirely on our gifts, however stellar, or personalities, however winsome. Frankly, the church’s story and wellbeing is not as trite as that, but deeper and dependent upon a level of grace we can barely touch. In the scheme of things, the role we play is important but momentary.

For me, these are good and sustaining reminders. The day will come when the end of my tenure goes up in gold letters. But until then, I want to do two things: to hold this community to the best of my ability, and to do so with a good dose of humility.

Lauren Hill on rest

“The living world moves in pulses. Gusts of wind are punctuated by relative stillness. Musical notes resonate within the padding of silence. Rest and motion require one another for balance, beauty and life. Yet somehow we’ve built a culture that demands the impossible: leaving the tap on and emitting our own energy in constant deluge.”

Lauren L. Hill, “Minding My Mothers” in Dumbo Feather, 2020, 8-9.

Gentleness: where the gravy soaks in

‘Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music and books, raising kids — all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through.’

Garrison Keillor, We are Still Married: Stories and Letters, Viking Books, 1989.

A Prayer for today

We are a fickle lot. Whatever language we give it — whether religious or otherwise — most of us know that we are a bundle of contradictions. At one moment we shine; we aspire to virtue and change and beauty. At another we fall back into self-interest and ‘whatever’.

As a person of Christian faith, it’s this internal back-and-forth that I struggle to name. This little prayer said it for me this morning. There’s something here about naming what is while reaching for the courage and grace to be different.

Most loving God,
we admit to you and to each other
that we are beings in whom shame and glory
are strangely mixed.

We are creatures of wisdom and folly,
trust and anxiety, success and failure,
truth and deceit, love and apathy.
We need you, yet we evade you —
to believe, yet we doubt,
to praise, yet we dishonour,
to love, yet we resent.

God of the new creation and our God,
we long to be made whole
in thought, word, and deed.
We seek of you today the gifts of Jesus:
forgiveness, renewal,
self-acceptance, self-understanding,
and the courage to be
the sisters and brothers of Christ.

Bruce Prewer, Australian Prayers, Lutheran Publishing House, 1983, 84.

‘Gay conversion’ and the church

As a person of Christian faith, I welcome the bill prohibiting so-called ‘gay conversion’ practices currently before our state parliament. As a pastoral leader within the church, I believe the legislation’s intent is good and worthy of our support.

In my view, this bill’s determination is important to all people of faith, not just those it is designed to protect. It speaks to one of the central values of the Christian tradition: the worth of all humankind. Each one of us, regardless of age, colour, nationality, gender, ability or sexuality, is uniquely and wonderfully made in the image of God. The invitation of the gospel — so beautifully embodied in the Christmas story — is God’s call to live into the fullness of the life we’ve been given in Christ, whatever shape it takes.  

Of course, within the church we hold a diversity of views on this, many of which have been shared publically in recent weeks. While I disagree with some of those views, I am more grieved by our approach to the debate and the level of self-interest too much of it betrays. 

I grieve the fact that we appear to be more energised by a perceived threat to our own rights and freedoms to do and say whatever we choose, and seem to have comparatively slight regard for the rights and flourishing of one of the most vulnerable segments of our community. Surely standing on the side of the wounded is where we must begin the conversation. 

I grieve the speed with which we move to the alarmist ‘consequences’ of legislation like this rather than deal with the legislation’s central intent. We did it with the marriage equality debate and we are doing it again now. It is so much easier to point away from the issue than to deal with it honestly. Surely we owe more respect to the integrity and wellbeing of the LGBTQI community than this.

I grieve our apparent failure to comprehend the damage we have done that has led to legislation like this; indeed, the damage we have done to members of our own congregations whose sexual identity is different to that of the majority. This damage is perpetrated not only by extreme conversion therapies — therapies we now conveniently distance ourselves from — but by our longstanding proclamation that those of different sexual identities are damaged goods and will never know the fullness of life unless they suppress their most natural and God-given selves and ‘convert’ to something entirely different.  

I grieve our inability to listen to the stories of countless men and women — those broken not by their discovery of who they really are, but by the relentless messaging of the church that who they are is dysfunctional and must be denied. We claim to listen, but too often we do so only to correct. We listen to set others straight but rarely to understand. To understand is to know that we are complicit in the brokenness they experience. We in the church can quickly demonise a bill like this one only because we have so little understanding of where it comes from and the tragic reality it seeks to address. 

Finally, I grieve the absence of a more considered conversation on the nature of prayer itself. The fear that this legislation will intrude upon our freedom to pray for the burdened and the broken in a particular way assumes that, in regard to the unique story and pain of the one we pray for, we already know the mind of God. The outcome we seek is pre-determined. Surely there is more to the sacred ministry of prayer than that.

I support this bill and I encourage other people of faith to do the same. But more than that, I hope those of us within the Christian church will engage in this debate with a good deal more humility and with more concern for the interests of those most vulnerable than for any rights of our own.