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.