Ministry in isolation

Ministry is what I do. It’s what I’ve done most of my working life. While I’ve not always kicked goals and there have been seasons of injury, I’ve stuck at Christian ministry believing somehow that what I do matters. In the last two months, though, my confidence has wobbled.

Since late March, we Australians have been in isolation. Along with all places of public gathering, my church is closed, my neighbourhood and city shut down.  For seven weeks there have been no services, no visiting, no meetings with staff or pastoral encounters of any physical kind. Day after day it’s just me, my home office and this wretched computer screen. 

I’ve done all right, and I’ve nothing to complain about. Australia has been spared the tragedy of numbers — infections and deaths — that other countries have staggered under. What’s more, I have a roof over my head, a job that pays the rent and keeps the pantry full, and a loving family around me. That said, my sense of what it is I am meant to do and to be as a minister is challenged. 

The word ‘ministry’ is amorphous at the best of times. My Oxford Australian dictionary offers the generic “to render aid or service; the actions of a kind-hearted person.” In the context of the church, we normally aim for something more specific, more theological. I have long imagined the ministry of a pastor as accompanying a community of people in the life of faith: encouraging, teaching, supporting and believing with and in them as the people of God.  Whatever its particularities, it’s a very hands-on business. There’s nothing remote about it. It depends entirely on encounter and presence. If I am the hands of Christ among a community, then those hands need to get dirty. Christian ministry is a very physical and fleshy thing. So what do we do when all the physicality is gone? 

I don’t know really. I wish I could say I’ve had a revelation. I haven’t. I’ve struggled from the beginning and as we emerge out the other side, in some ways I feel none the wiser. That said, I do feel more sure about some things that, for me, are important to ministry and to the core of what I do.

Ministry is community

There are some who have claimed this time of social lockdown as purifying for ministry — an ideal opportunity for the distractions to be stripped away and for all that interrupts the bold proclamation of the gospel to be let go.  But gospel without the blemished flesh of community is not good news. It’s empty. Indeed, it’s impossible. By community, I mean that messy, funny, aggravating, awkward, ridiculous business of being the church — not some vague notion of church that floats in the middle of nowhere and demands nothing of us, but a real, local flesh-and-blood body of people that manifests Jesus while occasionally smelling bad and singing off-key. I reckon what I’ve discovered afresh is that the messy distractions and interruptions that come with people — people of all stripes and colours pressed up against one another — lie at the heart of ministry. They are not marginal to it. 

The virtual sucks!

There are many who champion the rise of the ‘virtual’ as a new signpost for ministry today. While they’re all much more hip than me, I’m still not convinced. Sure, the whole virtual thing has been good for a bit. I’ve learned a lot during this season about the role of social media, the potential of digital formats and online networking platforms. I’ve gone from Zoom novice to master in a matter of weeks. I’ve become the producer of video content that has honed my ability as a communicator and stretched by pastoral instincts. Regardless, ministry and the virtual remain the most awkward companions. While virtual mediums might be a handy addition to the ministry toolkit, the word’s definition points to their limitations: “almost or nearly as described, but not completely …”  I reckon I’ve discovered for myself that while the virtual can aid ministry, on its own it’s a crock!  

I confess, I hate emails. I always have. I loath phone conversations and Zoom just leaves me exhausted. But as a classic introvert, I really thought I’d do better at all this. I even thought I might secretly enjoy it. But, honestly, all it’s done is mess with my head, because ministry and isolation just don’t go together. Not for me.

I want coffee. I want to sit across from you in a cafe or perch at your kitchen bench; to hug when we meet; to smile at your stories and cry with you when life hurts. I want to pray with you and hear about your grandkids. I want to sit in church with you and sing together and meet your eye when I stand in that old pulpit; to break bread with you and remind you of God’s endless grace. I want to intercede with you for the world and advocate with you for justice, to work at welcoming strangers and loving our neighbours together. I want to bake you a cake and share a slice of pizza at Stellini Bar and imagine with you the life that God calls us to live. 

Because apart from all of that, I’m not sure I know what ministry is. 

12 Comments

  1. Simon it is analogous to retirement. You are always a minister but without a designated flock you are left either deep feelings of emptiness and loneliness such as the isolation we are all feeling at this time. 🙏🙏

  2. Simon, as you will know, solitude and silence gets mentioned in the various lists of spiritual disciplines, but in normal life we seldom get to have enough of. The great saints found it essential. Our culture frowns on it and would prevent it. Lockdown has made that opportunity possible without guilt. In my experience it has been one of the best things that have happened to me.

    1. I am so glad for you, Ron. I don’t mind a bit of solitude, especially the intentional practice of finding and keeping space for God and the sacred in my life. Ministry, however, requires coming back from solitude, down from the mountain, to the places of life and community and mission. Believing that God is as profoundly present in those spaces as God is in the silence. I’ll be glad for that experience again.

  3. I can definitely relate to some of this. Not being allowed to do hospital visits has been a great grief to me, for example.

    But I’ve also enjoyed the permission to do things differently. So often our churches are locked into “the way we do things,” and so often that’s become a bit of a rut. I’ve enjoyed the freedom not to write a sermon, but to produce and share all sorts of teaching material, in different genres and formats, for people to use at home; to encourage people to experiment and try new things and be creative. I’ve felt like that’s often been missing from ministry in normal times, due to fairly rigid expectations.

    So I’ve found blessings and difficulties in amongst it all…

    1. Delighted to hear that. There have certainly been moments of light, insight and grace for me too. But in its midst, still longing for the things I miss most. Peace to you.

  4. Dear Simon, I so very resonated with your words.
    Walking beside my students in the way I feel most effective & beneficial allows for a touch on the arm, a quiet pause & & offering tissue…and a warm embrace when we know each other well.

    This has simply been hard.

    Though, I’m grateful for reminders (gifts) the last two days, the relationships are still there.
    Sending love to you both.
    Danielle

  5. Bless you Simon – I hope you are finding your way & I echo your feelings. It’s had it’s gifts but it’s not really a virtual thing! Thank you for articulating all of this so beautifully!

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