Am I doing it right?

I do a bit of supervising. It goes with the territory for pastors with grey hair. We’ve been around for a bit and younger pastors need professional supervision. Indeed, it’s required these days and for good reason, so for the last decade I’ve stepped up to the crease. 

For the most part, pastoral supervision is a privilege. I get to hang out with people who love the church and talk honestly about the call of God in their lives. They come from various traditions —Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Churches of Christ and Uniting — and my own ministry is richer for it. No matter how long I’ve been at it, though, there’s a question that nudges at my conscience: am I doing it right?

A good friend of mine, Geoff Broughton, happens to be one of Australia’s leading thinkers in the practice of pastoral supervision. In fact, he’s just published a book on the subject. While Geoff is not about offering a ‘right’ way of doing anything (I’m not even sure he would judge my question a good one), what he does provide is a more theologically and biblically informed appreciation for what we do in this work. If you are involved in pastoral supervision — giving or receiving — I recommend it.

Regarding my awkwardness, there are a few points of encouragement that Geoff’s book has provided to my own practice. None of them do the book’s worth or central thesis justice, but I’ll take them as little prods to confidence.

  1. My work as a supervisor is essentially about paying attention to the call of God in the life and ministry of the one I supervise. That’s an extraordinary privilege.
  2. If it’s these enquiries that are vital to the work of supervision for the person I meet with — what should I do? what enables me to do it well? what do I really want to do? what is worth doing? — then, frankly, I am not as central to the process as I might imagine. My task is to facilitate a conversation between the pastor and the God who forms them. My getting it ‘right’ is really not the issue.
  3. As a supervisor, I get to walk part of the journey with another. As we walk together, we wonder and reflect and imagine together. What more could I want to do?
  4. Good supervision conversations are potentially luminous — they might just reveal life, truth, goodness and beauty. For both of us, that’s worth our time.
  5. In supervision I get to hold a space for another — space for grief, exhaustion, disappointment and failure. What could be more pastoral than that?
  6. Both of us — supervisor and supervisee — are called to follow Jesus. Both of us are called to lives of ministry and service. As a pastoral supervisor, I am not a professional coach or an advocate for self-development. For a period of time I stand alongside one called to a life of self-giving for the good of the church. That means my offering of supervision is an extension of my own pastoral vocation.

All of that sounds wonderfully worthwhile. Even if I don’t always get it right!

Geoff Broughton, A Practical Christology for Pastoral Supervision, London: Routledge, 2021. 

Ministry Essentials: Rest

I am a keeper of lists. To-do lists. As I sit with my coffee each morning I create them, review them, add to them and tick them off. On one hand, to-do lists are my sanity, a means of organising life and keeping anxiety at bay. On another these lists are relentless and often overwhelming. To-do lists ooze from one day to the next. Their demands never end.

The work of ministry is endless. It is eternally full of things to do — things that must be done, should be done and are never done. From the urgent to the important, from the trivial to the profound, our work defies completion. The tasks of ministry are legion and frankly, it’s exhausting. For me, there have been moments, even seasons, in which the impact of this exhaustion has been destructive. In turn, those I love have suffered.

I am not alone. I know too many pastors for whom this destruction has been devastating. Ministries have ended prematurely and relationships have crumbled. As I have argued elsewhere, unrelenting busyness is nothing short of violent. To surrender passively to its demands is to do violence to ourselves, our families, our churches and, ultimately, to the created world of which we’re a part.

In ministry, one of the most important to-dos of all is rest. By rest, I do not mean a reward for work completed, a occasional pause to busyness or a marginal reprieve from our mission. It is much more. Rest is the gift of God, an obligation at the heart of our calling. “Come to me all you who are weary,” Jesus said, “and I will give you rest.” Rest is a state of being into which we are invited. More broadly, it is fundamental to God’s work of creation, redemption, justice and holiness. Rest is not a marginal concern to ministry. It is essential to our gospel work.

In my view, we pastors must learn to press into the practices of rest as intentionally as we do our work. There is nothing passive about rest. It is not a thing we fall into exhausted once the demands of ministry ease. They never ease. Never. The truth is, rest requires a decisive and routine movement from one state to another. The Germanic root word for rest means ‘league’ or ‘mile’. It implies travelling. When it come to the practices of rest, we must run toward them.

Sometimes, of course, we pastors become addicted to our to-do lists, dependent upon them for our sense of self or perhaps as a way of avoiding ourselves. The last thing we want is to run toward the honesty that rest provides. The Nigerian writer Bayo Akomolafe describes the demand of such rest as “a cut to the body that allows the flesh to spill … A blow to the bones that gives the limp.” The choice to rest can be painful. Sometimes the stillness it requires is more than we can bear.

The biblical practice of Sabbath rest calls us to name our humility and dependence. Routinely I remind myself of who and whose I am. I bow again before God as the source of all life and situate again my tiny part in it. To put such an act on my list of things I must do is to give rest the priority God gives it. While others may prod me to its importance, no one else can make it happen. No one.

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.

‘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.

Wretched numbers

Today’s numbers are high. Those wretched numbers. In this season it feels like our lives are oppressed by numbers. Amidst this virus, we’ve come to live and breathe by a daily tally of dread: when the numbers are up we’re stuffed and when they’re down we’re good. It’s all a bit crazy-making. It’s like riding a roller coaster but without the rush. Just the fear.

Some say these numbers don’t matter, religious people who prod us to look beyond them to ‘higher’ truths. “Nothing more than digits on a screen!” one declared today on social media. Yet the arrangement of these digits represents things grave and important. Like it or not, these numbers are us. We hang onto them because we need to know and understand. We are desperate for measurable indicators of how we are and how worried we should be together.

Of course, I hate these numbers. I hate what they are doing to us, what they’re doing to my city. I hate their impact on those who are vulnerable and those exhausted by care and responsibility. I hate what they’re doing to those I love. But I can’t ignore them; nor can I relativize them.

I might tell myself, hey, our numbers are not as bad as such-and-such. But it’s no help. Anxiety is not relative. My friend who is out of work, without a visa and any form of support, can’t pay the rent or feed his family. My neighbour’s dear husband is hospitalized and she cannot visit him — she fears a funeral with her son far away. My barista sheds tears of weariness and despair. I would never tell these people about such-and-such as though that addresses their pain. So why do I expect it to ease mine?

The truth is, as a person of faith I can say with certainty that these numbers matter. They do. Because they speak of deeper things. They speak of lives cherished, neighbourhoods and communities that are precious, a city that is alive and beautiful and struggling. Why on earth, according to our holy texts, would God be concerned with the number of hairs upon your head? The number of days that you might live? The number of stars that fill the night sky or grains of sand that line the oceans? Because God is invested in this world and in you. Because whatever brings pain into your life and the lives of those around you is held in the tenderness of God’s hands.

Believe me, if these numbers matter to us, we can be sure they matter to God.

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.