If the ministry is reduced to being primarily a helping profession then those who take up that office cannot help being destroyed if they have any integrity. For they will find themselves frustrated by a people not trained on the narrative of God’s salvation, not trained to want the right things rightly, but rather a people who share the liberal presumption that all needs which are sincerely felt are legitimate. Those in the ministry will then find they are expected to try to meet those needs since, “Isn’t that what the ministry is supposed to do since they have been freed from having to earn a living?”… the pastor feels like a cult prostitute, selling his or her love for the approval of an upwardly-mobile, bored middle-class, who, more than anything else, want some relief from the anxiety brought on by their materialism.
Because we do not know enough about where we ought to be going in our ministry, we are powerless to lay hold of ourselves.
Hauerwas and Willimon in Resident Aliens.
This is increasingly my concern: that ministry has become all about holding people’s hands and meeting their needs.
You see, I hear older and wiser pastors telling us that we need to keep people happy. We mustn’t change things too fast nor push the people to conceive of church which is radically different from our present chairs-in-rows, five-song-singing and clap-the-preacher efforts.
I hear them and I know where they’re coming from but it still feels like something inside dies when they say it. I hear them and I get it, I really do, but it only serves to make me feel more trapped, this bowing to the insatiability of these felt needs, disparate desires of not just one but multiple individuals.
I hear them and I cannot live this for a lifetime of ministry. It’s become that clear a choice in the end.
Either my understanding of ministry changes or I quit.
Either I get to explore all that it means to be the church, a community of Jesus-disciples in 21st century Britain, instead of pleasing the people or I walk away from it all.
And it sounds bald and final and dramatic. Hopeless even, that I would continue long as a church leader. I know it does. I’ve faced this choice much more honestly in recent months than perhaps ever before. I’ve seriously contemplated what a life outside of doing church could look like. Not outside of loving Jesus and his people, you understand; just outside of the golden cage which ministry in an institution can become.
Yet somehow – something to do with this God of resurrection, maybe?! – I don’t think all that I say about the place of ministry in my life is as final as it sounds. I wouldn’t be doing this research if I thought that were so. I am reading and writing, thinking and rethinking because I believe there is something to say about what it means to be a church leader. And the finality of my conclusions on ministry at this time drive me forward. They spur me on because I know that unless I can find a better way for ecclesial leadership I shall have to admit defeat, unable to keep making my offerings at the shrine of the ‘felt need’, the individual’s desire for self-fulfilment.
I know that until I can articulate where I ought to be going, what it is in biblical and theological terms to be an ecclesial leader, I must – with Hauerwas and Willimon – admit my powerlessness ‘to lay hold of’ myself. I must, as they note a few pages later, admit that any church which needs me to keep the people happy, any church which allows my vain attempt to be everything to everyone, such a church will destroy me.
Unless I am clear on the call and task of ecclesial leadership.
In short, it is time to redefine success. It is not about numbers. I know I always say that but the problem is that the megalith that is UK and US evangelicalism doesn’t tend to bear this out. Whether or not we trumpet that numbers are irrelevant, you can’t get away from the fact that those church leaders being published these days tend to have large churches and plenty of groupies. It’s all about platform, after all, right? Platform of a megachurch, platform of one of those trendy top-ten Christian blogs, perhaps even the platform which comes with denominational seniority. (And let’s be honest – you can’t blame the publishers really: in this market, they’re looking for sure sales and we’re the ones who buy those books!) All of this tends to have the slow-drip effect into our brains that ministry success always means numerical growth. And whilst I know that this is not always true, I hear it implied so often that I start to believe it. Then I begin to get back on the bandwagon of meeting felt needs because that surely is how to grow the church…isn’t it?
It’s time for me to stop this. For the sake of my survival in ministry, it’s time for me to get clear about the call and task of ecclesial leadership, to become serious about redefining success and to counter the advice of those older pastors (however much older they may be) and those popular writers (however many more followers they have than I)!
And I don’t suppose I’m going to like the answers I’ll come to. I don’t suppose other leaders will like them either. The way of the cross, the kingdom where death is the necessary precursor to success, perhaps even the death of a form of church as we know it and the related hemorrhage of people, perhaps even the people upon whom our identity as ecclesial leader might seem to have rested?! – such death is not exactly a selling point, eh? I still quail internally at quite how I’m going to get some key people on board with me here; I can’t find a way to make this sound like fun! But it’s time, friends; it’s time and this is burning within me, a call I cannot ignore. If we want to survive, then it’s time to articulate the new way – or rather the old, old way in new language and thought forms – so that we do not resign ourselves, in the language of Hauerwas and Willimon, to being cult prostitutes selling our love for approval in a temple packed with individual consumers.