Not too long ago, one of my readers sent me a collection of sayings or proverbs on the topic of ministry. The collection is entitled Defining Ministry. The reader, who apparently does not think I follow modern trends very well, scolded me for being out-of-touch and recommended that I review the list. That reader apparently believes that those “proverbs” describe what I should be like, but am not.
I took my “assignment” seriously and read each one of the sayings. And I’m happy to say that I don’t measure up to most of them! The collection is too large to reproduce here.
I think we do well to look at a small number of them if we want to know how some people view the concept of ministry and the role of pastoring. One of the pages contains a reference to a rather widely read “ministry” magazine, so many people may read and be influenced by these “proverbs.”
I want to emphasize that I have serious problems with every one of the “proverbs” I am about to list. I believe that they water down the kind of leadership and clear teaching that God expects from his ordained ministers. Christ’s Great Commission (Mat 28:18-20) was that His appointed apostles should go forth to the whole world to teach clearly what He had commanded, to make disciples, and to draw those disciples into the sacramental life of the Church unambiguously through baptism. So, in the Great Commission, there are clear truths to be announced and a mission to bring people out of darkness into light. The Lord sent them out to the world because the world needed light, truth, teaching, and a call to access mercy through repentance. The Apostles were given, in effect, a threefold office: to teach (as the text clearly says), to govern (the text says that they were to teach the commandments of the Lord), and to sanctify (the text says that they are to baptize). Therefore this was the ministry, the work of the apostles and their successors (the bishops, priests, and deacons). St. Paul, especially in the Pastoral Epistles, repeatedly instructed Titus and Timothy to teach, govern, and sanctify. Further, he said that they were to appoint other bishops, priests, and deacons to do the same work.
Now all this seems rather plain in the scriptural text. But sadly today, many of these things are not so plain to some, who are more influenced by modern cultural trends, than the instructions of Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
One the structural problems that all the sayings have is that they are all in the form of antitheses. Each one has the following structure:
“Ministry is ‘A’, not ‘B’.”
The problem with this structure is that it often leads to a false dichotomy. Now perhaps the writer of these sayings does not mean them to be understood absolutely. But a reader cannot be sure whether the author means them absolutely or not, given their rather absolute structure. Perhaps if the structure had been, “Ministry is more ‘A’ than ‘B’” then the message would have been clearer. Hence the proverbs remain open to the criticism of being false dichotomies, of being too absolute.
With this background in mind, let’s look at some of the sayings.
Ministry is not about doing, it is about growing.
Why place growing and doing in opposition to each other? Isn’t growing a form of doing? And doesn’t doing advance growth?
If I (as a priest) were to say that ministry is not about doing suggests that I could sit in my room all day and still call it “ministry” as long it somehow promoted “growth” in me. But this is silly; if I did that most people would call me lazy, not growing.
If this saying is directed toward those to whom I minister, it is also false, because while I surely do want them to grow, Jesus also makes it clear that He has things for us to “do” such as repent, believe the gospel, turn away from sin, deny ourselves, take up our cross, keep the commandments, love our neighbor, evangelize, cast out demons, and heal. He also warns, Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Mt 7:21). And in the judgment scene of Matt 25:31ff it is clearly important to Him that we actually do things like feed the poor, give drink to the thirsty, and so forth.
Growth is nice, but deeds are surely required as well. They should not be opposed to each other.
Ministry is not about pulling people toward something, it is about walking with people while searching.
How strange and unbiblical! I suppose the road to Emmaus comes to mind. But Jesus walked with them and “pulled” them to recognize the truth that was before them. Having heard their complaints and confusion, He called the foolish and slow to believe (Luke 24:25). He went on to “pull” them toward the truth, instructing them at great length.
“Walking with people while searching” paints a picture of groping, not teaching. Jesus says, And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit (Mat 15:14). Clearly the Lord sent His ministers to bring the light and direction of His teaching to those who are searching, not just to search around with them and facilitate their searching. We are to help them find answers. To instruct the ignorant is a spiritual work of mercy as is counseling the doubtful.
Sacred ministers such as priest are not “know-it-alls,” but we are supposed to have answers and clear directions based on our prayer, our study of Sacred Truth, and our anointing. Our call isn’t merely to be out there “searching.” We’re supposed to be teaching because the Lord has already provided answers in His Word and in Sacred Tradition.
And we are supposed to be pulling people toward something, actually, toward Someone. Jesus says that this is exactly what the Father is doing through His Church: No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught of God” (Jn 6:44-45).
Yikes, how can a “proverb” such as this one be more wrong?
Ministry is not about providing answers, it is about provoking more and more fresh questions.
Again we have the false dichotomy. Why are answers and “more questions” opposed to each other? The fact is, answers provoke more questions; questions seldom provoke questions. A person has a question and then waits for an answer; nothing happens until an answer comes forth. This answer usually provokes more questions that seek clarification. So there is no dichotomy between providing answers and provoking more questions. In fact, there is a strong correlation between them.
So answers are of great importance both in preaching and in the ministry of the Gospel. Clearly the Lord sent us out with teaching, with answers to the questions in people’s hearts.
It is true that one teaching technique involves not answering all questions or solving every problem too quickly. This is an especially good method to use with children, who should often be encouraged to struggle with questions and problems so as to learn how to learn and to learn how to solve problems.
But if this is what the saying about is getting at, why not just say that? Instead, we are presented with a false dichotomy that says that giving answers is a bad thing, or at least that it is a poorer thing than sending people away to come up with more questions (the answers to which they will presumably not get from us).
Ministry is not about promoting doctrine, it is about announcing Jesus.
Again, why put these in opposition? Jesus sent them out to teach doctrine: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
Talk about promoting doctrine! Jesus says that they are not just to teach it; they are to summon disciples to obedience. He warns, For whoever is ashamed of me and of my teachings in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels(Mk 8:38). Thus Jesus connects Himself to His teachings, His doctrine, and His words; He is the Word, the Logos, made flesh. He says that to reject His teaching, His doctrine, is to reject Him and to face judgement for that.
St. Paul exhorted Titus, But as for you, speak the things that are consistent with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). St. Paul links doctrine to Christ, as he should, since they are connected. He writes, What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 4:3). Ministry is promoting doctrine. And in promoting Christ’s teachings we are helping to announce Jesus.
Well, you get the point. There are dozens of other proverbs in the list, and it’s all downhill from these. The final one in the collection takes the cake:
Ministry is not about whether one believes in God, it is about following the Christ.
Here is a word to the wise: if you ever happen upon a “minister” who does not believe in God, run, do not walk, to the nearest exit! Further, if you ever happen upon a “ministry” that says it is not important for you to believe in God, make another hasty exit.
There is nothing—nothing—more important than faith in Jesus Christ. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). And Jesus warns, If you do not come to believe that I AM, you will die in your sins (Jn 8:24).
The entire work of the Scriptures is to bring us to faith in Jesus, who is Christ and Lord. St. John writes, There were many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (Jn 20:31).
Nothing could be more flawed and confused than this final proverb. There is simply no ministry at all apart from faith in Christ Jesus as Lord. Nothing else matters without faith. What does it even mean to follow the Christ if one does not believe in God?
So, to whoever mailed me the proverbs (over 35 in number): I did read them and have pondered whether my ministry conforms to them. I must say that it does not. I plead guilty to not assimilating these notions of “ministry.” Frankly, I am so far removed from them that I cannot even begin to conceive of how I would apply them to my life.
I just have this funny idea that my work as a priest is to teach, govern, and sanctify God’s people; and to be taught by, governed by, and sanctified by the Church through the pastors of my own soul. I have this strange notion that there is a truth to be found and to be taught with clarity, patience, and conviction. Living the question is a cute concept, but without any answers at all, questions are cruel and taunting.
I also have this odd idea that Jesus did have a doctrine and that He identified with it, saying, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He warned that we should follow Him, for no one would come to the Father except through Him.
Something tells me that ministry is about providing answers and setting forth doctrine. I am convinced that, because teaching and insisting was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and “pulling” people to Father through faith was His deepest desire for us, my ministry should be no less.