A while ago I came across a mailing from Cokesbury, the United Methodist publishing house, in our church post office box. It was a promotion for resource materials for pastors. Someone had conducted a survey of clergy and found that they were most interested in, “equipping members for service in the church.”
Immediately I thought: Yikes. Ouch. Wrong. I tossed it directly in the recycling.
It seems to me that ministry is about helping people to connect with God, providing a time and place to experience God, in a pew, at a bedside, through a meal, and more. Ministry is about empowering people to respond to God’s love in whatever way God calls them to use their gifts, resources and lives.
I don’t believe ministry is about equipping people to serve the church. Serving God, yes; carrying out church chores, no. We’ve demonstrated this in the congregation I serve and a member of by not filling slots on committees and programs. There are lots of zeros and blanks on our yearly denominational forms that attempt to quantify ministries. We don’t look good on paper, but that doesn’t mean we’re not alive in the spirit. We encourage people to say yes only to the activities of the church that bring us closer to God, closer to community. Right now one-third of our worshippers are knitting and crocheting hats for orphans at a particular orphanage in Swaziland, founded by a friend of one of our members. Women with a 45 year age range between them, some who’ve never worked with yarn before, are using their creativity to make one-of-a-kind caps for children they will never meet and they’re doing it with JOY!
In my early twenties I lived in Gilroy. There I encountered God and joined the United Methodist Church. Soon after I began to teach Sunday School. There was an older man, Eldon Nichols, whose ministry to the church was to make and present handcrafted wooden candleholders to each new Sunday school teacher. I cherished that gift. It was an affirmation of my contribution to the life of the community. I put those candlesticks on our table, and used them often. When I lit the candles I remembered Eldon, the church who trusted me and entrusted me with teaching, the children I was teaching, and the light that was coming into my life through my new encounters with Scripture and seven year olds.
I imagine that when Eldon died, the candlestick tradition went with him. To recruit someone else to takeover that ministry, would be to remove it from the realm of an outpouring from Eldon’s gifts and joy, and turn it into a church job, which someone needed to fulfill.
I have been thinking about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness this week, Satan saying, “If you’re so great, then do this,” and Jesus refuses those blatant exercises of power and finally says, “Away with you.” The church can be a tempter too, “If you love God, then you’ll do this and this and this for the church.” If, at the thought of particular requests, you find your stomach gnawing on itself or joy being drained from your bones, shout, “Drudgery be gone!”
There is so much ministry that needs to be done in this hungry and hurting world. None of us can do it all, so why not choose those things that bring us closer to God and to one another? Why not say yes to those things that reveal as Frederick Buechner says, our true calling, the place where our “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”?