Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!
By Christopher Edmonston
By any worldly measure, ministry has been good to me. Ministry is also a struggle. In nearly two decades of pastoral ministry, I have learned that this vocation is not for the faint of heart. It requires an ever varied and always shifting skill set. Further, its variable nature requires immense amounts of patience. This is a rewarding vocation; it rewards like no other. But it also demands. The pastoral life demands the whole self. When God calls a pastor, God calls every bit of the person.
A staff member at Union Presbyterian Seminary once told me that in her opinion the best pastors were those who had been dragged into pastoral ministry kicking and screaming. That is certainly the case for me. As a younger man I believed that I would be a member of the academy. The long arc of vocational life has stationed me in a different place. And, in spite of my success, many days have been confusing and frustrating when “church” does not meet hopes or expectations.
Like every other pastor I know, I long for a church consumed with the pursuit of the abundance of Spirit, community, and ministry. This church would possess dexterity, be pliable, and employ the capacity to shift in ever abundant directions when called and required to do so.
Unfortunately, much of the malaise of mainline communities (structurally, institutionally) seems the result of the opposite. Church structures are often inflexible and reluctant to change something so simple as the carpet (to mention nothing of strategic and adaptive shifts towards abundant ministry and living).
Five years ago I heard Tom Currie, then the Dean at Union Presbyterian Seminary at Charlotte, deliver an address about the life of ministry. His first thesis was that ministry was embarrassing in the post-modern world. The moment he made this statement, my eyes welled with tears. There is an irrationality to ministry that is hard to grapple. There is enduring frustration with the monolithically negative portrayals of church in both the media and in intellectual circles. It is many the pastor (including Bonhoeffer) who has heard either directly or under the breath: “I would have thought someone with your mind and skills would have been a doctor, a lawyer, an entrepreneur.…”
Twelve months ago I met with a group of Christian scholars, pastors, and divinity school administrators. Convened to talk about the next era of congregational life and church growth, we met a pastor named Michael Mather from Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Mather asked us, “what if the church actually acted as if the gospel were true?”
That reminder of God’s abundance — gospel abundance in our midst — has been saving me ever since.
Mather inspired us to think about the gifts we had, and the gifts of our congregations and colleges. “Stop focusing on what cannot be accomplished,” he said. Instead, he offered a rubric of how the inspiration of the gospel, in tandem with the gifts that the Holy Spirit was fostering and cultivating, could be a gateway to new life. In this way, he showed us that faith communities could be, literally, born again.
I was so moved by this simple shift in thinking that the theme of all my fall preaching was abundance. I took on his challenge and preached a sermon for the Presbytery of New Hope completely framed around that centralizing question, “what if the church actually acted as if they gospel were true?”. The sermon was met with resounding “Amens!” For southern Presbyterians, this was a near-miracle.
Before our congregation and with our staff I explored the abundance in Christian theology and the aspiration to abundance of the Christian life. I kept going back to the “leading questions of life.”* Just that “script flip” — from focusing on why we are dying (causes of death) to investing intellectual and theological energies toward life-giving practices — allowed for greater understanding of my own gifts, our congregation’s gifts, and what life we had to offer as an act of kingdom devotion.
This one-day encounter saved my ministry last year. It kept my head above water as I navigated the seas of marriage, of divestment, and of our particular congregational challenges. On the days when the tyranny of the urgent is indeed a tyrant, and negative voices threaten to overwhelm, I choose to focus upon abundance. After all, even on our worst days, Jesus Christ is not particularly interested in our complaints. Instead, he is interested in our gifts.
Given that the gospel is true, our ministries are saved by allowing the abundant grace of the Lord to reset our expectations and to reassess the tasks which are before us. Ultimately ministry is about the gifts and not the frustrations.
* I recommend the book, Leading Causes of Life: Five Fundamentals to Change the Way You Live Your Life by Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray
Christopher Edmonston is the pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC, and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.