"First, you must do no harm"

An essential secret for effective ministry

Loren Seibold, D.Min., is pastor of the Worthington Seventh-day Adventist Church, Worthington, Ohio, United States.

Across the long table from me, he slides into a folding chair and introduces himself. I've heard his name before, but we've never met. He's 24, fresh from seminary, and newly installed in his first parish.

He grins and amens his way through his first workers' meeting.

He asks me a few questions about ministry, things like how I plan my sermonic year or like demographic studies of my community and how I organize committees.

I'm not always sure how to answer. After all these years, I do a lot of ministry by intuition. Nonetheless, I've waited a long time for someone to think me wise enough to ask my advice. I've savored by the moment. I make valiant attempts at answers, spicing them with enough protestations of humility so that he can't hold me culpable if he tries my advice and fails.

Then he asks me a question that makes me stop, my forkful of food halfway from my plate to my mouth. "What is the most important thing to know about ministry?"

This one I cannot dodge. It is larger in scope and more important than the role of the music committee or the sermonic year. I wonder what to say.

I playback a mental tape of the advice given me in my first year of ministry. "Lord first, family second, church third." "An hour of quiet every morning at dawn." "Always ask your conference president what to do before he tells you." "Don't neglect exercise."

Some advice, I've noted, is useful if executed but impotent as mere advice. I see in his eyes that he is already supplied with spiritual proverbs and managerial cliches. Perhaps he is hoping for more of the same. That is the problem with stating the expected: He expects it. If I say, "An hour a day of quiet contemplation of Christ on the cross," he will nod his head with vigor and comprehension. These cliches have already become part of the background noise of ministry. They're like the clutter on a desk that you've grown accustomed to: They must be saved but are easy to ignore.

For the first time I noticed that it is narcissistic advice. It is about ourselves, not others.

I decide to pass up lofty principles he knows in favor of a practical one he may not have thought of but may remember longer.

"First," I tell him, "you must do no harm."

He looks at me oddly. It is not the formula he expected, and I see doubt in his eyes. But whether he knows it or not, I am telling him a truth. Not, perhaps, the truth, but a truth nonetheless. I think of a young mother who told me in tears that at the age of 14, a pastor had fondled her in the church office, where she had gone to him for counsel.

Who knows what happened in that church office? What signals the pastor thought he was receiving and what she conveyed? But it should not have mattered. For the pastor should be the one person in the world who will never take advantage of you even of your pathologies.

I don't know what that man carries with him. He continues in his ministry. But if he feels that his greatest sin back then was adultery, he is mistaken. That, Jesus assured us, happens often in hearts and as such must be forgiven not infrequently. His greatest sin is that he sent a young woman into the world feeling like no one can be fully trusted. The scars of it show in her marriage, her parenting, her emotional life, and even in her appetite. He may have sought and received peace; she, I suspect, has not.

First, you must do no harm.

I think of a man whose faith was forged in fear. He tells of endless sermons in his childhood that may have been drawn from John Fox's Book of Martyrs. Warnings of suffering and pain and persecution, always with Adventists as the object of hate and grotesque violation. He remembers sermons wrought intricately in blood and gore and dismembered heads and burning bodies.

He is a person of native spirituality and deep sensitivity; but fear was welded into his faith at an impressionable age. Today he seeks God but hates and fears Him too; and when we talk, when we try to tease apart the faith from fear, I feel angry at a pastor, four decades ago, who warped the mind of the child who grew into this man.

First, you must do no harm.

I think of a young woman whose mother, a denominational employee, came into legal conflict with denominational leaders. An incensed but thoughtless minister took up the cause and convinced his congregation to disfellowship the entire family, including the 15-year-old daughter.

Although the woman was vindicated legally and ecclesiastically and received an apology, it was too late for her daughter. Today she loves the truths of Adventism but refuses to join the church.

First, you must do no harm.

Another woman tells me the story of a trusted minister who approached her grandfather, late in his life, for a substantial personal loan. The old man gave him the money, agreeing that "a handshake is sufficient between Adventist brethren, isn't it?" When grandfather died a year or two later, the minister seemed to remember nothing of the loan.

She goes to church, but distrust lurks close below the surface and sometimes is projected on a pastor who had nothing to do with the dishonesty of his predecessor.

First, you must do no harm.

These are still in contact with the church. For each one, there must be a hundred others who abandoned it. Not always was it the minister's fault; but where it was, he is ten times guilty. For he was to be the one person who was expected to act in the name of, and with the grace of, Jesus Christ. The one person who could be trusted. The one person who would not take advantage of you. The one person who would tell you the truth about God.

I study the young pastor's face for a moment. There's a look of untroubled sincerity in his eyes that I had once back when I believed that ministry would be a constant joy and endless victories. But he needs to know no more: Real life will unfold itself to him soon enough.

"First, you must do no harm," I tell him---and myself---again.


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Loren Seibold, D.Min., is pastor of the Worthington Seventh-day Adventist Church, Worthington, Ohio, United States.

November 1998

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