Ten years and counting

Journal of a journey of tensions within pastoral ministry.

John Grys is director of Advent House and editor of the forthcoming Journal of Applied Christian Leadership, Knoxville, Tennessee

Recent articles in Ministry have focused upon North American graduates from 1987 ministerial pools and the resiliency of these individuals as they have entered ministry (see the August and October 2000 issues). In reviewing my just-completed first decade in pastoral ministry, I notice five points of tension in my journey. Although all of these may not be present in every pas tor, as I share them here I hope they will spark a constructive reflective process in every fellow sojourner in pastoral ministry and cause us all to realize that we are not alone.

Although one might wish or expect these points of tension to fade over time, they refuse to do so. In many and various ways they continuously raise their mythic heads. They are the silent voices that lurk behind the weekly message and the daily grind of pastoring. It is in this disquieting territory that we are called to lead and live, be and do, sing and weep. Recognizing these tension points helps me to stay centered on my Lord and to know that I am safe in His hands. Here are my five dominant tension points.

Global versus local

In my training for ministry I received a devoted love for Scripture. One of the greatest joys of ministry is the opportunity to study God's Word and then share the fruit of that study with others. Practicing the discipline of scriptural immersion is vital to speaking with confidence to an unsettled and wounded world. God's Word still changes lives today.

Part of the heritage of my training is the perspective of a world church. The Church universal is an extremely strong theological and cultural force in me. Contributing to something bigger than myself and bigger than my local congregation provides a wider sense of fulfillment and purpose. This strong fiber within the fabric of my subculture runs deep in me and in every aspect of our Church's approach to ministry.

Opposite this perspective, however, are the deep needs of my local church. People are wounded. Life is difficult. The choices are many. The practical aspects of high need and few resources at the local level are balanced against the heart of the poverty and the theology of the universal Church the world at large. Here is where the tension lies for me.

While my training has been highly theological and biblical, the demands of divorcing couples, abused children, and emotionally scarred wanderers bring me to my knees. The people knocking at our local church door are extremely hurt, frustrated, and pained. For many, life has killed their dreams. They have come to our local church as a last resort. There is a desperate thirst for something real and tangible, and I feel called upon to help provide that where I am.

Pursuing the incarnational model of ministry of being culturally relevant and theologically pure, is a tension lived out every day in the lives of men and women seeking for answers and community. Balancing global and local demands of a world desecrated by sin is no small task. Bringing people face-to-face with Jesus in every language, tribe, and culture is an undertaking of massive proportions.

Family versus church

Gone are the days of single-income families. The demands of living in a more high-density society have put a stress on the homes of ministers and their spouses. My wife has consciously decided to put her pastoral career on hold to raise our children. This is an incredible ministry. She also is a stipend music director for a church but this takes her away on Sundays.

I find my heart torn by two intense desires. I want to be at home with my family and at the same time I want to follow my compelling passion for the local church. The intensity of this tension point cannot be understated.

My wiring leads me to easily drift away from home toward my other love. Compelling voices continually beckon me, whispering about agendas, phone calls, messages, and other items left unchecked on my "To Do" list. There is always another person who needs a visit, another wounded soul in need of a friend, another objective to achieve. The work is never "done." But then there are my wife and my children.

To be fully present in both home and office is where this tension point gets lived out moment-by-moment. How often, with the best intentions, have I gone home to my wife and boys continuing to brood about all that hasn't been done at the church. It's easy to be at home in the body and at the office in the spirit. Truly my family suffers. Sometimes I find my energy so expended at the office that I have nothing to give when I get home.

Being versus doing

This tension point is more subtle than the others. I find myself becoming so busy doing that I don't stop to take inventory of my being, and at times I can spend so much time working on my being that I don't stop to take an inventory of my doing.

Probably the place this most often shows up is in my desire to see results to measure ministry in some fashion. I want to know I am a ripple in the ocean of life and ministry. My spirit echoes the words of Paul, "I do not run like a man running aimlessly" (1 Cor. 9.26) In my fantasy moments, I envision my life as a mower of lawns, able to see the lines I've made in the lawn of ministry, how much I've done and how much more there is yet to be done. While this drive for visible results has its place, it can erode the joy of ministry and shrink the soul. The problem comes when my desire to do is dominated by my desire to measure, especially if my standard of measurement is the performance of someone else.

We inhabit a society of measurements. Consciously or unconsciously, I minister in a place dominated by pay scales and outcomes. Consequently, my congregation measures. They measure the value of this church through the person of its pastor.

A more benign but harmful scale is the one of comparison. In weaker moments, I find myself measuring my ministry by the ministry down the street, across the state, through the region, or up the coast. Comparison is a cancer in ministry. It eats away at the foundation of ministry: the self hood or person of the pastor.

I can easily begin to think ministry is my life and measure my life by my ministry. My value as a child of God can end up being based upon my "success" as a pastor. It is easy to com pare where I am now to where others are and thus miss entirely the whole point of ministry. Value is never built merely upon baptismal figures, church attendance, or financial balances. Value never originates in speaking engagements, seminars presented, or programs initiated.

I love what J. Robert Clinton says, "Doing flows from being." I am first and foremost a child of God saved by and bathed in grace!

Self-management versus team management

This tension point revealed itself to me recently as I read an article, from which I quote: "The first and para mount responsibility of anyone who purports to manage is to manage self: one's own integrity, character, ethics, knowledge, wisdom, temperament, words, and acts. It is a complex, unending, incredibly difficult, oft shunned task. We spend little time and rarely excel at self-management precisely because it is so much more difficult than prescribing and control ling the behavior of others. However, without management of self, no one is fit for authority no matter how much they acquire, for the more authority they acquire the more dangerous they become. It is management of self that should occupy 50 percent of our time and the best of our ability. And when we do that, the ethical, moral, and spiritual elements of management are inescapable."1

It is easy to forget that ministry is played out on the field between what God is doing in my life and what He is doing in His church. It is as though there is a piece of holy space between these two poles and God inhabits it, bidding me come and walk and work there.

Peter Drucker makes this insightful claim: "In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time, literally, substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it."2

I realize that my church will only grow as I grow. I cannot lead people to become something I am not. This is a tough responsibility for us as pas tors to swallow: stick a thermometer in the mouth of the pastor and you get the temperature of the church.

An organization cannot change if the leaders of the organization are not changing. Organizational change is always preceded by personal change. Healthy growth in the church requires healthy growth in my life. The capability of the whole is influenced by my own capabilities. How I manage and lead my own life has a direct bearing on how the church is led.

Often I wrestle with leadership insecurities. I so often feel like Joshua. There are a thousand Moseses out there and how am I to follow his act? Joshua had to deal with himself before he could face Jericho. The internal walls of Joshua's doubts had to be removed before Israel could conquer the external walls of Jericho.

This tension of being with people and being with God will not go away. There is a time to stand before God and a time to stand before the people. The quest to find the right mix never ends. Ministry is about both.

Evangelism versus nurture

The Great Commission is about going into all the world (evangelism) and making disciples (nurture). Many discussions revolve around this tension. How do I leave the 99 in a safe place and yet ask those 99 to venture out into the dark night to find the one who's lost? How does the amazing Father bring home the lost son while growing the reluctant son?

The biblical reality is this: both the lost son and the reluctant son matter enormously to the father. Eventually, the reluctant son was challenged to at least party with the lost son. How difficult was it for the father to ask the older son to come in to the celebration? In Jesus' parable, at least, the at-home son never came in to be with the coming-home son. There is a pro found tension between the two sons and it's still present today in the church.

A pastor friend of mine uses a different analogy: the Peter/Paul syndrome. Peter felt the strong calling to minister to his own (the Jewish people). He knew this crowd. They spoke his language, understood his values, and shared his life experiences. Paul, on the other hand, felt strongly the calling to minister to those not convinced (the Gentiles). "It has always been my ambition," he says, "to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so I would not be building on someone else's foundation" (Rom. 15.20).

The early church wrestled with this tension. Churches I've pastored wrestle with this tension. The significance of both cannot be minimized. Evangelism without nurture leads to lifelessness and vice versa. Notice Christ's words to the raw evangelists of His day, "You travel over land and sea to win a single convert [talk about fervor and commitment

, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are" (Matt. 23:15). Ever wonder why they nailed Him? Evangelism without nurture leads to hellish living. Nurture without evangelism is an oxymoron.

The paradox of ministry is that I need both ends of each continuum. I need both the global and the local, home and office, being and doing, self-leadership and team leadership, evangelism and nurture. The challenge is for me to truly embrace both just as God does.

As I reflect on Christ and His journey of ministry, I take courage. He felt fully both poles trying to pull Him from one side to the other. Knowing the journey that I travel, I marvel that He would call me to follow such a path, to drink from His cup. I am amazed that He would invite me to join Him on His journey.

And yet, why should I be amazed? He Himself "pastors" today from the crucible of His struggles and wants a traveling companion. It is this journey we are called to take with Him.

1 Dee Hock, "The Art of Chaordic Leadership," Leader to Leader, Winter 2000.

2 "Managing Knowledge Means Managing Oneself," Leader to Leader, Spring 2000.

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