To, For, or With

cautionI listened to a sermon on restorative justice — one of my passions.  I am generally an easy audience for justice messages, but this particular one kept jarring me.  The preacher hammered on the need for us to be in ministry to both victims and victimizers, to the incarcerated, to the broken and beaten, to the poor and marginalized.  The church has a responsibility, he said, to provide for the last, the lost, and the least among us.  Jesus went to the broken people, and so should we.  We shouldn’t wait for someone else to do ministry for them.  What was especially striking to me was the age of the speaker — early thirties.  He sounded much older — not in terms of age, but of era.  I felt like I was listening to a speech from the 1950s.  Not once in the forty-five+ minute talk did he once suggest we be in ministry with the poor and marginalized.  Not once did he suggest we invite them into our fellowship.  Not once did he suggest we work with victims and victimizers to create new processes for dealing with crime and punishment.  Not once was there a suggestion that the poor and marginalized are ministers, too.  In the 21st century, we have so many powerful examples of the church in ministry with people that it is remarkable how fiercely we cling to the patronizing and paternalistic visions of ministry to and for.

I find this same problem with ministry to, for, or with young adults.  I have over a decades experience traveling around our connection and everywhere I go there is energy and passion about “young adult” ministry.  The problem is, most of the conversation is about the need for ministry to young adults or for young adults.  There is very little real interest in relinquishing power and resources to young adults so that they can be in ministry with us.  Even in conferences and congregations where young adults are “included” (how kind of us…) in leadership, they are so egregiously outnumbered as to be irrelevant.  Sitting in the recent District Superintendent/Director of Connectional Ministries orientation for the denomination I was dumfounded at the lack of both young people and persons of color (other than beigey-pink).  How are we committed to young adults when so few of them are in key leadership positions?  Could it be that years of service and salary level are higher core values than inclusiveness?  (Nah, I’m sure this has nothing to do with it…)  The way we operate, young adults are always “the next generation.”  By the time our talented, bright, dynamic young adults finally are granted power and authority they are no longer young adults.  The problem is, young adults today have no more interest in Baby Boomers planning ministry for them than Boomers cared for the offerings of their elders.  Baby Boomers who have prided themselves on their creativity, subversive energy, and “thinking outside the box” are now the problem, not the solution.  Young people don’t use hackneyed silly euphemisms like “think outside the box” ad nauseum — only Boomers (and their grandparents) do.  (Yes, I know I am a Boomer.  I don’t have Alzheimer’s you little snots!  Back when I was a boy…zzzzzzzzzzzzzz…)

Where was I?  Oh yeah, this concept of effective representational ministry (doing it “for” or “to”) is a myth.  Participatory ministry is needed — people in ministry “with” others.  It challenges us to both think and act differently.  It pulls us out of the comfort zone, and it makes change a necessity.  Ministry “with” means we lose control.  Years ago I struggled to get lay people to do prison visits and Bible studies with me.  It took more energy recruiting unwilling volunteers than it did preparing and delivering the Bible study.  Then it dawned on me that the only people I knew who weren’t really afraid of prison were the prisoners.  With permission, I began a special program with two of my brightest and best students — a twenty-five year old man serving for armed robbery, and a seventy year old man serving time for involuntary manslaughter.  I mentored them to become the Bible study teachers, and I became one of the class.  In time, they both led their own classes on their own, and the younger of the two brought another man along, teaching him to teach as well.  For three years I limped along leading about 8-10 men a week in Bible study.  The year after I turned things over to the inmates themselves, over 25 men were in Bible study each week.  Ministry “with” is transformative in ways that ministry “for” and “to” can never be.  Give a person a fish/teach a person to fish kind of thing.

The church desperately needs some new metaphors for leadership.  Leadership can no longer be defined as “what a leader does.”  Leadership in the church, by its very definition, must be a collaborative concept.  With very few exceptions, we simply don’t have individuals with all the skills and gifts needed to effectively lead a congregation.  And if we are truly serious about this disciple-making stuff, we are equipping all people to use their gifts and talents for the greater good — we are training, nurturing, and equipping people to share in leadership.  All of ministry should be “with.”  I sat through a day long seminar where a very old-school, hierarchical definition of church was foundational to everything said.  The leaders provide ministry to the masses.  Leaders lead, followers follow, a place for everyone and everyone in his/her place.  How disempowering!  What a narrow vision of the kingdom of God.  A handful of shepherds leading the mindless mass of sheep to the grazing field of Jesus.  Yuck!  The idea was that somehow the church “gives” people Jesus.  That we have what they need and the whole role of leadership is to figure out ways to make them take their God pill and like it.

Granted, there are a whole lot of “Christians” who don’t even want to take their God pill, but what people want and what God wants might be two different things.  If God wants us to take up the mantle of Christ and be Christ for the world, we as Christian leaders can’t offer less than that because that’s what people want or will tolerate.  No one can take his or her place in the body of Christ without some help, guidance, nurture, and support.  But all people have a place in the body — in the leadership — and no one on earth, clergy or laity, should deny them that place.  And if we are not helping them enter into ministry “with” the body, we are not doing our job.  And this isn’t just about the newest member to join the fellowship, either.  There are hundreds of thousands of people in our world that do not yet know the love of God and the grace of the Christ, and therefore they do not know there is a place for them in the body.  They are our responsibility as well.  If all we ever do is provide ministries “for” them or minister “to” them, we will never help them find their place “with” us.

12 replies

  1. Paul-
    You have misunderstood me altogether, which is the unfortunate nature of blogging… commenting… etc, there is no face or voice inflection or anything of the sort to show you where I am coming from.

    Look, I understand full well that when you go down to a soup kitchen serve some meals and walk out patting your back like you did something good it is altogether patronizing to those you serve, and while you walk away feeling as though you have done something marvelous those whom you have served see right through you. I get that. I also get that you can go down to a mission preach till you are blue in the face talk about love etc… to people and at people and if you are never with those people you ministry is ultimately going to be meaningless.

    My point is this… people need to go, there is so much fear about how to go, just go and love people find out they are so incredibly like you, and yet so wonderfully different than you as well, know them, be available, take interest honest interest in their lives… love. Period love.

    Again, so much worry about to for or with is unwarranted, because so few go in the first place.

    I would love to continue this dialog, is my e-mail, and if you shoot me an e-mail I would happily give my phone# and we could talk, I would love to hear your story and maybe we would understand each other better if we heard each other’s voices.

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