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. When you are in the community in service for and with Christ this “to, for, with” question becomes irrelevant. The semantics of service may matter some from the pulpit, but anyone who has been in the trenches with the Lord on the streets and elsewhere couldn’t care less whether they were doing ministry ‘to, for, or with’ someone, they are serving the living God and content with that no matter what you call it.

    Too much talking, too many words, too much fear of describing ministry in the wrong way. People know when they are loved, go and love in the name of Christ actively. “To, for, or with”… doesn’t matter. Go… and when you get there… love… love for them, love at them, and love with them… whoever the ‘them’ may be.

    • Let me tell you something, Jay. I was out on the streets for six years. The “semantics of service” you talk about matter big time to people who have lost everything including their dignity. We don’t “care less,” we care with all our soul for people to minister with us — to treat us like human beings and to actually want to be with us and not just do something kind “for those less fortunate.” You should be very careful talking about other people you know nothing about. A church with real leaders who didn’t just talk compassion but lived it turned my life around. Lots of churches do ministry to the poor and for the poor and they do some good. Ministry with the poor not only saves lives but changes lives. If you don’t think there’s a difference, heaven help the people you think you’re “serving.” You want people to know you love them? Make a choice. With isn’t the same as to or for. No way.

  2. Ding ding and ding.

    This is right on the money.

    Trevor: I’ll be honest. I do not think I could attend your church, let alone be a member. Your moral superiority shocks me.

    Ministry WITH people says that the people with whom you are in ministry are people worthy of respect. It means that you are working together in creating the realm of G-d. When you are in ministry TO and FOR people, you are deciding what people OUGHT to want and then giving it to them.

    To use a less charged example than drug addicts. I am currently enrolled in seminary. The seminary faculty, who hold a considerable amount of power in the decision making process, do not have any student representation. They make decisions they think are best for students, rather than letting students tell them what is best for them. A better model of ministry would be the faculty sharing the decision making power, especially when it affects the students. You can, as one member of the trustees told me when I complained about this, “have the students at heart” when you make the decisions for them, but unless you are making the decisions with the students that affect the students you are acting unjustly.

    To “charge” the question a bit, I would say the same is true with Trevor’s drug addict example. If one is in ministry to them, one has made the decision about what is best for them and are giving it to them. In this situation, it is often more about one’s own glory than bringing about healing and wholeness. “Look how wonderful I am for the work that I am doing for the addicts!” That is dehumanizing and contrary to the Gospel as I read it. One should want to be in ministry with people with addiction. One should listen to the needs of addicts and try to provide the space for healing. That doesn’t mean you should not create appropriate boundaries. That suggestion is hyperbolic and misses the whole point of the blog post.

    Ministry with people is about honoring the humanity of each individual with whom we serve. It is about not creating and reinforcing false senses of superiority. It is about sharing power. It is about deconstructing privileged. It is about the people we serve.

      • I’ll let Warren respond for himself, but for me when I read “honoring the humanity of each individual” it means treating them as subjects not objects, engaging with them as real people and not just categories of people, being willing to acknowledge the person as part of “us” and not some unrelated “them.”

  3. As a clergy person of the “next generation” who has the audacity to think of herself as a part of the “now of the church,” I think you captured the complexity of the issue very well. The idea of ministry being “us” in the church caring FOR “them” outsiders is really making me quite weary.
    I believe the solution to the decline of the church can be found in its response to the “drug addicts, junkies, prostitutes,” “next generation” and everyone else named “them.” I wouldn’t suggest that we simply turn over all power, influence and resources to the “drug addicts, junkies and prostitutes.” I wouldn’t even suggest that the “next generation” wants to have all power, influence and resources turned over to them by the older generation. What ever happened to the understanding that accountability is a part of every relationship?
    None of us…or maybe I really mean “them,” want to fail. We want to be successful in what we do. We want our lives to mean something. We want to know we are not alone. We want someone to work WITH us to make a difference. But we don’t want someone with all the “right” answers to decide what we need, want or can handle.
    Would I turn over all the church money to the man I spoke to yesterday who had obvious mental health struggles? Of course not. But he’s not interested in someone who has all the “right” answers FOR him and he’s certainly not going to trust someone who has the nerve to assume he cannot be trusted.
    I would, however, jump at the chance to be in a relationship with him in a way that holds us both accountable to the life of faith and to the world around us. I would jump at the opportunity to be in ministry WITH him so that we could reach people that I can’t reach on my own and his circle of connection could receive resources that they would not have otherwise had access to. It seems that all of the “thems” of the world want the same thing – to be taken seriously, to be seen as people of worth and to have someone in their lives who is open to being both teacher and learner in a relationship. And isn’t that really what ministry is all about?

  4. Shalom!

    Reflecting on my years of active pastoral ministry, I really resonated with your comments above that “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.”

    Many of us have trouble even figuring out or remembering where we’re going let alone how to bring others along with us.

    Your account of Bible study in prison reminded me (don’t laugh; that’s not what I’m relating to) of the best of Bible studies I “led” in local congregations. While I often ended up talking more than others, my effort was directed toward balancing understanding the text and some sort of collaborative learning as members of the group that day shared insights and stories around the table. The “best” sessions IMO were generally those in which we could agree at the end that our trust in God was strengthened and we felt more like a community than a collection of individuals.

    Two years plus into retirement, I continue to wonder how our congregations can thrive with the self-understanding that the pastor does all or most of the work. And I wonder if this understanding (if I am correct) comes from within the church culture or if it is somehow related to a wider idea of what “church” is all about.


  5. You dis the term ‘outside of the box’ and then talk about ‘the comfort zone’ in the very next paragraph… Not sure what is worse LOL.

    As a youth pastor, am I in ministry TO, or WITH youth? This depends whether or not they believe. We are next door to a middle school and every wednesday a sizable group of youth (whose only connection with a Church is this time each week) come over to eat, have fun, hear a gospel lesson, and more. It is a great ministry TO youth. Sunday evenings when were we have a more committed group of youth and we go out and do service projects, street ministry, evangelism WITH the youth to the poor, and those in need. When we go down to various mission agencies with some of the kids, we do ministry WITH the kids, WITH the poor, to and for some of the other poor.

    The ‘to’ and ‘for’ thing is all about perspective.

    Good post, I really enjoyed it, and think it raises some good points.

  6. We have drug addicts and junkies and prostitutes in our neighborhood. We need to be in ministry to these people, but there is NO WAY we’re going to be in ministry with them. That is crazy. These people need help, but they cannot be trusted. You are naive and gullible if you think these people can enter into the church as full members. We DO have a responsibility TO them and need to provide ministries FOR them, but not WITH them. That is turing the asylum over to the lunatics. You do not do that.

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