Ministry as Job

Adults, unless independently wealthy, need a job in order to support themselves and their families. Even wealthy people likely need a job for the sake of their well-being.

Jobs are tied up with issues of money, competition and progress. When we do our jobs, we want to be paid. When we do well at our jobs, we want to be paidmore. Most workplaces have limited funds, so if it is usually not possible for all employees either to be paid as much as they think they ought or to progress the pay scale as fast as they ought.

The desire to make money that is connected with a job has no necessary connection with greed. Unless, that is, what we consider the basics in our culture – a place to live, a car, new clothes, food, education, etc. – cannot be conceived of apart from greed, i.e., that a truly non-greedy person would care for none of these.

My first real job was working the grill at McDonalds. I probably cooked at least 100,000 burgers over the 5 years I worked for them. Though even in those days some complained about McDonalds, the company was by no means counter-cultural. Food? Everyone needs to eat. Meat? Vegetarianism and Veganism were much less high-profile in the late 70s and early 80s than they are now. The outcry against fast food was not very loud yet. So, aside from having an aroma of grease around me, the social impact of my working there was minimal. No one close to me looked down on me for working there, no one called me a cow-murderer, no one challenged my commitment to “burgerism.”

McDonald’s also didn’t require much of the affective or metaphysical. I didn’t have to love McDonalds. I didn’t have to forswear ever eating at another restaurant or refrain from admitting that another place might, on occasion, have something worth eating. I didn’t have to believe anything controversial or substantial about McDonalds, beef, burgers, or fries. I just had to go to work and do the work assigned to me. No one cared what I thought or how I felt, as long as my thoughts and feelings didn’t impair my work.

My actions at McDonalds included things like:

  • Cooking
  • Cleaning
  • Stocking
  • Serving

These actions did require some beliefs. I had to believe in the reality of the physical world and the efficacy of my action in engaging in that world. I had to believe that the procedure for preparing various items was repeatable. I had to believe that my managers were the authorities directing my actions. These are pretty minimal beliefs. Even non-employees could believe most of them with no effort. Though I don’t have the experience to know for sure, I’d guess these basic beliefs would transfer without a hitch to employment at competitors like Burger King & Wendys.

Perhaps it won’t surprise you to hear that ministry jobs aren’t like that. And that’s a problem for some, as highlighted in this story I read on the Jesus Creed blog of Scot McKnight.

Like working at McDonalds, ministry jobs require actions. Pastoral ministry is what I know best, so I’ll speak from that point of view. The actions of a pastor include things like:

  • Speaking in front of people
  • Writing
  • Organizing and coordinating activities
  • Managing finances
  • Supervising employees
  • Visitation in homes, hospitals and other places

So far, all of these activities are transferable to other settings, whether religious or not. What’s the difference, then, between a ministry job, and a job like cooking at McDonalds?

One way to explain the difference is to see that all jobs take place in some sort of narrative, whether that narrative is implicit or explicit. At McDonalds the narrative is implicit. It may be something like, “People are hungry and in a hurry. Let’s give them something tasty, easily prepared and for a good price.” Obviously, given how many go to McDonalds, that narrative has been bought into billions and billions of times. The McDonald’s food narrative is very simple. It is not very differentiated, either through time or across cultures. The McDonald’s way of playing into the narrative may be distinct, but the narrative itself is extremely common. And almost entirely implicit.

Ministry jobs are also tied to a narrative. But which one? Ah, that’s part of the problem.

One popular narrative we could call “helping people.” People are in pain and need comfort. Others are in need and need help with resources for life. The job of ministry is to come along side these people, comfort them, and connect them with resources. This narrative is by no means alien to what we see in scripture. Jesus offers comfort and healing to hurting people. In the parable of the sheep and the goats he teaches the importance of meeting the practical needs of people. If this is were the only narrative we had though, we wouldn’t have much of a problem. Ministry could just be equated with “helping people.” The idea that we should help people isn’t very controversial. If, when asked what we do, we say that we help people, we’ll likely go unchallenged.

The pastors we’ve heard of who have lost their faith, who have shifted to atheism or agnosticism, can still be quite kind-hearted. They can still take it as their mission in life to help people. The “Help People” narrative is separable, or so it seems, from the “Jesus is the incarnate Son of God who died for our sins and rose on the third day” narrative. It’s this latter narrative that causes us trouble. Not everyone believes this story. Some don’t believe it, then come to believe it. Others, vice versa. This can be a problem for church leaders.

First, living into the Christian story, the story of scripture that climaxes with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus really matters. This story is essential to the life of the church. The church need leaders who faithfully live into this story. Just doing the job, just getting the work done, isn’t enough. We’ve tried that – the route of professionalism. Professionalism is nice – but we can have professionalism all day long without having a church. It’s for this reason that I sympathize with one answer offered to this problem: When a church leader loses faith, that leader ought to have the integrity to quit. Just getting the job done won’t cut it.

This is where the “helping people” narrative fails, and this is not because helping people is a bad thing. Judged by scripture, the “helping people” story is true – it’s just not enough. As we’ve seen in the past century, the “helping people” story is separable from the church’s story. Government has taken over many parts of it. The “helping people” story makes us think we can stand in some neutral place and objectively identify the real needs of people and figure out how to meet those needs. But there isn’t such a neutral place. The “helping people” story isn’t big enough to stand on its own; it needs other, larger stories. The Christian story has one way of contextualizing “helping people.” Modern social theory has another (I think here of John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory.)

Second, however, I know things are more complicated. On the one hand, while “faithfully living into the story” is a matter of belief, it is not only a matter of belief. Being faithful is also a matter of obedience. Let’s face it. No church leader is always and entirely obedient. We even sometimes lapse into acting more in accord with competing stories (like “this is just a job, so I will meet the minimum requirements,” or “I’m in this for what I can get out of it.”). When we stray like this does integrity require us to quit – or to repent?

On the other hand, even if one has quit believing there is a huge psycho-personal price to pay in quitting. Becoming a pastor in the UMC is expensive. It takes years of study and preparation, thousands of dollars of expenses, and huge family sacrifices. It’s hard for humans to invest so much and then quit. It’s like the ministry is guarded by 20 foot electrified fences topped with razor wire. It’s hard and scary to get past that. It’s even possible that natural human conservatism comes into play. A person may have grown to love the camaraderie of fellow pastors, the institutions of the church, the hymn tunes – even have a sincere attachment to and love for the people – after ceasing to believe.

What’s the solution? I don’t know for sure, but I do have a couple of ideas.

First, the church needs to maintain an open, honest, and tough-minded apologetic. We need to recognize that this apologetic is not just – or even primarily – aimed at outsiders. Rather, we need to continually offer up reasons for following Jesus, for believing in him and belonging to his church. This will be matched by an open recognition that people waver in their believing, some to a small degree, some so far as falling into unbelief. Perhaps treating this as a real phenomenon will allow people to ask questions and find faithful answers before the seed of faith has been extinguished altogether. It can be comforting to believe that once a person has faith, that person will only grow in faith forever. Comforting or not, such a belief is a fantasy that has no root in reality. A real and living faith requires constant and ongoing maintenance, continuing and disciplined engagement with Jesus.

Second, we need to narrow the gap between leaders and non-leaders, between pastors and the people. As long as pastors are taken to be some sort of super Christian, the fences will be high and difficult to cross. The objective is not to make it easy to leave the church, as if the faith were something trivial. No, our objective is to make love, not fear, the motive for remaining. If the gap between pastors and laity in the church is lowered, pastoral power will decrease. The influence of Pastor Awesome Faith will diminish. But so will the damage caused when Pastor Awesome Faith turns out to be something else. At the same time, the bar will be raised for the rest of us. We will discover that we need to live in our own faith, not vicariously through Super Pastor. I would expect this to help the pastor’s faith as well, serving as a witness and encouragement to the pastor, not just to other laity.

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