So You’re a Minister … Leaves from a Journal Spanning 20 YearsAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bobby's World, Church, Holy Spirit, Ministry, Preaching, Spiritual Disciplines
Just Who Are You?
Sometimes the best insight comes from a non-traditional source. The rock band Creed, one of my favorites, has a great song called “A Thousand Faces.”
“I stand surrounded by the walls That once confined me Knowing I’ll be underneath them When they crumble When they fall. With clarity my scars remind me Ask yourself what’s just under my skin … You wear a thousand faces, tell me, tell me which is you.” The song goes on to lament “Dug my grave, thrashed my name Yet here I stand so you won’t fade away …”
What a powerful song. It calls us to find out who we really are. Who I am. We have a thousand faces with a thousand different people and we loose ourselves in the process. The song also testifies to the one who stays, though some “thrash my name.”
So Who Am I? We ministers cannot even agree on the term to call ourselves such is the convoluted sense of identity among us. Young men (and women) are recruited (almost like the military does at times!), fed a line, given a vision and some basic training – frequently inadequate – and unleashed to “front line.”
Suddenly one is confronted with the truth of a thousand different faces. In any given week a minister is teacher, preacher, crises counselor, priest, a comforter, encourager, marriage counselor, care giver, administrator, referee, companion, diplomat, mechanic, janitor, secretary, and the congregational role model! This is just a sampling of the thousand faces btw. Some of these roles (= faces) the preacher/minister is completely unprepared and untrained to deal with. All of these faces/roles worn in a fragile glass house.
Throughout the pages of my journal there are, probably, hundreds of examples of the last paragraph. I recall being in a home Bible study (to pick just one of those many examples) at an elder’s house in the late 1990s and have it suddenly turn into a marital counseling session. Another of physically removing a revolver from a person’s hands while praying that the “whole armor of God” is bullet proof. I recall having a 15 year knocking on our door at 2:30 am in complete break down, pregnant and scared. Her question, “will you come with me to tell my parents.”
When the minister inadequately “performs” in any of these areas, some of which were never addressed in his training, he is dealt with, at times, very unkindly (how do you train for the news media showing up and shoving a microphone in your face to tell you a deacon has been arrested in a FBI sting operation for solicitation of a minor?).
Usually, however, the harshest critic in all of this is the minister himself because he starts to buy into the thousand faces premise. His sense of failure and inadequacy is reinforced by unwise, and often unloving, criticism. To be honest in that one area that the preacher himself may deem most important, the Bible, he is often inadequately trained (in the Journal several more far more grave examples are given from my own life, I omit them for a myriad of reasons).
So the minister must develop a sense of identity. Like Creed sings he must be able to answer the question “tell me which one is you!” Churches often have totally unrealistic, if not unbiblical, and unspoken expectations of the minister. The minister short changes the church because he willingly tries to wear those thousand faces and thus looses his real gift. Too many churches (including elders) come to view the minister as an employee and he is never actually seen as part of the overall Body. Those with eyes to see pick up on this truth rather quickly.
I have learned that many congregations are shaped and molded as much by the comfort of how it has always been done as by anything the Bible actually says. Biblical authority is the trump card that is used only when our pet identity markers are questioned. This sociological observation holds true still when it comes to many individual ministers.
In most ministerial training the “candidate” is admonished to devour, digest, and internalize God’s prescription for ministry from those books we call Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy & Titus … I however think Jeremiah should be required of any ministry candidate). The professor in college says the “pattern” for the preacher is found here. Thus as the preacher is seeking to define his own face he is presented with a dilemma. To quote Donald Crittenden, few Churches of Christ (if any) actually believe or “accept as the proper province of the minister the full catalog of duties assigned to Timothy and Titus.” I wrote in my journal several years ago next to this quote “this is a true statement if there ever was one.”
“But the minister must be able to say who he is. We need to be able to define our task, our vocation, better than anyone. It may take a few trips around the block to really understanding how important this matter is. We share in the life of the church as a member, as all members do. However our task within the body is very defined. The words of Paul apply to ministers as much as any other Christian,
“[D]o not think more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment … For as in one body we have many members, and not all members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us … ministry … teaching … exhorting ...” (Romans 12.3b-8)
What the minister needs to do is develop not so much a philosophy of ministry, though that is needed, as he needs to develop a theological understanding of who he is and what God has called him to do within the body. I have my first job description from a church. They were good and loving people. I was too dumb at the time to know what it was I was really supposed to be doing. That job description omitted prayer entirely! Apparently Acts 6.4 was limited to the first century (I credit Eugene Peterson in helping me wrestle with many of these issues. His book The Contemplative Pastor should be required reading for preachers)
Over the past twenty years my own sense of identity has been forged through reading hundreds of articles, dozens of books, and finding the courage to say, “I disagree” to churches and even elders.
My personal, written by me, job description takes seriously the words of Paul quoted above (similar ones are found in 1 Cor 12 and Ephesians 4) and his words to Timothy and Titus and the ministry of Moses. These words are in my Bible
“I am a sinner saved by the grace of God through the blood of Jesus Christ. Though I never wanted to be one, God has made me a minister within the body of Christ. Thus God demands that I drench my life with Scripture. Therefore I require an immersion in biblical study. I need hours to reflect prayerfully with the aid of every tool and especially the Holy Spirit to come to grips with the text. God is calling me to more than information the Spirit is calling me to worship with his body through these pages. This is my task.”
This short statement reflects lots of evolution and further understanding. It will likely evolve again. But as flawed as it is it is, this is my self-definition as a minister and everything flows out of it. The prayer of Martin Luther is so appropriate even after we understand our role.
Lord God, you have made me a pastor in your church. You see how unfit I am to undertake this great and difficult office, and if it were not for your help, I would have ruined it all long ago. Therefore I cry to you for aid. I offer my mouth and my heart to your service. I desire to teach the people – and for myself, I would learn ever more diligently meditate on your Word. Use me as your instrument, but never forsake me, for if I am left alone I shall easily bring it all to destruction. Amen.
To answer the question from Creed, this is who I am. This is the face that defines me. Every minister needs to be able to answer that question. I am a sinner, saved by grace, being God’s flawed conduit for that message of grace. Preaching is rooted first in the Great Indicative!
Creed sings “Now I’m forced to look behind, I’m forced to look at you … Broken mirrors paint the floor but can’t you tell the truth.” The church that fails to grasp who and what the minister is is complicit in his spiritual death.
Since 1992 I have seen many gifted people – my friends – buy into the sales pitch of the recruiters, only to be sacrificed upon the altar of “ministry.” All I have to do is look at my own graduating class to see the shattered lives. I may be mistaken, but of my class there are, I believe, only two that are still preaching. From that class there are those who do not attend church at all, those whose families and marriages have been shattered like my own, even those who are now atheists. Why is it a person will spend years getting a “degree” and are throwing in the towel within two years (which is the average life expectancy of a minister … how does that compare to the “career” of the average NFL player?).
The problem, as I see it, is the thousand faces churches demand of the minister. The most insidious part is that frequently these “faces” are not even written down. Then when he fails they “dug my grave” and “trashed my name.” Many a preacher feels as if he is hired to be the Master of Ceremonies of Everything in the local church. When he flops it is not simply the “members” that are let down he often feels he has failed God. This is when the powder keg is burning in the life of the minister and he is driven to “succeed” but success is not defined Spiritually or biblically. I have been victim of these broken mirrors myself and could not tell the truth (about myself). Thus I have felt the desire on more than one occasion of “throwing in the towel.” One time I was literally within mere seconds of doing it on the spot. I wanted out!
My Salvation as a Minister
The only thing that has kept me going as a minister, especially in the last several years, has been the beginning of my personal statement above. “I am a sinner saved by the grace of God through the blood of Jesus Christ.” This is my salvation as a Christian but also as a minister. I know, before I even start, that I will fail in wearing all the Mardi Gras faces just right. I know I am incompetent to fulfill all the roles and expectations that well meaning, but misinformed, people have of me.
Knowing that my ministry exits by, and through, the grace of God alone takes the pressure off. God does not expect me to be perfect. I am perfected in Christ. God does not expect me to do it all. He expects me to surrender to him so He can do it all through me. Knowing who I am frees me to be what God has called me to be. I am a teacher/preacher who exists in holy covenant with the rest of the body in a symbiotic relationship of mutual blessing and accountability. The blood of Jesus bathes, and sanctifies, my wholly inadequate effort to wear a thousand faces. Indeed the washing of the blood is what makes me see clearly the truth that sets me free.