A (tentative) Theology of Ministry

I have always found the word “call” to be an illusive one. Yet as I look back at all the ways in which I have been prepared and equipped for ministry, God’s calling in my life is obvious if not undeniable. My journey has not been one without its share of confusions, frustrations, and even doubts. But as I reflect upon my journey and see the ways in which God has been with me—in my influences (blended as they may be), in my passions, and in my relationships—I can see God’s calling and invitation to me to be for other as God has been for me and to be such in the context of vocational ministry. I believe that God in renewing and redeeming everything. I believe that God is transforming the lives of individuals and communities. I believe that the heart of God is to be with and for the people God loves and I want to be a part of that.

This is ministry: to be for others what God has been for you. Simply and purely, this is what God has called each one of us to be—to be the reflection of God’s image in the world and to implement the work of God through Christ’s salvific death and resurrection. To accept this invitation involves more than intentional and critical theological reflection, although this is essential. It involves the embodiment of such reflection. It involves intentionally reflecting on who God is, which is beyond just what God has done, asking the tough questions, witnessing the ways in which the answers to those questions actually hit the ground—how they implement themselves in the daily bodily life—, and then taking them on and embodying them in ways that are sensitive not only to the reality of who God is but also to the complex diversity of those to whom you are ministering. Christ, with scars of crucifixion fresh upon his body comes to his disciples, stands among them, and into their fear he speaks to them, “Peace be with you!...” and into their joy he speaks, “Peace be with you! As the father has sent me, I am sending you.” And then he breathed on them (John 20:19-23). This is the God we are reflecting. Not one who shouts from heaven, “I love you” but one who comes to us, stands among us, breathes upon us, and is for us. The incarnation itself is an invitation for theology of ministry to be more than doctrinal and embedded.

The manner in which our reflection of God’s image is received by others is as important as the reflection itself. Therefore, intentionality in our relationships, our language, our listening, our imaging of God, and our personal self-examination is not only necessary but implicit. And since ministry involves being as opposed to doing, it involves perpetual self-examination and honesty.

It is as important for us to understand ourselves as it is for us to be sensitive to God and others. We must allow God the space within us, to motivate our love and our honesty, thereby nourishing us in God’s Spirit, and to interrupt our complacency, frustration, burdened-ness, and our pursuit of anything other than that to which God has called and invited us. The adoption of a rhythm of life which opens us to rest and knowledge of self is implicit in the life of reflecting the image of the God who rests and is in harmony with God’s self. Indeed, such self-examination and personal nourishing is itself the implementation of being for others as God is to us.
The theology of the trinity is an ancient doctrine in the Church and it is one which I have known and believed. God being three-in-one, in eternal community with God’s self, having three persons, has been for me simply an embedded theology. It has not, until recent years, truly hit the ground for me. I was willing to argue to the death that this theology was so, but I had no other reason for believing it other than that it was “true.” The most important thing about a word is not the noise it makes nor even its definition, but that which it causes to happen. The most important aspect of a theology is not it’s objective truth value nor simply its’ logicality but the way in which it is embodied. The beliefs I have known about God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit have transformed as I’ve allowed them to stand amongst my experience. The God who comes to us is not a God of mode or of role. This is not a God of doing but of being. Perhaps this is why some are more comfortable using the personal pronoun “he” or “she” in reference to God—God is a person not a unit of function. This is the God who simply says “I AM” (Exodus 3:14, The Hebrew phrase “ehyeh asher ehyeh” is illusive for English translators, but the root of the word ehyeh is the word for “being”). This God is whole. And yet this God is in community. The critical theological reflection of such a paradoxical reality could go on and on, but the way in which it has hit the ground for me is within the way I live in community as an individual. It is indeed within community that I can reflect the image of God. And the way I can be in community with others without being destructive to them nor to myself is through refusing to simply play a role. It is by discovering the stranger in myself in order to discover that which I truly AM and then, as Christ did, offer that gift to others—the gift not of my doing but of my being. The trinity, then, at its best, compels us to be whole and to be wholly for others at the same time.

I once believed the Bible to be literal and “inerrant” in its literal interpretation, even when its assertions and presuppositions were incidental to the message of the text itself. I once believed the church to be a conversion machine—to make sure that people were saved from this sinking ship so that they could go to heaven someday. I once believed that ministry was about clearly and authoritatively “heralding” the gospel of Christ. But as with my Trinitarian theology, as I have examined myself, examined God, and examined others, my ideas have been transformed by my experience and have also returned the favor by shaping my experience itself. The journey of ministry is a journey of allowing our image of God to be shaped by our experiences of God and then allowing them to return the favor.

For example, I was once quite comfortable with thinking and imaging God in purely masculine terms. I was aware that others might be sensitive to it, but I didn’t truly allow my experience to shape my understanding. Through various readings and conversations, both in the context of class and in my personal context of ministry, my thoughts on the words I’ve used has changed.

One assignment in particular has stuck out to me. It was a group assignment in which we were asked to look up a list of passages of scripture and identify the imagery used in reference to God. Such passages as Numbers 11:12-13, Psalm 131:2, and Hosea 13:8 were surprising. Although I had become aware through previous experience and study that Scripture sometimes uses femininity in its imagery of God and although I had before known that the imagery of God is quite diverse and various, I had become accustomed to seeing masculine imagery as the dominant description of God and therefore as the satisfactory, if not appropriate, default perspective. But, through looking at such a collection of passages, I’ve allowed my experience to shape and be shaped by my image of God. In reality there is no default imagery for God, as has become the practical reality in the context of most churches and Christian communities. God is indeed larger than our words and our words are still too limited in comparison to the diversity of the Body of Christ. I love the words of a quote which was given to us in class,
“A concern for inclusive languages bespeaks the church’s emerging conviction both that the diversity of the people of God is to be acknowledged and embraced in such a way that all may feel included, as well as the realization that every reference to God is limited in its capacity to express the reality and mystery of the One who has so variously encountered us.”(Definitions and Guidelines on Inclusive Language, http://www.wjpresbytery.org/publications/policies/inclusive.php, accessed December 6, 2010)

Care for our words and sensitivity thereby to the people to whom we are ministering is itself a reflection of the God who meets us precisely as and where we are. We must demonstrate the ability to think beyond our own personal comforts and preferences, to impose less importance upon definitions and exactness and more importance upon a concern for what is being communicated. What is being said is only important insofar as it communicates that which is intended. In this, it is even presumable that a lie could tell the truth. One of my favorite quotes is, “artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up” (Form the film “V For Vendetta” written by Andy and Lana Wachowski and directed by James McTeigue ((2006))). There is an art to speaking, an art to writing, the end of which is to liberate through words and give life through communication. Therefore we must be aware when our words confine and restrict. Words themselves can reflect God, not just in God’s femininity or masculinity but God’s motivating and interrupting presence. If our words are to be a reflection of God they must meet people where they are, in the subjectivity of their community and individuality, and they must cause something to happen.

In order to move forward from here into a life of reflecting the image of God in the world through vocational ministry, I must take hold of my thoughts, take hold of my actions, take hold of my experience and allow them all to dance with one another in mutual influence. To take hold of my thoughts means to let God’s imagination get the best of me—to allow God’s dominion to captivate me. This means adopting a true rhythm or rule of life—taking on the sort of disciplines which will open me up to discover my identity in Christ with intentionality and critical thought. To move into a ministry where love is of the highest value and honesty is the natural response, I must take hold of my actions. I must learn to say yes to that which is of true importance so that I may say no to that which is not. And finally, to take hold of my experience I must let others into it. I cannot do this alone. For all of these things, so that I may be for others what the liberating God has been for me, I will need to open myself to receive the support of others in honesty and mutuality. This in itself is a reflection of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

(Originally written for submission for Formation for Ministry at SFTS)