20 June, 2013 Steve Palframan
“Don’t be the first to leave the table.”
That was the sanguine advice of a 14-year-old as we finished off a meal with his family.
“If you leave the table first, you have to do the dishes. Happens every time.”
And so, with such razor-sharp wisdom, he managed to inflict the job no-one wanted on his younger brother after every meal. By making the right moves at the right time, he knew he could avoid being lumbered with a mundane task that he would rather not do.
Clever, undoubtedly; unique, certainly not! In fact, it’s such wisdom applied to many areas of life which gets us all out of doing things we don’t want to do, but – more seriously – it’s a trait I observe in many engaged in, or training for, pastoral ministry and that’s what I want to discuss here.
The point is that much of pastoral ministry is mundane service that is rarely noticed, even by the people who benefit from it, and as a result it’s hard to find someone willing to do it. In fact, it appears to me that we’re rather adept at making the right moves at the right times in order to avoid
Let me give you an example. Simon is fictitious and extreme, but for our purposes a representative 20-something who feels called to pastoral ministry. He’s greatly benefited from a 121 Bible study that he’s done with the pastor of his church, and his preaching has been appreciated both by his church and the CUs at which he has spoken. So he leaves his job and heads off to college, paid for by a group of excited friends, a sacrificially giving church and a few grants from trusts. He studies hard, reminding himself that his studies are all for this aim of preaching the Gospel in a local church. After 4 years (he needed an extra year to get on top of his Hebrew) he leaves college and is appointed as an Assistant Pastor (aka Curate) in an evangelical church meeting his strict criteria. To his shock, arriving there is like taking a dip in an ice bath. His breath is taken away as he realises that pastoral ministry is not what he thought and that his mentor – the senior minister – is stressed, overworked and spiritually cold. When daydreaming in lectures at college he’d thought that pastoral ministry would be a combination of deep and meaningful conversations with earnest young men, reading books and preaching – but now he finds that it involves lots of small talk with old people, stewarding meetings and taking broken tables to the dump. So, like a 14-year-old boy with an aversion to washing up, he starts making his moves: volunteering for camps and committees, CU missions and further studies. Who knows, with a few deft steps he could even have a book deal with IVP.
Now I generalise, obviously, but there’s truth here – I’ve felt like Simon myself (so, IVP, if you’re reading...) but it’s also a great tragedy. Why? Well, let’s face it: most of our churches are ordinary, even the extra-ordinary ones have an ordinary church somewhere at the heart of them, and most guys called to pastoral ministry are also ordinary (think 1 Cor 1:26). Which means that the bread and butter of ministry is committing yourself, for the long haul, to a group of people who will not change as quickly as you want them to and who will need you to do things for them other than just studying to preach, preaching and meeting up with the keen ones. It might not be a job you want because it won’t be glamorous or well paid – and it will involve small talk, trips to the dump and setting out chairs.
But don’t conclude that it’s not important. Ordinary saints in ordinary churches cost Jesus his blood and will be his bride. He considers his church stunning and the New Testament thinks that working in the church is a glorious privilege. So the ascended, patient, bridegroom calls people to care for his bride – both by teaching them lovingly from his word and by rolling up their sleeves to serve them.
And, after all, Jesus thinks that service like this is great:
“And whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:44-45