As a very young boy, I vividly recall standing on a step-stool next to a rickety wooden table on which a mimeograph machine sat. My task? Crank that handle like nobody’s business while my Dad (a step or two away) fed the blank bulletin sheets into the end of the machine. So like a circus monkey paid with peanuts and applause (minus the peanuts and applause), I’d stand and crank the handle, turning the inky drum as it churned out bulletin after bulletin after bulletin in preparation for the upcoming Sunday’s worship service. This was my first memory of my introduction to ministry.
I grew up in the shadow of a church. And I mean that literally. It wasn’t until my early 30’s that I didn’t live in a house or apartment that wasn’t directly next to or across the street from the church building I worked in and worshiped in. For most of my life, I’ve been a mere stone’s throw away from a church building. Where I sit now, typing these words is as far as where I live has ever been away from my church, where I work/serve/minister/worship; not more than 15 minutes.
I had lunch with my senior pastor yesterday. I’ll start off by saying I LOVE this guy. Jerome is someone who is as sincere as they come and a genuine lover of God and people. He is immediately embracable and approachable and has an uncanny ability to remember your name even after only meeting you once. He has a heart for leading with integrity, vision, passion, and fruitfulness. He’s been the senior pastor at Southside for nearly 25 years. You’d be hard pressed to find a pastor who lasts much longer than 25 months at a church, let alone 25 years. I love Jerome and in every conversation we have, I become more and more convinced that Jerome loves me and my family. So naturally I love any time I get to spend with Jerome, especially when its one-on-one.
We were discussing ministry-related issues among other things and through our conversation, I began to think about where and how ministry happens. And just to have a common understanding, let me explain what I mean by “ministry”. Ministry is any forward movement of God’s Kingdom, to put it one way. Ministry happens in a wide variety of ways, not the least of which is at weekend worship gatherings. Ministry happens not through pastors alone, but through every person who names Jesus as Lord and allows His Lordship to flow through their life into the life of another. Ministry is me listening to a grieving friend as he tells of the end of his marriage, despite his uttermost efforts to save it. Ministry is you taking food, clothes, or other supplies to the homeless of your area. Ministry is the teaching and preaching of God’s Word to God’s people. Ministry is two Christians sitting in a cafe’ discussing and encouraging one another with Scripture. Ministry happens when I’m present in your pain. Ministry is you visiting someone in the hospital or nursing home. Ministry is walking next door to your neighbors who just had a baby, carrying a casserole and package of diapers. Ministry is you speaking to God on someone else’s behalf. Ministry is bringing food to the hungry, clothes to the needy, water to the thirsty, compassion to the hurting, and God’s love in God’s name to any other human being in any context. THAT’S ministry.
But I’ve got to make a confession. Like my early days as a mimeograph handle cranker, I can sometimes view pastoral ministry as happening predominantly inside the four walls of an office, and sitting behind a desk. And I wonder how many other pastors feel and do the same. But here’s the thing that stings: Jesus didn’t even have an office. Or a desk. And by all Scriptural evidence, I don’t even see anything about a chair.
Of course I realize that Jesus was in an extremely different ministry context. Of course I realize that things were different then, some 2,000 years ago. And of course, I realize that HE’S JESUS. But still, Jesus spent way more time in the fields than in the temple. An honest look at Jesus’ ministry approach reveals He focused more on reaching than preaching. After all, if you haven’t reached out, then who exactly are you preaching to? I know they’re not mutually exclusive, but I also see that in most situations, there’s a natural progression of one to the other.
But I’m awfully comfortable at my desk. Not physically really, but in a personal security sense. At my desk, I have a sense of domain. I know what I’m doing and I’m good at those things. I can email like a banshee and get replies from people within minutes and a have a sense of progression. I can stand up, walk to the whiteboard, and plan out a year’s worth of sermons and socials. I can sit down at my computer and pound out a spreadsheet, a devotional book, or a flyer promoting our next event. But when I walk out the door, any one at all is liable to come up to me with a question, or a request, or some other need that I might not know how to handle.
And the longer I’ve grown in ministry, the more I believe that the vast majority of real ministry often happens far from the church building, from my office, and from my desk chair. It happens in conversations with teens via text or social network while I’m sitting in a restaurant booth somewhere, it happens in homes where small groups meet, laugh, share, cry, and love God by loving each other. It happens downtown where physical needs are met before spiritual needs are broached. It happens suddenly when I get a message from someone asking “Can we talk?”. It happens just as often in the unplanned chaos as it does in the planned routine of daily life. As a pastor, I recognize that life in ministry seldom (if ever) leaves the trenches.
So God help me (a measly pastor) to live a life that prioritizes people over projects, “out there” more than “in here”, adventure over security, cold water in your hand over hot coffee on my desk, serving over being served, and Christ-like sacrifice over me-like comfort.