Thursday, July 26, 2007

Some Advice for Rookie Ministers

Well, I'm back now from my month-long sojourn in the Pacific Northwest; I've found an apartment in my new community of Portland Maine; I've finished Harry Potter; and the movers are scheduled to arrive next Friday. So in the meantime (in between trying to pack my books, that is) I suddenly have a moment to blog again.

Recently I responded to a request for advice and encouragement from someone who was beginning their first ministry. Since they seemed to like what I had to say, I thought I'd polish it up a little and post it here....

The "technical" aspects of our job are relatively easy; if you don't know something you can generally look it up, and if you don't know where to look it up, you can always ask a colleague. It's navigating the complicated cultural, political, and interpersonal dimensions of ministry that always seems to trip people up. So let people know up front and often that you like them, that you really care about them, and that while you certainly aren't perfect at the very least they can count on you to be trustworthy and reliable and sincere. Try not to make promises you can't keep, and keep the promises you make. That sort of thing.

A word of Encouragement? Easy. Ministry is a very hard job which by definition will take everything you have to give it and then ask for more, and is almost certainly guaranteed to routinely break your heart. It can be frustrating, discouraging, disappointing, and at times profoundly disillusioning...but it is also an extraordinarily rewarding job in ways that are almost impossible to measure. So don't be afraid of being the "real deal," or engaging people authentically on a deep level. That's what they're paying you to do. And that's why many of us don't really think as much about our paychecks as we should (unless we really have to), and would keep doing this work for free if we could afford it.

Anyway, if these all sound like platitudes, it's because they are. Cliches don't get to be cliches by accident. But good ministry must be more than merely platitudes and cliches. Preach the best sermons you know how, and keep working and learning how to make them even better. Make your hospital visits, return phone calls and e-mails promptly, write those thank you notes, practice a spiritual discipline, and don't let the merely urgent distract you from the truly important. And have fun. Ask the important questions rather than trying to supply all the answers, but don't be afraid to articulate the shared vision you are hearing all around you. That's also you're job: to say out loud what the community is thinking in silence.

And remember this too: you can't do it all yourself. So find the kindred spirits and the sympathetic souls and empower them to share your ministry. There's one other thing too, something I heard the other day from Wayne Clarke in one of his workshops in Portland: that before people can learn to give generously they need to be able to receive graciously. That goes for us as well. Your people really want you to succeed. So let them help you be successful, and don't worry so much about who gets the credit.

At the end of the day, and at the dawn of each new one, Ministry is about Fidelity. Faith-full-ness. Learning to Trust, and to Believe in yourself, believe in your people, believe in the values and principles that make our faith trust-worthy. If you can embody that lifestyle in humility and gratitude, generosity and service, with both wisdom and good humor, you will do well. Or at least as any of us ever does in this strange and wonderful work.