Monday, August 15, 2011

Church work

I spent today in an all-day staff meeting.

Wait. You need to read that sentence in a sinister voice, imaging haunting music in the background. Let me try again.

I spent today in an all-day staff meeting.

It was our annual knock-down, drag-out plow-through-the-next-year-and-a-half staff meeting, and so my Monday was spent around a conference room table, planning and talking. Maybe I've oversold it with this business about the haunting music. It was an all-day meeting, but I have had worse all-day meetings. I mean, the day wasn't all cupcakes and unicorns, but it was not torture, either.

It was work, is what it was. It was not terrible work, but it was work: the kind of work that leaves you cross-eyed and stiff, but the kind of work that is necessary for ministry to get done. You have to do the work--the office work, the paperwork, the guesswork, and the teamwork--or else nothing gets done. You can't just go play all day, every day. You have to do the work.

And it's funny, because one thing we ministers like to talk about is that professional pastoral ministry, being a pastor, is actually not a profession at all. You do not go to work, be a pastor, and then come home. If you are a pastor, YOU ARE A PASTOR. You don't easily change professions when you are a pastor, because being a pastor is who you are. It is a calling, of course: something to set against a profession, not in and of itsemf a profession.

I feel fine about this kind of highmindedness until the 14th and 29th of the month, at which time I look expectantly towards the next day's paycheck.

It is a twice-monthly ritual that reminds me that for everything else it is--and it is a lot of things, for sure--being a pastor involves actual work, actual toil. It is (mostly) not physical work, though there are connections to those who work with their hands. As a farmer plows the fields, I plow through emails. As a carpenter builds, sands, and finishes a table, I craft the occasional sermon. As a doctor, as a cook, as a baker, as a fieldhand . . .

In ministry, we spend lots of time talking about what it means to "be" something: be righteous, be faithful, be careful, be incarnational. I suspect all of this "be" talk has its root in the setting of ministry against other forms of work. We live in a society, you are aware, that often values work more than family, time at the office against time at rest. In a time when 12-hour days are the norm, there is something to be said for a prophetic "be."

But even if ministry is not a profession, per se, there is a "doing" of ministry that is very important. Perhaps in our reticence to be a part of the hyper-working culture, we have focused so much on the "be" that we lose the "do." I do not imagine this has always been the case. You know, of course, which word preceeds "work ethic." I will leave the general theology of work to the esteemed theologian Kyle Tau, but I do know a little something about "good" works.

The church has always, in one form or another, valued good work. Before the Protestant Reformation, the Church--having read the book of James, I would imagine--valued good work as a part of the salvation story. Once the Reformation took hold, the Protestant Church--having read the letters of Paul, I would imagine--saw a shift in the understanding of work, such that good work moved from something necessary for salvation to something that results from salvation. It a classic over-reach (the church always seems to over-reach), we've lost this work because we worry it takes away from the gift of grace, as if, you know, actually responding to grace does grace an injustice.

I am actually not all that interested in the conversation about "good work(s)," at least not for the sake of this discussion. Let's take it as a given that in response to God's grace, we are called to what John Wesley called "acts of mercy."

I am concerned with the work of ministry, which I suppose I hope is good work, but when I am signing expense forms and filing emails and spending Monday around a meeting table, it can be hard to see. It is hard for me to see filling out a check request for as an act of mercy.

But it is, right? The work if ministry is good work, and it is necessary! You can't just "be" a minister. You have to "do" ministry. And of course the works flow from the being. You "do" because you "are." If all you do is "be" then you are no minister at all! You are a guru, perhaps, a sage, and there is a role for the sage in society.

There is just no more room for the sage in the Church.

There are already plenty of sages in the pulpit, and it is killing the church.

This is not to absolve the "doing" minister of taking time to "be." Even those uf os who "do" must have sufficient "sitting-like-a-dope-in-your-chair time" (as the writer Grace Paley calls it) in order that we might connect with God, rest our brains, and become open to new ideas.

Ministry requires doing and being, it requires of us that we take stock of who we are and then respond accordingly: not because we are worried that grace is insufficient, but because we take seriously the gift of grace. Hard work does not undermine grace; hard work gives testament to grace's power.

I am fortunate to serve in a place that takes work seriously (as evidenced by the day-long staff meeting!), but I knowthat there are some ministers who simply preach good sermons and then feel as if their work is done. Talk is cheap, of course. Even well-crafted talk is cheap. Please understand that this is coming from someone who sees preaching as a foundational part of his call. But preaching is an insufficient response to grace. I am reminded of the various Facebook campaigns which encourage users to copy and paste a short advocacy statement as their Facebook status. While I often appreciate the sentiment, I am left to wonder what good it does. If you merely speak something, and then do not live it out--if you talk about the problems of the world but do not do something concrete to help God's people--then why speak it at all?

For if the actuality of my life show what my priorities are, what does it say about how I understand God and the world if I do nothing, preferring to simply be?

1 comment:

  1. My husband and I have been involved in ministry (in some context) for most of our adult lives, and I so agree that there must be BOTH being and doing in effective ministry. I've enjoyed reading through your thought-provoking (and challenging) posts! Thanks for joining the High Calling network, and let us as editors know if we can be of any help or encouragement.