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Having This Ministry

by Richard Lischer
James T. and Alice Mead Cleland Professor of Preaching, Duke Divinity
School

(A homily given at the Pulpit & Pew Summative Conference, February
19. 2004)

"Therefore, having this ministry, by the mercy of God, we do not lose
heart."

2 Corinthians 5:1

It was with some consternation, if not outright disappointment, that
I read the first paragraph of the Pulpit & Pew Selected Findings from
the National Clergy Survey
. There it states in black and white that
a solid majority of clergy is deeply satisfied with the pastoral ministry.
Seven out of ten of those surveyed report they have never considered abandoning
their vocation. In other words, the vast majority of clergy claims to
have found happiness in the ministry.

This is disturbing. I mean, some of us in academia have made a decent
living chronicling the malaise of our fellow clergy. We have our students
read the appropriate literature from Elmer Gantry to Wise Blood
on the implicit assumption that these and other portraits of slightly
out-of-whack ministers accurately represent of the crisis of self-loathing
among Protestant clergy. Misery is the norm, right? We may even quote
the scene in Wise Blood when the preacher Hazel Motes, who you
may remember preaches a church without Christ, where the lame don't walk,
the blind don't see, and the dead stay theta way, is getting into a taxi.
Hazel has just bought him a shiny blue preacher suit, a black tie, and
a spiffy flat hat. So, when he says to his taxi-driver, "I ain't any preacher,"
the cabby isn't buying it. So Haze adds, "I don't believe in anything."
Later, as he hastily departs the taxi, the driver calls after him, "That's
the trouble with you preachers . . . You've all got too good to believe
in anything."

How is it, then, that the tormented Hazel Motes appears to have more
in common with the tormented Apostle Paul than those, like us, who have
found happiness in ministry?

In 2 Corinthians Paul narrates his ministry as a continuous near-death
experience, as if ministry consists of thousands of mini-funerals and
mini-Easters, moments of truth, when this heartbreak or that betrayal,
this breakthrough or that triumph put the crucified and risen Lord right
there with him on the razor's edge of ministry.

"For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus
sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh
[the 'flesh' of ministry] . . . So death is at work in us, but life
in you." (4:11-12)

Later, in a typical 110-word sentence, Paul is pushing the envelope of language as he throws out image after ecstatic image of hard times on the mission circuit: calamities, beatings, imprisonments, as unknown and yet well-known, when he blurts out, "as dying--and look!--we live." (6:9)

This is all very dramatic, but many ministers are weary with the overwork and emotional fatigue of the office and therefore have significant reservations about this cruciform metaphor for ministry. Paul's theology appears to provide a rationale for the victimization of the clergy, what years ago Joseph Sittler called the maceration of the minister. And yet, what Paul really offers is an escape from the macerating criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of a ministry. He offers a conception of ministry that focuses on the work itself and not the conditions or the outcomes of the work. His dialectic of death and resurrection suggests a realism that transcends our language of happiness and unhappiness in ministry. Indeed, it forges a tool for critiquing our best notions of happy and unhappy, satisfied and dissatisfied, successful and unsuccessful.

Having this ministry--the phrase reminds us that this thing we are accustomed to measure, analyze, and discuss at conferences is a blazing fire that cannot be touched. It is holy. It is a gift, as Paul says in Ephesians, a grace "given to me for you."

The question is, what kind of gift is ministry? It is that kind of gift that requires hours and hours of assembly, the sort of gift that even as you are taking it out of the box, you know the hour will come when you will be very sorry to have received it. You know exactly what kind of gift is coming when the giver says, "Here, this gift is for you. Try not to let it discourage you."

"Oh, all this heartache for little me--you really shouldn't have." It's as if Paul understands that our truest heartaches, like his, derive not from the culture, the economy, or the political climate, but from the ministry. The heartaches are not cured by ministry, they are caused by ministry. Having this ministry is like having children. Yes, in some respects they are an answer to prayer, but they also stimulate a lot of desperate prayers as well. And all the joy they bring into your life is sharpened by the possibilities of new pain.

One Sunday in our congregation we baptized a baby the day after its mother's funeral. And it fell to our minister to "make sense" of these two events in words. I can still see him preaching his sermon--this man who would never leave the pulpit--as he paced up and down the center aisle, with the baby still in the crook of his arm. Through his own tears he spoke of the promises of God, as if to say, "This is the ministry we have. It's a hard gift. Let's don't lose heart."

This ministry is like love: it never ends. It never comes to the end of its rope. It never wrings its hands and says, "There's nothing more to be done." By its very nature it can never run out of material. Because the very conditions of its defeat only create the possibilities for its rebirth.

Can a war defeat ministry? No. War produces an occasion for the ministry
of comfort and justice. Can conflicts over sexuality destroy ministry?
We are tempted to say Yes, but even Paul would say they elicit the ministry
of reconciliation. Can death bring ministry to an end? No, as one of Bernanos'
characters in The Diary of a Country Priest says to the new pastor,
"Love is stronger than death--that stands within your books."

There is something about this ministry that cannot be captured even by professionals, which is why, I suspect, Paul refers to it elsewhere as a "secret." I rejoice with the seven in ten, who will not renounce their vocation. I rejoice with any who are foolish enough to admit they are satisfied, even happy, in ministry, because they are obviously in on the secret. They must be. Because if you live in a world like ours whose attitude toward ministry runs the entire gamut from condescension to contempt---you would have to be crazy to say "I love the ministry!"--unless, of course, you are in on the secret and have what Paul had. Unless, of course, you too have glimpsed its holiness and apprehended it for the gift that it is. Unless you too have experienced its hard-won joy.

A version of this work appears in the April 6, 2004 issue of the Christian
Century. Copyright 2004 Christian Century. Reproduced by permission. Subscriptions:
$49/year from P.O. Box 378, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. 1-800-208-4097

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