Shepherd’s Care: “Messy Ministry” (1)

I’m glad to read that some of you have benefitted from our extended exploration of “the downward spiral” which I originally picked up from Dr. Archibald Hart.  If you want to track more of his thinking along similar lines, I’d urge you to find his book, Ministry and Stress.  It is probably out of print, but a good search might uncover a place to get it.

I honestly don’t know for sure what theme I want to pursue next, so I’m going to post some miscellaneous musings for a while.

I’ve been thinking lately about messy ministry….

Years ago, I read Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, and one of my take-aways was his comment about having to come to grips with disillusionment.  He readily admitted that he came to the Abbey of Gethsemani with a very romantic notion of the monastic life.

What he actually found there was a group of monks who were as difficult to get along with as any people he had met up to then.  Of course, the community as-a-whole was aspiring to higher things (e.g. keeping the Rule of Benedict), but in terms of day-to-day human relations, the dynamics were about the same as anywhere else.

After nearly 50 years of “church work” and about 30 of those years including teaching in seminary, I would say the same.  In fact, I find it somewhat amusing that my first miscellaneous thought is about messy ministry.

But I am convinced that until we are willing to accept disillusionment even in “doing God’s work” (and perhaps particularly so), we may not be ready to minister as God intends.  Until we can accept that we and everyone else is fallen (individually and institutionally), we will likely either gravitate toward a quest for perfectionism, or toward increasing despair.

The former will create an unsatisfying idealism, and the second will create a caustic bitterness—both results of disillusionment.

But that’s just it—until we can accept the messiness of ministry—we are living with some form of “illusion.”  And we’ll never make it until we accept reality and minister there.

Merton says he could become a monk when he realized that monks are not really different from any other human being, and that when you bunch them up in one place, you get all the “stuff” that you get in any other kind of community.  This realization, he notes, drove him into humility and the virtues of patience and forgiveness that must go along with it.

When we can accept that messy ministry is the context for service in the Kingdom, we will be poised for long-haul faithfulness.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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2 Responses to Shepherd’s Care: “Messy Ministry” (1)

  1. I love Merton and was thankful for your remarks…we can never get away from the fact that we all are human. I do a lot of praying and not reacting.

  2. MARIA says:

    Thank you for this, Steve. I feel it’s very timely for me considering our recent move to a new city in a new country. It is a good reminder as I search for a home church and as I wait on God regarding what ministry God has for me in this city.

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