Search our archive:

« Back to Issue 2

The Primacy of Grace: Mid-Ministry Reflections

By Kevin Yelverton.

Chronology would suggest I am in the midst of a so-called `mid-ministry crisis'. As a student pastor I accepted pastoral responsibility for the Langholm Baptist Church in Auckland, New Zealand in 1974. Lord willing, I shall retire in 2014 at 65 years of age. So here I am in 1994, exactly mid-way in ministry.

As I look to the futureI will probably conclude my ministry doing what I started doing, serving a local congregation as a pastor. To be sure, I will not be exercising the ministry in exactly the same way as I began. Because times and situations change and so have I, there will be differences. But there is nevertheless a fundamental sense in which I will conclude my ministry doing what I started doing in 1974. The baptist ministry doesn't have a career path with promotions and an ecclesiastical ladder to climb. Added to this, there are basic responsibilities of ministry which are constant regardless of the place, the time, the situation. So I will most likely conclude 40 years as an ordained minister doing much the same as I was when I started.

Despite the fact that both constancy and change are interwoven into the experience of ministry, it would be misleading to suggest that being a minister proceeds along some kind of smooth line on a graph - a line indicating the odd highlight and the occasional dip, but overall, indicating a steady process that is relatively smooth. If my own experience of pastoral leadership is anything to go by, and conversations with colleagues would suggest that I am not abnormal, the line is more like a maze of twists and turns - often returning to where one started, constantly turning sharp corners and inevitably encountering blind alleys. There is, and always will be, the regular need to look up and find new direction in the maze of ministry life. Often such new direction requires that I back track (repent) and yet in all of this maze of ministerial life there is grace.

1) The primacy of grace is the fundamental discovery I have gained through 20 years of ministry. Like most of us I have made my share of mistakes, some bigger than others. It was imperative that I learned to discern the difference between the judgement of others on me and God's judgement on my big and small mistakes. This crucial difference is often fraught with difficulties because the denomination I serve (Baptist) attributes theological importance to the people of God as being the location of Gods presence and those charged with discerning God's mind and will. The congregation's judgement therefore has a particular force, indeed, a frightening force upon the individual. If the congregation judges one harshly, such judgement may be translated as God's. I have discovered however, that the judgement of God is one of grace even if that of the people is not. A persistent sense of God's call and grace has therefore dominated my experience of ministry more than my ability, or lack thereof, to be and do all I should as God's servant. The primacy of grace is the most important and fundamental gift of God over these past twenty years and will form the basis for any future ministry.

2) A further discovery is the necessity to keep close to life. Eugene Peterson has noted in his excellent book how...

Pastoral work is that aspect of Christian ministry which specializes in the ordinary. It is the pragmatic application of religion in the present. It has a horror of detachment, neutrality, studious isolation, or theoretical otherworldliness. It is religion in mufti. l

Ministry takes Dame Religion by the hand and drags her into the everyday world. Pastoral work is messy. We no sooner get something done, than we discover we have to do it all over again. The real and persistent temptation is to try to flee the mundane and the ordinary. We catch ourselves saying, 'If only these things would stay fixed so I can get on with the big issues, the real ministry'. But things don't stay fixed and a good deal of a minister's time is spent in the messiness of life. Indeed, it is within the messy that ministry is executed.

I do believe a good deal of our planning and programming and building has to do with our flight from the mundane. It was a rugged discovery, but a liberating one, to find that Jesus' .parables about the kingdom of God were couched in the messy things of life. Much of the teaching ministry of Jesus (e.g. the parables of the kingdom) seems to have been occupied with what we would call `non-religious discourse'. The entire point of a number of Jesus' parables is to indicate how persons engaged in ordinary secular activities have, in fact, been dealing with the ultimately significant issues-the issues of the mysteriously present kingdom, the issues tied up with Jesus as the Messiah, the issues relating to their salvation .2 Thus how we wrestle with the messy, the mundane, the secular, does have eternal significance. This insight places a new perspective on the issues with which I am engaged throughout most weeks. The tension within was released when I saw that the visits, the meetings, the petty issues of church activities were in fact kingdom issues. My task, as minister, was to name the kingdom within the ordinary and celebrate life as it really is in God's work. That helped. This insight led me to a further discovery.

3) Rediscovering the congregation. Every now and then one wonders if one could not be more effective for the kingdom of God in some agency other than the local congregation. As I reflect upon my colleagues with whom I went through theological college I note that a number of them have left parish ministry and joined with para-church organizations and other agencies. Such moves into other areas of ministry have come from much struggle and soul searching, always with a good deal of personal pain and refocus of identity. While I do not want to detract from their new sense of vocation, nor from the excellent work done beyond the local congregation via para-church work and other agencies, there has come upon my life a central conviction. It is my conviction that local congregations are the most important carriers of meaning that we have, with one exception. That exception is the human family.

In the economy of God he has chosen the local congregation to be his primary mission expression. The christian faith is rooted in congregations. The books of the New Testament were letters to congregations, about congregational life, or, possibly, composed by congregations. Individuals are urged to repent, to believe, and to conduct themselves as persons who acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. But individuals are always in congregations or, according to the New Testament, by baptism are made one with the body of Christ, the church. Individual christians, apart from a community meeting for worship, teaching, fellowship, service and evangelism, are unknown in Scripture. Christians found not that their individuality was reduced, but that their personalities expanded through union with Christ's people. Faith, its nurture and expression are communal.

To be sure congregations are `earthen vessels'. To be sure members of congregations are cracked pots; nevertheless, they were in New Testament times, have been throughout history, and are now, vessels through which the transcendent power of God is at work and made known (2 Cor 4:7). Congregations provide the framework through which God shapes the life and faith of individuals. The trick which provides fresh joy in ministry is to be awake for the mystery and miracle of God working in and through a local fellowship of believers. The gift of seeing and hearing God at work in ordinary people whom we serve as ministers is one of the beautiful experiences of pastoral oversight. Then we can say 'the kingdom of God is at hand'.

Having affirmed the local congregation as God's primary carrier of meaning, with the exception of the family, there is a warning. And the warning is this-the church is not the goal, for to make it so is to make the church our master and god. The trap for ministers is to make the church the destination, the goal, rather than the agent of the goal which is the kingdom of God; or in the language of Paul, the `plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him,, things in heaven and things on earth' (Eph 1:10). The church is the route through which we access the goal (Eph 3:10). We must never treat as an end that which God intended to be treated as route and courier. In recent years we have been urged to make the - church the central concern, the goal and end of ministry. We have been encouraged to explore Body-life, Church Growth, Church Planting and so on, but these movements must all be in service of a higher goal and destiny. Gloriously, God has not given up on the, church and the hopeful possibility always stands before us of making the local congregation we serve the best means we can for the service of the `mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth' (Eph 1:9b-10). I do believe we must take the kingdom of God more seriously and the church less so. Members of congregations and their ministers are deacons to the kingdom of God.

4) Appreciating the sacramental. A further mid-ministry learning has been in the appreciation of the sacramental. `Down Under' Baptists have not felt too comfortable with words like sacramental. I now find this discomfort a regrettable aspect of Baptists Down Under.

'I cannot help thinking; said General Gordon, 'that the body has much to do with religion.'' Which is to say that the christian faith is sacramental: the visible is evidence of the invisible; the profane is the conduit for the sacred; the physical is a container for the spiritual. The sacraments of baptism and eucharist, in which water is a sacrament of forgiveness and commissioning, and bread and wine a sacrament of eternal life, are instances of what occurs through the whole created order. `The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; and we beheld his glory...' (John 1:14). The experience of God's self-giving is fundamental to our spiritual maturity and ministerial growth.

In his highly suggestive book Scott Peck 4 the American psychologist points out how one of the basic natural laws is the second law of thermodynamics, which states that energy naturally flows from a state of greater organization to a state of lesser organization, from a state of higher differentiation to a state of lower differentiation. In other words, the universe is in the process of winding down. I can vouch, as most ministers can, for this `downhill flow of energy' for as Paul put it, `we wrestle against principalities and powers' (Eph 6:12).

The notion that the plane of humanity's spiritual development is in a process of ascension may hardly seem realistic to a generation disillusioned with the dream of progress. Everywhere there is evidence of entropy. How could that one reasonably suggest the human race is spiritually progressing? Yet, that is exactly what the Bible does proclaim (Eph 1:9-10). In. significant number, throughout congregations around the world, numbers somehow manage to improve themselves, their churches, their cultures. There is a force that somehow pushes us to choose the more difficult path whereby we can transcend the mire and muck into which we are so often born, or discover within our own hearts and minds. I suggest, this force is nothing other than God's grace at work in us for his good will and pleasure (Phil 2:13). Whether we sense this sacramental force as Emanance (which holds that grace emanates down from an external God to humanity) or Immanence (which holds that grace immanates out from the God within the centre of our being) is argued by theologians. For practising theologians in congregations the discovery of such grace, be it emanant or immanent, is a powerful motivation in ministry. The sustaining power for ministry

must surely find its motivation in God's self-giving. 5 We need to connect with those events, persons, places, times which enable our senses to experience God's self giving. 6

It is said that the darkest point in the tunnel is mid-way. Mid-way through one's ministry it is necessary and wholesome to journey into grace and acknowledge the sacramental nature of life and ministry. By mid-way sacramental grace makes sense experientially whereas once it was simply a theological notion.

To be sure the anxiety expressed by a great deal in our life and our ministry denies the reality of grace and the sacramental nature of all life. As hodogets, guides in the way of Christ, we need to be constantly refreshed by his sacramental grace in order to maintain vision and integrity.

Mid-ministry crisis? The fatigue and battle-scars are there, but so too are those sacramental moments of grace that empower and refresh. The so-called 'crisis' thus becomes God's opportunity to touch our lives afresh and for us to encounter and grow into new awareness of the ways of God in human life.

Notes:

' Eugene H Peterson Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing

Company, 1980). Since 1992 available in the UK through Gracewing, Leominster.

I am particularly grateful to John J. Vincent, Secular Christ, (London: Lutterworth Press, 1968), chapter 9, for this insight.

' Quoted by Coventry Patmore, The Rod, the Root, and the Flower, (Freeport, NY: Books forLibraries Press, Inc.,

1968), p123.

" M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology ofLove, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth,

(New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1979), p264. Published in the UK by Arrow Books

' I am grateful to James F. White for the phrase 'God's self-giving' as a definition of 'sacrament'. See James F.

White, Sacraments as God's Self Giving, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983)

Hendrikus Berkhof rightly encourages us to think of the sacraments as more than two or seven. See his section on 'The Church as Institute' in Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of the Faith, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 345ff.

Ministry Today

You are reading The Primacy of Grace: Mid-Ministry Reflections by Kevin Yelverton, part of Issue 2 of Ministry Today, published in September 1994.

Who Are We?

Ministry Today aims to provide a supportive resource for all in Christian leadership so that they may survive, grow, develop and become more effective in the ministry to which Christ has called them.

Around the Site


© Ministry Today 2021