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Living Out the Call

By Alun Brookfield.

On my bookshelf I have an old and well-thumbed copy of C H Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students, into which, over the last thirty-two years, I have frequently dipped in search of pastoral wisdom. Unfortunately, the great man’s wisdom is rooted in the 19th century, and is therefore sometimes hard to interpret in the 21st. Now, however, another great man has poured all his pastoral experience and intellectual rigour into a series of four little books which should be on every minister’s E-reader.

The name of Paul Beasley-Murray will be well known to readers of Ministry Today UK. In spite of being a ‘dyed in the wool’ Baptist, his experience of ministry, his contributions to thinking about ministry and his intellectual curiosity enable him to bring a lifetime of learning to the practice of being a pastoral leader for ministers of all denominations. He’s no ‘ivory tower’ theologian – his writing about the work of ministry is rooted in a lifetime of coal-face hard work as pastor, leader, motivator and manager. Everything he writes about ministry is done with hands and heart that bear all the same scars as the rest of us – indeed, many of his pastoral wounds still cause him pain. Like Jacob wrestling with God and being left with a lifelong limp, it is Paul’s war wounds that tell the story of the man.

(Reviewer’s note: for the sake of clarity, from this point on, I’m going to refer to Paul Beasley-Murray as ‘PBM’, simply to avoid anyone thinking I’m quoting the Apostle Paul when I start a sentence, ‘Paul says’ or ‘Paul tells us’!)

As a result, we are now blessed with a distillation of PBM’s pastoral experience, reflection and erudition, not to mention his towering intellect, in a set of four books, all published online, rather than in hard copy. Living Out the Call is available from Amazon.co.uk as a Kindle publication (details at the end of this article). These four books are worth their weight in gold, yet are available online for download at a mere £2.25 each – surely the best online bargain of 2015 for anyone in pastoral ministry!

Not that you’ll agree with everything PBM has to say! He is nothing if not passionate, and occasionally you’ll feel that he’s passionately wrong, but he won’t mind that, because what matters to him – the reason he wrote these four books – is that all of us who serve as pastoral leaders should be constantly reflecting on what we do and how we do it. PBM relentlessly and ruthlessly critiques his own ministry, and finds it hard to understand that some others do not do likewise. These books force us all to ask hard questions of our pastoral practice, in order to ensure that we are still delivering the ministry to which God called us.

The four volumes are as follows:

  1. Living for God’s Glory
  2. Leading God’s people
  3. Reaching Out to God’s World
  1. Serving God’s people

I would love to be able to review all four, but there is so much condensed wisdom and experience here that it would take up a whole edition of Ministry Today UK! So I will concentrate on reviewing the first volume and trust that it will whet the appetite of readers to make them want to purchase all four.

Living for God’s Glory

This first volume focuses on why we are pastoral leaders. What is the nature of our calling? How do we know we are called? What sustains us when things aren’t going the way we would like them to?

PBM is passionate about urging us to excellence – not in a competitive sense of being better than others, but so that we become the best we can be in God’s service. He reveals a romantic streak as he approvingly quotes at length the expansive prose of Sylvester Horne in his 1914 Yale Lectures speaking of “the romance of the preacher”. However, the call to ministry is not just about our feelings of being called – it’s about our call being recognised by the church (however we define that word!). Although I’m now an Anglican priest, I still cling to the Baptist notion that a man or woman is not fully ordained to ministry until their ministry has been welcomed and approved by a local congregation of Christians.

I’m glad PBM comments that “The church may have paid me a stipend, but the church never owned me” (p.11), a crucial factor in dealing with disputes in church life and when well-meaning but misguided people treat us as though we are their servants – we’re not – we owe allegiance to only one Master and ultimately we are accountable to him and him alone.

That might give us a distorted view of our status and authority, but PBM goes straight on to address that. In some denominations, there is an implied status in the role of pastoral leader. PBM, however, rightly rejects this notion, reminding us that we were called to serve Christ through serving his people. 

He then sets out five underlying convictions which underpin his understanding of ministry. These are:

  1. God calls men and women to service in his church.
  2. God has gifted all his people to serve him.
  3. Within the context of shared ministry, God calls pastors to fulfil a number of specialised roles.
  4. That means that God expects pastors to be passionate professionals, empowering team leaders and effective managers.
  1. God wants all ministers to live out their call.

He then proceeds to unpack these broad convictions, addressing the disturbing litany of the drop-out rate among those who trained for pastoral ministry, but are not only no longer in that role, but in many cases have left any form of Christian ministry.

A demanding privilege

So how tough is ministry in the 21st century? PBM asks if there was ever a time when it wasn’t tough! However, it’s also the most awesome of privileges. I’m sure we’d all agree with that. Yes, at times it was tough and even downright depressing, but there is no greater privilege than to sit with a family whose loved one has just died, drawing out from them the story of that loved one, and helping them see that his vices were often his virtues, or her bad experiences of the past were what made her the great mother, sister or friend that she was. Conducting weddings and baptisms were similarly rewarding, helping a family to celebrate life in all its wonderful diversity and fullness. Even the demanding routine of Sunday and midweek worship was never anything less than a privilege. Yes, of course ministry is sometimes a wilderness experience, but that’s where God meets his people, where Jesus went to pray, so the wilderness is okay, if somewhat uncomfortable.

If I really wanted to condense this first book down to its central theme, it’s urging us to grow, develop, learn, change, thrive and glory in our ministry. When I was a teacher, we used to joke about some older teachers having had one year’s experience forty times! Sadly, the danger is similar for ministers. So, starting on p.24, PBM gives us a list of 50 lessons in life and ministry – food for thought while on holiday or retreat!

Ambition and professionalism

PBM is passionate about professionalism! He rejects (rightly!) the silly notion that one cannot be professional and spiritual. We need to be both! I like to think that I was passionate and spiritual about ministry, people, mission, preaching, worship, but I also did my best to be professional about my standards of administration, leadership and, perhaps most importantly, our relationships. How many ministers have shipwrecked their ministry because they got just too close to the wrong person in their congregation or wider community? It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, but a professional attitude will go a long way to prevent a disastrous fall.

A professional approach to our ministry also surely glorifies God and blesses our people simply because we are working out in real ministry the vows we professed when we were ordained. Surely a professional is simply someone who does what they promised to do when they took on the work, and does it to the best of their ability and to the glory of God.

For PBM, this is all about rightly understanding the words we use. For him, ambition in ministry is good, but not ambition to climb greasy poles of preferment, or to be better than others, but ambition to live out the call, follow Christ in all things and serve our people as they need us to serve them. “Ambition is OK if the ambition centres around the task” (p.37). Amen to that!

The same is true of job descriptions for ministers (p.38ff) – they’re all about proper accountability and appraisal (including self-appraisal). They are fine if they focus on the task, which for a minister includes things like being an example to the flock, an exemplary leader, a mission strategist, a charismatic preacher, a creative liturgist, a caregiver, a pastoral consultant and theologian. I wish someone had given me a job description when I started in ministry. I asked for one, but no-one else seemed to think it was necessary.

Of course, a job description assumes accountability and appraisal. PBM supports the idea (p.42ff), pointing out that it’s what God does for us, and assuring us that an appraisal is a two-way process, giving us the chance to ask for better resourcing as well as giving others the opportunity to ask us for better performance. Certainly, when I began my last ministry, I made it very clear to the church leaders what I could and couldn’t do with the time at my disposal. They accepted this and also clarified what they expected from me – a level of mutual understanding which laid the foundation for twelve years of mutual support.

The weakness in PBM’s position on all these laudable approaches to ministry is that they all depend on having people in the congregation (or wider, in the case of Anglicans) who have the skills needed to make them work for the glory of God and the good of the Christian community. All very well in a large, middle-class congregation full of professionals, but not so easy in a tiny congregation of less business-oriented and more independent souls, such as hill-farmers and retired miners. The principle is great – the execution rather more challenging, methinks. Certainly in my ministry, even finding a spiritual director proved impossible.

The life-long student

PBM is deeply committed to the need for ongoing learning and reflection in ministry – this is one of his central passions: that so few ministers reflect or study. For PBM, it’s a given. It’s one of the key reasons why he created what is now Ministry Today UK, formerly the Richard Baxter Institute for Ministry.

The starting place for this reflection is rooted in the reality that we cannot lead others into territory which we have not ourselves first explored. To be a leader means being a traveller and explorer. PBM wants to remind us that we are called first to be pilgrims and only second to be ministers. To put it the other way around is to allow the urgent to take priority over the important. So PBM writes about developing a personal rule of life, to make time for personal devotions, to make retreats, to make God the priority of our life. My habit (hard to stick to, mind!) was to set aside the first Monday of each month. If anyone wanted me to do anything on that day, they were told my diary was full. I had an urgent and very necessary appointment with the Boss!

That time spent with God will help keep pastoral life illuminated by the divine perspective. Success and failure, for example, look very different when seen through God’s eyes. Jesus’ mission was, in human terms, a bit of a failure. It started well, for sure, but ended in lonely isolation on a Roman gallows. Yet that moment of apparent failure was the moment of his greatest triumph. So it is in pastoral ministry. Which of us have not found that what we thought to be our worst sermons were the ones which elicited the kindest compliments? Which of us have not found blessing in our darkest moments of despair? Our Lord wants us to be fruitful, even if it doesn’t look much like success in the world’s opinion.

Faithfulness

And he wants us to be faithful. Now this is a tricky one! The claim to faithfulness is often used as an excuse for failure or ineffectiveness. The question is: faithful to what? Sometimes it’s taken to mean faithfulness to the past – and that may be correct – sometimes! However, surely faithfulness means loyalty to our Lord, above all else, and if our Lord is nudging us into a new way of doing things or thinking, then faithfulness means going with it, whatever the cost, whatever our misgivings or fears. Where the Master leads, faithful servants follow, be it ever so uncomfortable!

I confess that I do not share PBM’s view that God has a plan for our lives. For me, ‘plan’ is too strong a word. It implies detail which, frankly, I find terrifying – what if I get it wrong? I think God has an ‘intention’, perhaps even a ‘direction’ for our lives, but I’m a musician, and I know that the most beautiful music results from improvisation, complete with the oft-sounded ‘wrong’ note or ten! The God of the Bible is, it seems to me, a divine improviser, taking all the strands of creation and weaving them into a beautiful tapestry, without knowing at the beginning exactly how it would come out, then declaring it beautiful.

And who is to judge what is beautiful or not? That, says PBM (p.68) is God alone. He reminds us that God’s grace is sufficient for all things (p.70); that God is always refining us throughout our ministries; that apparent failure is God’s opportunity to improve our relationship with him by calling for greater dependence on his grace instead of our own skills or experience.

Temptations and virtues

I commented earlier in this article on some of the temptations which come to a pastor. PBM faces these head on (pp.71ff). He lists them: pride, envy, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, sloth – the seven deadly sins are as dangerous for ministers as they are for our people – and offers suggestions for avoiding or conquering them. I sensed that PBM found this a difficult section to write, as would any of us, because we’ve all been tempted and too many have fallen. Some find it easier to walk away from temptation than others, and the more one resists, the more powerful it becomes. Which of us would dare to boast that they have never sinned?

PBM is more comfortable when he moves on to write about nurturing virtue – the opposite of the seven deadly sins: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. These, of course, are universal virtues, not necessarily only for ministers! So he goes on to list additional ’virtues’ for ministers: modesty, restraint, tenacity, interdependence and other-centredness. I like PBM’s quote from our mutual friend and colleague, Richard Dormandy, in which Richard resists the idea of obedience, saying that “there are sometimes damaging problems with obedience and religion coupled together. There is such a need for true freedom, yet so many Christians live in fear. I would rather be a willing servant than an obedient one”.

Then there is forgiveness. People say and do hurtful things to ministers. They seem to think that we’re above feeling pain. We’re not, of course, and nor would we want to be, for that would cripple our ability to empathise with those whom we seek to serve. So, sometimes, we are faced with the need to forgive. Helpfully, PBM points out that repentance is not a prerequisite of forgiveness – Jesus forgave his Calvary tormentors even though there was no repentance. Most of us ministers have been on the receiving end of injustice, yet God calls on us to exercise forgiveness, not least because the withholding of forgiveness only hurts us as the victims – it does no damage whatsoever to those who hurt us, so what’s the point? That doesn’t mean reconciliation is automatic or even possible. It may not be, because reconciliation is built on trust, which may not be possible to rebuild. There are people in the past of my ministry who hurt me deeply, yet I’ve managed to forgive them to the extent that we can communicate and even socialise. However, forgiveness is given free of charge – trust, on the other hand, has to be earned - and that may not always be possible.

Nevertheless, I’m with PBM – forgiveness is not optional, even if the perpetrator is not repentant.

The final chapter in this first little book is called “Growing to Maturity”, exploring the process of stepping down from pastoral charge. As one who retired only a few months ago at the time of writing this, I’m hardly qualified to comment, except to say that, unlike PBM, I reached retirement with relief. My falling energy levels combined with changing family responsibilities were making it increasingly hard to concentrate on the day to day tasks of ministry, so, unlike PBM again, I’m taking a lengthy sabbatical from all forms of ‘ministry’ so that I can listen to my heart, my mind, my body and my God (not necessarily in that order!) to find out what I’m to do with the last third of my life.

The truth is that we’re all different and therefore unique. None of us do ministry, marriage, or anything else in the same way as others, so I think PBM has done us proud in this little book, challenging us with hosts of ideas, urging us, not to agree with everything he writes, but to reflect, reflect and reflect again, to ensure that we are doing our ministry in the way for which our heavenly Father designed us. Only when we are true to ourselves and our Maker will that be possible.

Conclusion

There! All that and so much more is packed into just 106 electronic pages (about twice that if you decide to print them out)! And there are three more books of equal quality, challenge, richness and depth. If you’re in pastoral ministry of any type, I cannot recommend these books enough. I hope at some point that they will become available in hard copy, but there’s nothing to prevent purchasers from printing their own reference copy, and I recommend you do so, because you’ll want to make notes in the margins and refer to them often. This is a 21st century Lectures to My Students, and will prove an invaluable resource as Christian ministry adapts to the changed circumstances of this new world.

Purchasing details:

All four volumes of Living Out the Call are available from www.amazon.com as E-books at £2.25 each

Alun Brookfield

Editor of Ministry Today

Ministry Today

You are reading Living Out the Call by Alun Brookfield, part of Issue 65 of Ministry Today, published in November 2015.

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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.

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