Monday, May 03, 2010
What is ministry?
Which, considering we are both astrologically Taurus, is a damn miracle.
We had a humdinger of an argument the other night. About ministry. Of course.
In her defense, I think Ms. Conroy fell into the game that has been played for - oh, I don't know - at least the last decade in The Episcopal Church.
We are oh-so-anxious about being oh-so-careful to be oh-so-inclusive that we have reduced everything - including a definition of ministry - to the least common denominator.
It's the position that, why, by golly, if we are all baptized then we are all minsters and well then, gosh darn it, you know what? Everything we do is ministry!
Meet someone in the grocery store who is having a bad day and say a kind word? Why, that's ministry!
Know someone from your church or neighborhood who is in the hospital and go to visit them? Why, that's ministry!
Wait till they get home and bring them a casserole or homemade soup, some bread and a salad? Why, that's ministry!
Ummm . . . No. No, it's not. Not necessarily.
If you are a Christian, it's certainly an act of Christian charity and kindness.
If you are a Jew or a Muslim, it's an act of Jewish or Muslim charity and kindness.
If you are a pagan or a heathen, it's still an act of charity and kindness.
Anybody can do that. Please, God, that more of us would.
That doesn't make it ministry, necessarily.
I would like to think that ministry has more to do with intention.
And, maybe even some reading and reflection.
Perhaps just a tad of education and training.
Like I said - intention and prayer.
I don't think we do justice to either our baptismal vows or the ministry of the baptized by reducing things to the lowest common denominator.
Here's what I think: Quite frankly, "Everything is ministry" is a crock.
To assert that "Everyone who is baptized is a minister" is a less a statement of the obvious and more a call to prayerful discernment, intention, education and training.
I think the question one needs to ask in order to answer the question "What is ministry?" is "How can I serve?" The emphasis being on the word "serve" and the question "how".
I remember doing my third unit of CPE at a private psychiatric facility outside of Boston. My CPE supervisor was a craggy old Rabbi - a very wise wise guy - who asked questions so pointed they often hurt.
"I know this is your first week of CPE," he said, "but I need someone to take call this weekend. Anyone willing and/or able to do it?"
There was silence around the room. I carefully considered it and thought, Oh, what the hell, I'll do it.
"Sure," I said, "I'll do it."
"Okay," said the Rabbi. "But, why?"
"Excuse me?" I asked.
"Why?" asked the Rabbi. "Why would you do that?"
"Well," I said, "because you obviously needed someone, and I can arrange to be available, so, I'll do it."
"Oh, so you are being a good Christian martyr, sacrificing yourself and your own needs to fulfill another's need?"
"No," I said, a little more than annoyed. Which, of course, was his point.
"So," said the Rabbi, smelling blood on the water, "You'll do it because you want to make the others in this group look like schmucks and you're the hero?"
"Of course not," I scoffed, looking up to see raised eyebrows all around the room.
"Well then, you are just being efficient and pragmatic, like a good Anglican - getting this obligation off your plate early and looking good to boot."
Frustrated, I said, "Sure, yeah, that's it. Whatever. Look, do you want me to cover call this weekend or not? Because, you know, I sure don't need to do it and I most certainly don't need this aggravation. So, you decide. You want me or not?"
"Ah," said the Rabbi, "At least now we are coming closer to the truth. This is good. This is, in fact, wonderful. Now we can talk. Really talk."
There was an uncomfortable silence in the room before the Rabbi said, "The world would be a better place - Religious Communities would be better places, producing better people - if those who did ministry or mitzvahs in the name of the institution got really, really clear first why they are doing what they are doing."
He continued, "More damage has been done in the name of God than any other name by religious people who mean well but are driven by their own unexamined motives."
"The clearer you are about why you are doing something," he said, "the better prepared and equipped you will be to manage what you are about to do. And," he added, "the less likely you are to do damage - all in the name of God."
That was almost 25 years ago, and I've never forgotten the good Rabbi's word. I think he was speaking a very uncomfortable, most inconvenient truth.
Furthermore, I suspect that, if all ministry came out of a sense of community, we'd begin to see more effective ministry being done.
That's because I believe that if ministry came out of a sense of community, we'd tap into mechanism of accountability that are automatically but silently and inconspicuously in place when we are in relationship with each other.
Perhaps it's because I live in the land of rugged individualism where white picket fences are not as much an architectural staple but more a silent but very clear statement about the rigidly imposed boundaries of relationships.
Perhaps it's because I live in a place where people like to do their own thing - when and if they can - and at their own pace and in accordance with their own schedule.
Not in formalized programs where accountability and mutuality and on-going education, training and support are part of the effort.
Not that this is necessarily bad or wrong.
It's not. Absolutely not.
These are acts of good Christian charity. In fact, it could be any religion's act of charity. Indeed, it could even be considered secular charity.
But, please. Don't call it ministry.
Not unless you want an argument.