What Is Ministry, Anyway?
I am a second career pastor. For ten years, I was a high school English/Journalism teacher. As a teacher, I knew exactly what my job entailed. The state published standards for my subjects and grades. The principal collected lesson plans and handed out duty rosters. I read and re-read novels, short stories, and poems as I prepared to present them to my classes. I taught the dreaded grammar. I created tests and essay topics, then groaned my way through the grading of them. With blood, sweat, tears, pleas, and threats, I made sure a yearbook was published each year. My teaching job was plainly outlined. I always knew when I was on task and when I was getting slack.
Would someone please tell me what a minister is supposed to do?!
I’ve been at this for five and a half years now. Seven and a half, if you count my extended internship during seminary. Even so, I still struggle with my job description. A few things are no-brainers. I plan a worship service each week. I write a sermon each week. I will go wherever a church member is having a major crisis. I write a newsletter article each month. I moderate all session meetings. I teach a weekly Bible study. I visit in hospitals and nursing homes. I conduct funerals and weddings when asked. I serve on a denominational committee and on two community service boards. I even type the bulletin each week. These are the predictable aspects of my ministry.
People like to see me doing these things because apparently these are the things ministers are supposed to do. Yet it seems to me that I am falling short if I am content with stopping there. Maybe no one else cares, but what about taking time for prayer, reflection, and listening? I could go weeks, months even, and no one would know if I did it or not. No one except me. What about reading for spiritual and professional growth? Right now my scheduled reading time is during my bath at night, when I can keep my eyes open long enough, that is.
Then there are those surprising things that other people tell me are ministry, but that feel like everyday life to me. Things like going out to lunch with a young single mother who has cancer. We don’t usually talk about God, or death, or the future. No. We look for new restaurants where we can discuss NPR stories, travel memories, favorite books and movies, and our children while splitting a decadent dessert. I don’t feel much like a minister during these lunches. Shoot, I love eating out and talking about my favorite things. Nothing “preacherly” is happening. But that is what Hope says she needs from me. Is that ministry?
Then there is that businesswoman downtown who runs a really cool scrapbooking shop. She’s fun, full of energy, and has a shop window that looks out on the center of our downtown area. We talk about the kids that frequent her shop after school, her first steps into the adoption journey, and whatever is going on outside her shop window. I have a blast there! She tells me that I am helping her more than I could ever know. Go figure. Nothing “preacherly” there, either. Is that ministry?
There’s the waitress at my favorite coffee shop who is worried about her stepson. There’s the Down’s Syndrome adult who spends her day walking up and down the street, in and out of shops. There’s the mom who finally got the last of her five children started in school, only to find out – yep – that she’s pregnant again. (We had to laugh and cry together over that one!) I talk with all of them. Is that ministry?
If you knew me, you would know that I would do these same things whether I was a pastor or not. For some reason, that makes me feel less – I don’t know – preacherly, I guess.
A few months after my ordination, I called the pastor who mentored me during my seminary internship. “I don’t feel like I’m doing anything but talking to people,” I told him.
“That,” he said, “is real ministry in a small church in a small town. Don’t change a thing.”
So why is it that five years later I still wonder if what I’m doing is really ministry?