Monday, September 01, 2008

How Do We Do Ministry?

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
September 2008

How Do We Do Ministry?

In my last column I shared with you some of the responses I received from Grace parishioners to the question, “What is ministry?” Those answers gave good insight into the rich and diverse understanding of ministry that exists in our church. The follow-up question was, “How do we do ministry here at Grace Church?” I like that this question is more ambiguous and open to interpretation – people were able to write about the kinds of ministry that go on here at Grace while also being free to offer an evaluation of the work that we do. The responses I received were heartening, challenging and moving.

One very active parishioner offered this nuanced assessment: “Part of ministry is doing your absolute best, to the glory of God, even when the outside world sends the message that your ministry is irrelevant or too hard. Grace is an exceptional parish in that we are driven by our desire to please God and answer the call to our many ministries.” She continued with this challenging observation: “The biggest challenge Grace faces is our wealth. Although we do not ‘rest’, we do not push our boundaries, in terms of the kinds of programs we try or the community involvement we explore. I think ministry, at its core, demands risk and sacrifice. As a parish, we could grow in our faith by considering those ideas more mindfully – and more often.”

Another parishioner who has been in a leadership position at Grace offered a very moving description of how he was supported during an illness by both lay people and members of the clergy. He noted that this kind of ministry never gets included in the Annual Report, yet “…it may be one of the most important things we do in terms of ministry that more or less just happens because of what we have has a community.” He also identified two key challenges for Grace Church in terms of ministry. First, there is the task of helping visitors become part of the congregation. Second, there is the perhaps more difficult challenge of helping those already in the church to deepen their involvement.

A longtime parishioner offered a less than positive view of our corporate ministry “…our most usual form of ministry is ‘checkbook ministry’. We give away money that isn’t needed to make ourselves comfortable. One of the reasons why the Recycling Ministry and the Community Soup Kitchen are as popular as they are probably is that they aren’t checkbook ministries.”

The issue of “checkbook ministry” is worth thinking about. The truth is that many ministries in our community, including the Community Soup Kitchen and the Recycling Ministry, benefit from the financial support of Grace Church. If all we as a church ever do is write out checks and let other people do the physical labor then something has gone very wrong in our understanding of ministry and sacrifice. However, there are some of us who, perhaps because of age or family and work responsibilities, find it very difficult to give time and/or physical labor to our ministries. No more than any other part of our lives, when it comes to ministry we need to examine our consciences and ask if we are serving to the best of our ability.

A younger member of the congregation gave an upbeat view of ministry at Grace. She wrote, “But HOW MUCH there is to do that allow opportunities for people to serve in so many ways. There are ministries that serve our parish and allow us to continue to do what we do. Others that serve the community. Many that allow both to happen.” She concluded, “But most of the ministries here seem to fill multiple needs – the needs of those serving and those being served.”

Obviously ministry is a complex and important topic and there are wide-ranging perspectives here at Grace. Defining ministry and reflecting on how we do ministry is important work for all of us. One thing is certain – ministry is not a choice between “inreach” and outreach. I would suggest that the idea that we should take care of others instead of taking care of ourselves is a false and ultimately destructive choice. In the long run, only a healthy person or a healthy community is strong enough to serve others. We all know people who have burned out because they didn’t take proper care of their own needs. The same can also be true of the church.

Soon the new parish hall will offer us new opportunities for ministry. So this is a great time to ask – and answer – important questions about ministry. What is ministry? How do we do ministry at Grace Church? How can we get more people more deeply involved in ministry? What do we think about so-called “checkbook ministries”? How can we fit taking good care of the Grace community with offering ministry to the wider world?

I hope you are interested in these questions If you are, then please join us on Sunday, September 28, when I will lead the first in a series of adult seminars on ministry. Hope to see you there.