Christian Ministry Takes Risks

What follows is a short response paper I wrote in college for Church Music Practicum. I thought of it the other day in speaking with someone about the risks involved in being vulnerable to the fellowship of believers where God’s placed you, and so I dug it up this morning in the quiet since Jacob and I are too sick to go to church. For what it’s worth….

A discussion near the middle of Practicum this semester bothered me so much that I left class so no one would see my tears. The issue was the risks involved in ministry. The predominant opinion was that you should carefully weigh decisions about where and how and whether to ministry, and especially about how much to involve your family in your ministry, based on the liability for pain.

I could not disagree more. And yet I understand the motivation behind such concern undoubtedly better than most twenty-two-year-olds ever could.

When I was eleven my dad was an elder at a small church. The church virtually split because of a divisive, complaining spirit on the part of many of the parishioners, who were uncomfortable with the pastor’s commitment to applying God’s Word to our lives, calling us to faithfulness. “It’s too hard.” The quarrelling and back-biting that went on until the church almost closed her doors was brutal. The finished product after the war had subsided, though a smaller congregation (that has since grown to far larger than it ever was, under the same ministry), was beautiful and full of rich fellowship and much joy. I saw my dad and my pastor and two other elders (all our families were very close) get roasted alive and come out stronger.

We moved to Florida and joined a church of almost twice the first church’s size and I latched on like only a lonely fourteen-year-old could. That church was my life. There was literally not a person of about four hundred whom I didn’t know by name and probably know plenty about as well. But I lay in bed at night sleepless, afraid I’d lose them the same way I’d lost those I loved before. Faces from my first church were in my mind as I saw a growing rift between my family and this new church. For three years I watched what started beautifully go terribly wrong.

The circumstances are inconsequential. My point here is simply that I extended myself, knowing the pain I was opening up for, and got hurt again – so deeply that it still choked me up in practicum discussion seven years later. But God used it not only to strengthen my faith in Him but to give me tools from which to minister to others. I can’t count how many people I’ve been able to come alongside already, in my short life, encouraging them of God’s faithfulness in the midst of pain.

Then last fall my dad lost his job because of a political and theological struggle in a church and seminary we were associated with. I can’t think about the details of this year-long scandal, still messy and unresolved to this day, without feeling simultaneously furious, sad, and nauseated.

All three of these situations I was indirectly involved in. My dad’s ministry carried his whole family with him and we learned and grew together. I do not regret that. Watching the ins and outs for him taught me a lot. Going through pain together made my family close to each other. Rather, I think his leaving us detached from his ministry would have failed to see, first, that we could learn from watching God work through and in him; and second, that we could be there for him when he needed a comforter or a cheerleader.

And now I’m not a kid anymore. I’ve begun to minister on my own to people God puts in my path and I’ve committed my life to that vocation until the day I die, whatever that looks like. Scary as it is to pour myself into someone knowing I may get hurt, I cannot believe I should do any less if I want to follow the pattern set forth in Scripture.

First, we have the pattern of Christ, who literally died to culminate his ministry, not to mention all the times and ways He poured Himself out. Second, we have the pattern of Paul, who seemed to take no consideration to his personal well-being in choosing whether to follow God’s call into any particular ministry opportunity (2 Cor 11). And third, we have the very nature of the gospel we are called to minister: A gospel of supernatural, transforming grace that can turn the most desperate situation on its head. We minister as advocates for a God who “works all things together for good.” We should minister not of our own strength, but giving of an infinite wealth of grace which can turn five loaves and two fishes into a meal for thousands. If we see ourselves as only vessels, or channels, through which that infinite store is poured, I think it’s not necessary for us to measure the risk factor involved in any ministry opportunity.

No doubt only a fool casts all caution to the wind. We must take care to “husband our resources” lest we have no strength to minister when we are met with a need. But I think this caution could look like two different things.

First, it could look like humbly depending on God day by day to give us the strength for what He sets before us, ministering with every minute we have but at the end of the day not worrying about what didn’t get done, who didn’t get served, trusting that when we don’t have what it takes, He will use another means. This is what I think it should look like.

Second, it could look like careful prediction of all the possible outcomes of any situation, followed by cost-benefit analysis to decide whether it’s a risk we can afford based on the resources we think we have. This is what I think it should never look like, and here are my reasons: First, we underestimate the resources we have: we serve not from our own strength but from infinite grace. Second, we are not truly able to predict all the possible outcomes of any situation when God is in control and capable of doing “exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or imagine.” Third, we fail to trust God to minister to us as we minister to others if we ask “Can I afford to get hurt?” God clothes the lilies and “knows that we have need of all these things.” We should let God minister to us while He pours us out in ministry. Further, we serve a God who “never wastes a single hurt that we endure.” Or to quote Sara Groves once again,

I can’t remember a trial or pain
He did not recycle to bring me gain.
I can’t remember one single regret
In serving God only and trusting His hand.
All I have needed His hand will provide.
He’s always been faithful to me.

So let’s stop obsessing and just serve and leave the outcome to our supernaturally powerful, wisely loving God. Anything less does an injustice to how good He is and how transformational is the resurrection-worldview we espouse as Christians. Christ is risen and says “Behold, I am making all things new.”

3 thoughts on “Christian Ministry Takes Risks

  1. Emily Stevenson says:

    I am SO glad you posted this, Susan. I have been wrestling all evening with this question, because it’s been on my heart for years how to balance my own needs with a life of out-poured compassion. For me it boils down to not trusting God to refill me if I pour myself out. I just … don’t trust Him to do that. Hopefully my continual prayers and conviction on this point will one day bear fruit.

    Thanks so much for sharing/posting, dear friend. 🙂

  2. Rachel S. says:

    Hey Susan,

    This brings up a lot of thoughts for me. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about ministry in the first place (and I know you and I differ a lot on our thoughts about Christianity), but bear with me. I’ve taken risks and gotten hurt, multiple times. Unfortunately I think as Christians we expect other Christians to be better or nicer somehow than unbelievers, which I have found to be untrue — we’re all just sinners who hurt other people, whether intentionally or by accident.

    I was talking to my husband Jesse about the Great Commission a little while ago, since I have been talking to a new coworker about that very thing. She talks to everyone she meets about Jesus and is very opinionated. It has turned off most of our mutual coworkers because of her strong beliefs and somewhat narrow-mindedness.

    I was complaining to Jesse that I feel like a “bad Christian” because I don’t believe in evangelizing in that fashion. I will not continue to talk about my faith to someone who doesn’t want to hear it. I guess I just think that since they already know the basics of the gospel (enough to tell me they don’t want to hear it), then they have all the tools they need and the rest is up to their own free will and the hand of God. Obviously there are exceptions, but most of the time I live by this rule: live and let live.

    Jesse put it in a way I could understand. He said that I might have a greater impact on my coworker’s lives than my other coworker who comes on a bit strong. I guess the way I live IS my ministry. It made everything fall into place, particularly why my favorite verse actually is my favorite verse: “I have become all things to all people so that by doing so I might save some.” 1 Corinthians 9:22

    I hope I haven’t been too wordy, and haven’t offended anyone. I really appreciated reading your post, and I hope you and your family are doing well in Indiana . . . I still creep on your blog from here in Minnesota! 🙂

    • wednesdaygrace says:

      Thanks, Rachel. I see your point, for sure, though I don’t see that it’s very much related to what I was trying to get at in this essay. But I agree with you: Our lives are our ministry and though we need to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you” (1Pe 3:15) and we do have to obey Christ’s mandate to “Go and TELL the world,” it is often most powerful when, having said our piece (or not even said it yet!) we simply live in a way that demonstrates the radical grace of God. Others will take note. Or not. That’s not so much our business. But where we fail is if we refuse to live radical grace toward another because we don’t want them to shrug us off as radical religious nuts and so we start behaving as less than Christians (by this I don’t mean that we start violating moral codes because as you say, we’re all sinners who hurt other people sometimes; I mean that we stop loving, forgiving, showing the love of Christ) toward those we are choosing not to be vulnerable towards.

      Related, but more back to the topic of my essay…. I was mostly writing about our lives within the context of the Christian community: how we “minister” to each other. An example, to get specific: And this in fact is exactly what I had in mind when I wrote the essay reflecting on that class discussion. Little did I know I’d be playing the situation out 2 years later… Say we are called to go serve at a church that’s not totally of our choosing. There are so many reasons we’d LIKE to be somewhere else. Well, here we are, God’s put us here, the people have hired us and welcomed us. Now if I, afraid of getting hurt or rejected, refuse to love them, to let myself become part of their fellowship, to humble myself to serve them or care about them, I am not obeying God’s call to me. I am being self-protective. If we find God calling us into a situation to serve, we have no business doing cost-benefit analysis: “What’s in it for me, God?” That’s not what Christ did, and he ended up nailed to a tree, naked. Should he have thought through the risks a little better? I think not.

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