Faith Lived Out: My three stages of ministry

dietrichbonhoeffer

Conscientious folk have already reminded us that April is the anniversary of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom. Bonhoeffer was a follower of Jesus who listened to God instead of the Nazis during World War II. For his faithfulness, he was hanged in April 1945.

Reflection led me to my favorite Bonhoeffer quote, from his brief but profound piece, Life Together: “God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.” This statement comes amid a discussion of the way Christian “leaders” often use others to fulfill their agendas. In essence, Bonhoeffer stated that sisters and brothers are gifts to be loved, not instruments to be used.

I like this quote for many reasons, not least because it sounds counterintuitive – it cuts across the grain of most leadership theory and popular church writing. Yet I have tripped over and learned from this wisdom, too.

When I was twenty-five years old, I was a newly minted seminary graduate, from an Ivy League program. I was also one of the first in my family to receive a college education. Going to an elite graduate program was like flying to Mars. People from my background didn’t do that stuff. So I hit the books hard and hit my knees often. I graduated with an emphasis in ethics and church history, having done research on the way philosophical ethics informed the pre-Civil War antislavery movement. Then I was appointed to a rural three-point charge in Michigan – a three-point charge that had recently voted to merge and build one centrally-located meeting house. There I was — a bookworm with a love for God thrown into the peculiarities of church merger, even “church growth.” And there were some horrible wounds in that community – hatreds and resentments that had nothing to do with the merger, some dating from the 1920s or earlier! But we prayed often and loved one another through it. After a handful of years the new community was significantly larger than the sum of the three. Never once did I wish I had been “trained” in some merger magic. When a nationally-revered expert on church growth telephoned to ask how we thrived, I replied that we read our Bibles, prayed, and tried to love one another. He was expecting some reference to a marketable method, and I never heard from him again. Those were exhausting but authentic years.

Then, because I got the reputation for helping places grow, I was appointed to a privileged little community in a resort area. I was the young hotshot sent in to make it bloom. Overall I think I conducted myself honorably, but I also started to believe that I knew best around visioning, future, God’s plan for our church and for our people. I regret that spirit now. I may have gained a name for vigorous “leadership,” but I lost myself for a few years. People know when you overlook their value on the way to some supposedly higher “vision.” I needed a reset.

So I accepted an appointment to work as a college pastor and professor. I inherited a situation that was fraught with conflict and the collateral damage that happens when the church and the academy collide. Yet I also returned to my roots as someone who loved intellectual life as a way to grow spiritually. I noticed that my time among the College resembled my first instincts in serving God and others more than it did my second parish appointment. I have never regretted this act of repentance (which is necessary on a continual basis).

Here is the difference: my naïve dedication did not pretend to know what was best for others, and we thrived. My intermediate “expertise” lost focus on the gift of others and on their value, even – as I often say – their “intrinsic worth.” Now I am not always clear about the way forward, but I am trying to listen to our Lord and love his people before I do anything else. The wonderful irony is this: when we seek to love first, people know that, and the community tends to grow. It grows in depth, and it might even grow numerically. This is not an apology for lack of vision. When I sought to enhance the community according to my vision, it did not grow. I realize that vision is critical for the biblical witness. I have heard Proverbs 29:18 quoted more than I care to tell.

But whose vision are we emphasizing? Ours? God’s? The first often seeks to use people for questionable ends. The second treats people as ends in themselves and promises real community.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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2 Comments on "Faith Lived Out: My three stages of ministry"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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jimmie shelby
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Thank you Rev. Momany for your very thoughtful/thought provoking column

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist
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Thanks for reading the piece, Jimmie.

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