Who's Afraid of the Vile Practices?

January 1st, 2018
This article is featured in the The Vile Practices of Ministry (Feb/Mar/Apr 2018) issue of Circuit Rider

No one ever told me that ministry would be terrifying, at least not in the ways that I’ve found it to be so.

In seminary, professors presented Scriptures or Church history demonstrating the courage of faithful people. Most of the prophets required some sign of God’s assurance, a burning bush or a man-swallowing fish, to gain courage and overcome initial objections. And, whether it’s Perpetua and Felicity, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mother Theresa, the Church abounds with examples of courageous actors standing against overwhelming floods. I learned and understood all of that, and like so many entering ministry, I longed to exhibit courage in the name of Christ. But, no one ever told me how scary the actual conduct of professional ministry could be. 

I’ve been asked why some practices are considered vile; specifically, why the business-end of the church is considered so awful by so many pastors. At least in my ministry, I usually avoid the things that scare me. 

The baptismal vows establish a connection between call and courage. Any one of them, depending on circumstance, may call for exceptional bravery. “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” And, “According to the grace given to you, will you remain a faithful member of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representative in the world?” Uttering the “I do” and “I will” requires courage. We just hesitate to acknowledge how far the vows might extend. 

Few would disagree that they call us to stand up against the various institutional forms of evil in our society. That can be scary. But, let’s be honest, much as systemic evil might require courage, devoted people have incredible capacity to act in obviously righteous ways. 

We struggle more when the definitions of evil or faithful membership extend to areas of our lives in which we feel less secure, educated or informed, places in which we aren’t always sure what righteous even means. When we fail to establish personal budgets preventing generosity or fail to call out poor financial reporting in our local churches, allowing them to spend in every area other than the actual mission, we may well be falling short. But, in doing so, no pastor or lay leader wants to think that he or she dropped the ball of their baptismal covenant. After all, we don’t mean for those things to happen. 

Those sorts of failings lack the marks of intentional depravity. In those matters, we seem to possess an inability to act, and after much reflection, I just think we’re afraid. Fear has long been the culprit in any number of failures in the church. It’s just easier to declare the practices of which we are afraid, “vile,” and hope that someone else takes care of them. It’s easier to insist that we’re “more about relationships than administration,” or “focused on real ministry rather than dollars.”   

Too often, this leaves us and our churches in impossible spots, unable to discern financial health or worse, locked in conflict. 

If fear causes the problem, I want to say that courage offers the solution. Maybe that’s too trite, but sometimes pastors and leading laity must simply dig deep and find the courage God offers. At times, they must grin and bear some of the less desirable tasks. But, there’s more. 

Early in her collection of essays entitled Upstream, the poet, Mary Oliver asked “Do you think there is anything not attached by its unbreakable cord to everything else?” I’ve long placed value on the connectedness of things. We are connected to each other, to creation, to God. Such understanding provides beautiful language and meaningful metaphors for community, but it also imposes great responsibility. We are connected, and so is ministry.

Within a local church, no ministry exists in isolation. Each flows in and out of the other. Each person conducting one ministry is somehow related, in small congregations often by blood, to those conducting others. The teachings in the children’s ministry have an effect on how families hear the sermon. And, the sermon effects how the youth hear their small group discussion. Life in a congregation exists in a complicated and oftentimes fragile web. Pull on one string, and the entire web feels the force. 

Finance and administration, whether we like them or not, exist in a connection to everything else. If we fail to budget well, report well, spend well, if we, God forbid, experience theft or dishonesty, the entire congregation and its ministries suffer because of it. 

What are we to do about the fear that causes us to think such practices vile? As a first step, it might be helpful to acknowledge how connected everything really is. Then, we might adjust the way we think about them. We might decide that the fear is worth facing and chose to learn. 

A little learning goes a long way, but, at the end of the day, no pastor should be doing finance and administration alone. Instead, a little learning allows a good pastor to feel less fear. Then, the pastor will be able to engage more intelligently in conversation, and that will allow for better delegation. If a pastor possesses a little less fear, he or she will be able to deploy better practices at home, lending more credibility to positions taken on the finances at church. A little less fear and the web starts to feel a little less fragile and much easier to move along.

When I set out to write The Vile Practices, I wanted to address fear and highlight how connected finance and administration were to good ministry. I’ve just seen too much struggle due to lack of attention in these areas. I continue to pray that with a little encouragement and know-how, pastors and laity might emerge into braver leaders of stronger congregations conducting world-changing ministry.

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