constancy and persistence in ministry (reaching toward community #002)

In my first post in this series, I explored my own identity as a preacher’s kid – and the challenge this represented in terms of a life in deep community. Deep community entails a life rooted in a particular place and requires the passing of generations together. But as a preacher’s kid I moved from town to town, so this experience of deep community was never a possibility for me.

Today this challenge is repeated in my life as an adult and parent – I am now a minister and the question of my place in community is addressed from this new perspective. I have served as minister at Kensington Church for almost 5 years, and several years before that served as minister of Westminster church for 3 years. So already in my life, the pattern of migration and rootlessness repeats itself to some extent.

At the same time my wife and I (first without, then with, kids) have been living in NDG (Notre-Dame-de-Grâce) for some 13 years. This means that we have lived in this one community through ministry transitions, and in the in-between time as well.  So this neighbourhood is comfortable and somewhat familiar to us. For my children this community is home – it is what they know. Even more, we have lived on a cul-de-sac in western NDG for the past five years – where we know our neighbours, where our kids play freely on the street (that’s where they are, now), and where relationships deepen with time. With our neighbours we share seeds for our gardens, lend onions, share sadness over family losses, and laugh together on the front sidewalk over a glass of wine.

On the urban planning side, I cannot help but think that urban life would have been much enriched for more of us had city planners built cul-de-sacs, or something similar, into our networks of roads and sidewalks. In terms of a shared life, the O’Bryan avenue cul-de-sac is a remarkable gift to our family – though I acknowledge that not all cul-de-sacs are created equal. But isn’t that the point, that deep community requires us to navigate complex relationships? Relationships where there is inevitably stretching, growth, and the need/possibility of forgiveness?

But there are two specific issues that arise for me as a minister, related to the importance and requirement of deep community. The first is the simple realization that within a particular congregation the minister is almost invariably something of an outsider. The local congregation is acclimated to the reality that ministers come and go – even if one or more previous minister has had a long ministry in that place. In a true sense, it is the congregation’s community, and the minister is a guest in that community.

This status as guest does not preclude the possibility of meaningful relationships, and it would be inconsistent with the gospel to suggest that the minister’s status as guest prevents meaningful ministry – after all, Jesus himself was almost invariably the guest, and it was from precisely that position as guest that he offered service and teaching. The guest is not in a power position, and perhaps it is wise and faithful to a gospel ministry for the ordained minister to intentionally embrace the position of vulnerability that is implied in the position of the guest. Indeed, we should add that if the minister ever functions as host in a congregation, she does so in a way that is always secondary to her status as guest.

But a second issue also arises, which is reflected in the title of this post – though perhaps without the drama that my title suggests. The question is: How long should a minister stay in a particular congregation? Of course it goes without saying that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. But can we not say that the default ‘length of ministry’ should be a generation? In other words, that we must be able to discern very significant reasons if a particular pastoral ministry is to come to an end. Eugene Peterson offers this same suggestion in Under the Unpredictable Plant – that if the congregation is a place for both minister and congregation to grow and mature, this will inevitably require time. We are not to either to avoid the storms when they come or to see the congregation as a stepping stone to something new or different – since each of these represents a betrayal of Christ’s call.

Peterson also points out that long-term ministry provides unique opportunities for service, inasmuch as the minister builds meaningful relationships with sisters and brothers in faith, over time. Familiarity with the life experiences and family histories of the members and friends of a given congregation becomes a vital resource in prayer, pastoral care, and preaching.

So there is a tension here – the minister in a sense remains guest and outsider, yet may also build meaningful and deep relationships over time, so that ministry also goes deeper.

To imagine such a long-term ministry may be difficult in our context – where ‘the new’ and ‘career advancement’ are the order of the day. Where the grass is always greener somewhere else. But our life in Christ pushes deeper than all of that. We are the Body of Christ, and if that image does not imply depth of relationships, and duration through time, then nothing does.

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