“If you do not know what is absolutely essential in ministry, you will do the merely important.” (Henri Nouwen, quoted by Will Willimon in Pastor)
I have this quotation taped to my computer monitor at the church. It has prompted for me a rather obvious question: What is absolutely essential in ministry? …in life, for that matter?
The answer I have come to is this: What is absolutely essential in ministry is relationships. It seems like an obvious answer, but a pastor has many tasks to which s/he must attend. Yet, when examined closely, all tasks that are essential in ministry are in the service of relationships. And all relational activity that is essential in ministry ought to be properly linked to a Christ-centered end.
Put differently, this may sound like a judgment for “people-oriented” temperaments and against “task-oriented” temperaments. To the contrary, there is definitely both a “people-oriented” element and a “task-oriented” element to this. Nurturing relationships requires patience, intentionality, discipline and grace in order to grow deeper in intimacy and trust, and, in the case of our relationship with Christ–obedience, in the case of our relationship with others–the foundations of appropriate boundaries and healthy communication upon which the practices of mutual submission and servanthood rest.
We must be specific and we must be disciplined about three aspects of relationship: (1) our relationship with God, (2) our relationship with God’s Church, and (3) our relationship with God’s world. These relationships correlate with three tasks of the Church: (1) making/forming Christian disciples, (2) building Christian community and (3) carrying out Christian mission & ministry. Though they may be differentiated in order to check how well we are attending to them, they interrelate with one another in our living them out.
The challenge I find is in bringing each activity on my ministerial to-do list purposefully in line with nurturing one of these relationships and with fulfilling one of these tasks.
For me, this especially underscores the importance of pastors and ministry leaders (clergy or lay, paid or unpaid) nurturing a vital relationship with God as a disciplined, maturing Christian. In a sermon at Asbury Seminary during my time there, Maxie Dunnam (former president, currently chancellor of the seminary) named the principle responsibility of the pastor as “paying attention to God and leading God’s people in paying attention to Him.”