Ministry and Presence
I’ve been thinking about the story of Jimmy Carter, who was so free from having to worry about where else he should be and what else he should be doing that he was able to focus fully on the person in front of him.
He spoke as though we had all the time in the world. At one point, an aide came to take him off to the next person he needed to meet. Free from having to decide when the meeting would end, or any other mundane care, really, President Carter could let go of those inner nagging voices and be there. (The Organized Mind)
Is it possible to be this present in our lives and ministries? Not only is it possible; it’s essential.
Here are some thoughts on being present in ministry.
It’s hard. In his excellent book Sensing Jesus, Zack Eswine traces the desire to be present everywhere to the Garden of Eden. We try to act as if we have no limits in space and time. The desire to avoid being present in one place is an age-old temptation that goes as far back as the original sin.
There’s no alternative. There really is no other ministry than ministry right here, with these people, and in this place. Again, Eswine writes:
Our lives, in contrast to God’s, are necessarily physical and local…While spiritual wars rage about and while angels fly, I remain grounded. Battles all at once and everywhere outpace me. Here (and not everywhere) is where I must fight.
The people here are always messy, and this place is by definition limiting. But the only one who is not limited to ministry in a particular location is God, although even He is also working with messy people.
They can tell. A few years ago, I visited a pastor that I know through his blog. I told him that I appreciated his online sermons. His response surprised me. “I’m glad you enjoyed them, but they’re not for you. I pastor these people in this place, and those sermons are meant for them. Whether or not you appreciate them is irrelevant.”
I like that. I believe that people can tell if we are trying to serve and impress a general audience out there, or if we are rooted in a particular place, committed to a particular people. I can tell when people are half-listening to me. People can tell if we’re half-present while dreaming of a better place that doesn’t actually exist.
It’s at the heart of effective ministry. There is certainly a place for large, regional ministries. But as books like The New Parish teach us, there is a need to locate ourselves in a single community, to be attentive to what God is doing there, and to commit over the long haul to be present and faithful. Like a farmer committed to a plot of land, staying long enough to put down roots, clear the rocks, and pull out the tree roots, we must be committed to one place. I think I remember David Fitch saying that we should generally look at a ten-year commitment to a single place. While not canonical, it’s an idea that makes a lot of sense for most of us.
We are in what could be termed a hard-soil plant. We have moved in the neighborhood, and we are learning the joy and power of being as present as possible in one place, knowing and being known (both equally scary). There is something powerful about being present in one place, as if we have all the time in the world, letting go of the inner nagging voices that we would be better off somewhere else. Again, as Eswine writes, “Here (and not everywhere) is where I must fight.”