“Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.” Henri Nouwen
It was over 20 years ago that I graduated from seminary. I was a very good student and took every opportunity to learn, even when what I learned challenged my assumptions. Thus in a Southern Baptist seminary I basically came out as an Anglo-Catholic or progressive Vatican II type Catholic. But even so I was was still quite limited in my understanding of ministry.
My time in a Clinical Pastoral Education Residency a year after I graduated from seminary was filled with more discovery, much of it very painful as I confronted many of my own demons, But even what I learned there was just a chip off the top of the iceberg. While it was valuable it was something that took many more years to begin to fully grasp.
In each of these places and times of learning I discovered much, but like any novice my actual understanding of what I learned with limited by my own strengths as an analytical thinker and intuitive personality type. I was quite convinced of my competencies, skills and abilities, particularly in history and theology. I could wear people out picking apart arguments that I thought were flawed. Likewise on the occasions people came to me for advice I often would fall back on my strengths in analyzing their situation and giving them an answer. I was so obnoxious about it Judy would sometimes call me “the Great White One Who Knows it All.”
At various points in my life, seminary, preparation for the ordination to the Priesthood, during Clinical Pastoral Education and in the various military Chaplain school course that I have attended had to write and sometimes present a philosophy or theology of ministry. As I think about them most did talk about being present, but much more focus was on programs and methods of teaching or even counseling from a cognitive behavioral theory method, but little to do with just being present and listening, presence was more about showing my face and being known that it was actually being with people. The changes in my “philosophy or theology of ministry” were honed in the crucibles of critical care ministry in hospital Trauma Departments and ICUs, and at war, deployed on ship or in Iraq. In those places I learned that between life and death that sometimes what matters most is just being there and not avoiding the pain by giving advice, offering a prayer, no matter how sincere and getting out of Dodge before the hard questions got asked.
I have found that young ministers or those new to ministry regardless of their age are often quite zealous and even when quite sincere often run roughshod over others. I think that is not so much a human failing but rather a result of our theological and ministerial training process. We focus on everything but being with real people, and among the professions we often are those among the least likely to truly listen to people before we diagnose a situation and give an answer. If we come from or are influenced by a tradition where what we believe that we are accurately discerning what the Holy Spirit is saying, or that we have the authoritative interpretation of Holy Scripture or that our theological premise is more correct than the others out there.
Please know this is not an attack on any particular denomination or theological school of thought. It just happens to be very common across the board in the way we do ministry as American Christians regardless of our denominational affiliation or whether we are liberal or conservative. It was bad enough when we all pretty much attended seminary in residence with other people and had to physically interact with other students or professors, some of whom challenged our views.
I believe that in the present reality of theological education in America, where online seminary programs are flourishing that an overall lack of contact and isolation is making the overall quality of ministry worse. Simply put this is because we spend our time in a theological cocoon of our own making, deviod of relationships with people who really know us. The result is that we become less attentive to others and more convinced of our own correctness and often suffer from a dangerous amount of narciscistic behaviors which are quite often displayed for the world to see.
I wonder at times if the Jesuit formation process than anything that we do here. While the 12 years long process done by the Jesuits is difficult and maybe even unworkable for some, I wonder if it is actually a better model for ministry. I also wonder wonder if possibly we can learn from Buddhism. From what I see there appear many practices in it that are not antithetical to the Christian faith and may actually help us to be better spiritual directors, guides and care givers. I read a book by Wolfhart Pannenberg years ago about commonalities and where Christians and Buddhists could learn from each other. I still have it and when I return home I will have to take the time to re-read it. Part of my curiousity lies in the fact that I am also a military historian and theoritician and much as I see much complementary thought in the military theories of Sun Tzu and Carl Von Clausewitz, one who was Eastern in thought and the other a product of Classic Western Liberal thought and philosphy. Both understood the human dimension of life, war and statesmanship and as such their military theories are timeless. Could it be that Christians could learn from Buddhists. I know that some do and I wonder if because our God is bigger than our conception that his grace allows people outside the Christian tradition to understand his will better than us sometimes. I think of the encounters of Jesus with Roman officials who he complimented saying “I have not seen such faith in all of Israel.”
I know this because I lived my ministerial life in this manner for many years. In a sense I remained a novice so long as I thought that I knew everything. The late and great Hall of Fame Manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Earl Weaver said “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
For me it took falling apart and feeling abandoned by peers, colleagues, the church institution and even God that took me to a new place ministry. Of course that came through the pain of loss, madness and abandonment that basically left me questioning everything, even the existence of God, I was for all practical purposes an agnostic. Coming back from war changed and suffering from PTSD and its effects makes more of an impact on faith than you can imagine. Since I have written about this part of my experience many times before so I won’t go into detail here.
Needless to say five years ago I began a journey that challenged my beliefs and changed me quite a bit as a Priest and Navy Chaplain. I won’t bore you with those changes either because I have written about them at length.
What I have learned and over the past five years is that Henri Nouwen who I quoted at the beginning of this article was correct. We as ministers frequently fail in this, instead we feel the need to say something, when often saying little or nothing but simply being with people and fully engaged in hearing them and whether through their words, expressions, tears or silence stay with them. Our words, suggestions and advice, even when theologically correct and in accordance with good counseling theory often are not heard by the suffering person because we are not listening and instead offering a diagnosis. Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated this Christian conundrum well:
“Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.”
I cannot tell you how many times that I have met people who have been hurt by well meaning ministers who simply cannot shut up and need to give advice. Let’s face it, the temptation is by virtue of our calling, our ordination or commissioning that we believe that words are essential. St. Francis of Assisi said “preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.” Actions do speak louder than words and one of those actions is listening and maintaining a holy silence as we allow the Spirit of God to work in a life even as we remain present. Henri Nouwen wrote:
“Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.”
For me though I have continued to evolve in ministry I do often feel like a novice. I have to fight the temptation to simply diagnose and give advice every day. That being said I am much more comfortable with listening and being present even more than I was a year ago. A lot of this credit goes to my Command Master Chief Ed Moreno, who I spend many hours a week with. He is a very spiritual person, a good listener and patient man who in a sense is a companion and fellow traveller on this spiritual journey.
For me it is almost as if I am relearning everything about ministry for the first time.
Well, that is enough for tonight. It is time that I shut up.
Blessings and Peace,