When Ministry Bitterness, Betrayal, and Pain Remain

How much personal suffering is okay, in pursuit of a greater good in ministry?

Following a Lenten season of reflecting on this “necessary discomfort,” I summarized:

…No parish organization should be content to dwell in suffering, or embrace suffering flowing from unhealthy organizational relationship as a spiritual discipline, as dutiful conformity to Christ. No, Christ’s suffering was redemptive. Our Savior lives–He did not remain in the grave. He did not remain on the Cross. Evidence of past suffering marks his Glorified Risen Body, yet the victory has come.

The suffering in a parish organization journeying to become truly healthy should be the suffering of confronting situations, exposing unhealthy relationships and assumptions, of mutual openness among leaders, of facing difficult situations head on. This suffering is not weakly accepting unhealthiness in the Body, but boldly, in the Spirit pursuing the ultimate good for the glory of God. Becoming a healthy parish organization means walking in the Spirit to distinguish the suffering of dysfunction and the suffering of transformation, so that we can flee the former and embrace the latter.

Yet even where Christ’s victory prevails, where forgiveness between members of Christ’s body is possible, this suffering of dysfunction can create real hurts, personal hurts that don’t disappear instantly. Human pains like experiencing a break in trust, loneliness, fear of vulnerability, or bitterness–just to name a few.

What to do on a human level when these experiences come?

Some great advice from Jen Fitz:

Avoid the situations that fill you with bitterness, the pain of broken trust, etc. Sometimes we can’t, but if you can–do it. As Fitz notes, “Yes, it would be fantastic if you could somehow be so saintly that Fr. Backstab and Sr. Gutpunch didn’t bother you anymore. Maybe one day that will be you. Until then, give your weakness a little breathing room.” Yes. Breathing room.

Draw close to those who can help you through it. The type of person this is will vary. It might be a listener who can help you process the pain. It might be someone who creates that “breathing room” through healthy and joy-filled distraction (yes–we can and should have fun!). It’s not someone who merely reinforces the experience of personal pain or echoes back bitterness, isolation, etc. to you.

Discern the elements of your life that might open you up to greater spiritual healing and insight. For me, Fr. Timothy M. Gallagher’s Spiritual Consolation: An Ignatian Guide for Greater Discernment of Spirits has been an invaluable tool for making myself more open to the Holy Spirit in reviewing and looking back over experiences to detect the causes of personal pain, conflict, and challenge in ministry.

Sunshine Path on a Windy Road   (free CC usage with credit link to LiveOnceLiveWild.com)
image: liveoncelivewild.com (CC BY 2.0)

 

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Ministry Troubles and Jonah

That feeling of dread, regret, or resignation. Not wanting to step into the office. Wishing you’d never taken that new diocesan position. Wanting this year of RCIA to be over because you don’t even want to see your volunteer team. What does it mean when ministry becomes the setting for feelings of desolation? Where is God leading me in times when problems seem overwhelming and suffering seems far from redemptive

Job often comes to mind as a Biblical portrait of suffering and persistence. Yet, Job’s situation is very different from most of ours in specific ministry settings. See, God puts Job through a trial of extreme crises in faith and life–questions of survival of everything  and everyone Job knows and loves. Job does nothing to bring this on himself. For many in ministry (whether paid, volunteer, ordained, or non-ordained) our particular way of living out the call to missionary discipleship is something we’ve discerned and chosen. Something we’ve stepped out to do.

This brings us to a different Old Testament character, Jonah. Jonah is a missionary prophet. He’s actively stepping out to do God’s work. While Jonah does face a crisis, it’s not one of basic human needs and longings, but of if he’s going to listen to God’s words for him and how Jonah should fulfill the call God has placed in his life.

When we think, maybe I’m just not where God called me to be, we’re in a place to enter into Jonah’s story more deeply, to see where we might persevere or change in order to serve God in the way He desires of us.

Diving into the Bible, we meet Jonah with the narrator’s declaration, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah” (Jonah 1:1). Notice the passiveness of Jonah. His patient, receptive posture. Jonah was listening. And we find out in verse 2, that he hears God’s communication clearly. Jonah’s not acting on divine silence, nor guessing in absence of communication or answered prayer.

Maybe when we experience desolation in our ministry, it’s because we never heard the word of the Lord as Jonah did. Maybe our good intentions were charitable, but not what God willed for us, personally. 

But Jonah, he’s not falling into that trap in his ministry. He hears God, yet he decides to resist. He “made ready” for a new, impromptu plan of “fleeing” away from the city and ministry God had called him to (1:3-4). Jonah is being reactive; there’s seemingly no purpose to his actions other than trying to be “away from the Lord.”

Jonah takes flight on a boat and a storm comes. In this dangerous situation, the boat’s captain comes to Jonah (1:6). Jonah’s qualities and calling in ministry can’t be ignored–even if he’s choosing to turn away from what God has equipped and called him to. Jonah is immediately aware of what he has done  (1:12). And this isn’t shocking–remember, Jonah heard God, Jonah knew what God wanted of him. Jonah acknowledges what he has done, how he fled from God’s true desire for him. Oh how we yearn for this clarity ourselves in problematic ministry situations! In times of desolation, we can say “yes, Lord–I’m ready to repent,” yet not have the slightest idea what God had wanted us to be doing in the first place.

How does God respond to Jonah?  He sends “a great fish to swallow Jonah” (2:1). This is active voice, God is acting directly in Jonah’s life, creating a space for temporary hardship, challenge, and (if Jonah’s anything like us moderns!) forced introspection (I mean, it’s not like there was reading material in the fish’s internal organs). Early allegorical interpretations of this passage suggested that this time of darkness and testing represented Israel’s exile. Later, Christian allegorical interpretations (spurred by the Gospels themselves, i.e.  Matt 12:38–42 and 16:1–4) offer Jesus’ three days in the tomb as a parallel. Yet, the original sense of the passage in and of itself–without any allegory–is very relevant to each of us when we experience problems in ministry. As Walter Brueggemann writes:

It is enough to see the ‘fish’ as a vehicle whereby Jonah is put deeply at risk to the power of chaos (the sea), and is rescued by the power of the Creator (who presides over chaos) through the creature, the fish. Thus the rescue of Jonah is also a demonstration of the power of the Creator who will not have the mission of the prophet thwarted (Introduction to the Old Testament, 231).

The second time God speaks to Jonah, he listens. He acts “in accord” with God, not fighting, going against the grain, or avoiding what he heard from the Lord (3:1). God’s will is done, God’s heart is full as His mercy is extended to the people of Ninevah who turn to the Lord. Jonah has had “success” in his ministry, but still he is not where God wants him to be in his heart and soul. We can find ourselves in these places too–doing the successful thing in ministry, even seeing fruit, yet not truly living the life God has called us to. There’s external fruit, yes–praise the Lord!–but still not the interior conversion God desires of us.

Merzouga, Morocco, 19:26
Flickr: Christiaan Tribert, CC-BY-NC-2.0


The Lord teaches Jonah this in the final chapter of the book. Here we find Jonah outside the city of Ninevah, sulking about how he knew all along of God’s merciful character, and it was that knowledge that drove him to flee, so that he’d avoid this “awful” predicament he’s in right now. The narrator hints that Jonah is still holding out some “hope” that the mercy extended by God to Ninevah might change, as Jonah builds a dwelling to “to see what would happen to the city” (4:5). As one might guess, it’s pretty hot and sunny out in the desert, so Jonah’s quite happy about a nice shady gourd plant that grows up by his new home (4:6). But then God takes the plant away, and Jonah finally gets it. It’s not about him. It’s not about us when it comes to ministry.

We need to discern and listen where is it God is calling us to, and what it is God wants us to do. We can grow attached to a certain vision of how, when, and where will will serve–but ultimately it’s all a gift from God. A particular ministry or belief isn’t ours to cling to any more than the gourd tree was Jonah’s “possession” when God shows us otherwise. God’s concern is far broader than ours! And, even if we don’t fully understand it in every moment, God’s gracious love for all includes each of us. Always. In every moment.

In the end, through Jonah we see that God’s will is not simply what’s convenient for us, or what we already happen to believe (or want to believe) about the mission field around it. God’s will for us might include people we’ve never thought of before. God’s will might be something more precise or focused than what we currently dream of. Each of us can only know when we begin as Jonah did: hearing the word of the Lord. 

Called to a Thick Sense of Empathy

Chris Adkins, director of the Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, characterizes the brain as a “mental trilogy” of cognition (thinking), emotion (feeling), and motivation (wanting).

In ministry, we’re probably more open than most to the importance of emotions and motivation. Yet so much of leadership development focuses only on thinking. To be truly empathetic, we need to integrate all three of these dimensions of the mind:

an empathetic response isn’t simply sympathy — feeling for someone. It also isn’t compassion — feeling with someone. Empathy means feeling as someone and thinking as someone.

The word “seeing” is also important because it focuses on imagining another’s experience.

“Empathy involves your imagination, seeing another and their world, in your mind’s eye,” he says. “Can you actually walk into their world and see what they see, hear what they hear?” [Read the rest, here…]

True empathy motivates helping others, improves our communication with various groups and individuals, identify “blind spots,” and in the end, stay curious about learning from the people around us. To enter fully and imaginatively into the great Biblical narrative of salvation history, and to experience how Jesus is speaking to us now, through those texts–well that takes empathy too.

Next time I’m in a tough ministerial situation, I’ll try and remember to not only feel for and with that person, but to take on my own tiny slice of Jesus’ incredible gift of the incarnation and truly be open to walking into their world.

See
Image by Steve Johnson, via Flickr, cc-by-2.0

Customer Service for Missionary Disciples

Customer Service on Day 357
Manchester City Library via Flickr; CC BY-SA 2.0

As leaders, evangelists, and/or missionary disciples, we’re all in customer service.

Now this is strictly a metaphor, because as Christians we’ve got nothing to sell (in fact, we’re sharing the free gift of God in Jesus Christ) and aim to foster, not consumers, but empowered, Spirit-filled Christ-followers. To use the metaphor, how’s your customer service?

Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the habit in ministerial leadership or evangelism of thinking only of the “big wins.” But what of the small, everyday victories of a person satisfied, known, heard, and loved? These too are vitally important, as these moments reveal the fruits of the Holy Spirit in us, our ability to participate in God’s self-giving love, and our growth in virtue.

How does Jesus model this for us?

Example 1: Jesus’ Public Preaching Debut (Lk 4:16-30)

Not long after his baptism in the Jordan and temptation in the wilderness, Jesus is given the opportunity for some liturgical preaching in the local synagogue. After the proclamation of the Scripture (which turns out to be from the prophet Isaiah), he declares: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). The assembly hears “gracious words” and Luke reports (literally, in the Greek) that they “witnessed him [Jesus]”–they fully experienced the moment (Lk 4:22). Many English translations give it a positive spin (i.e. “they spoke well of him [Jesus]”), but we see this isn’t quite the case since the hearers want to get rid of Jesus by throwing him off a cliff, and Jesus himself turns to the proverbial wisdom, “no prophet is acceptable in his own country” (Lk 4:23-24).

What can we learn about Jesus’ “customer service”? His hopes for communication here? His heart and concern for the people and situation he enters into?

First, Jesus has Good News. Jesus has a Yes–glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind (Lk 4:1819; Is 61:12; Is 58:6).

But, even when we have a new yes to share, we shouldn’t expect to immediately please everyone. Sometimes in ministry, this can throw us for a loop, causing us to become defensive, cynical, or disheartened–because we’ve got something good, something needed, something that should bring joy and excitement–yet we experience rejection or discord.

Take-away #1: Jesus doesn’t change or soft-pedal his Good News. Though his “gracious” words aren’t well received (because they are grace for the “wrong people,” you know–those outsider, non-believers with a totally different culture) he still shares them.

Take-away #2: Jesus is okay with the fact that his communication for the better leads to “wondering,” confusion, and/or uncertainty. In ministry, we’re being unrealistic if we expect simple agree or disagree responses from those we communicate with. Those who wonder or express confusion aren’t enemies of the cause–they might be in transition, or on the way, if we as communicators continue to reach out to them. If we avoid setting fixed boundaries of “supporters” and “road-blockers” within our organizations.

Take-away #3: Jesus doesn’t verbally, personally confront those who disagree. He expresses the reality of the situation–that challenging words are generally not well received close to home, to those with the greatest perception of “loss” from a change of the status quo–but does not attack anyone personally. Jesus’ heart is for the future conversion, in purely human images, a “customer service” oriented toward the long-term.

Those who heard Jesus’ sermon that day, they might not have been ready for Jesus’ love for them. Yet, Jesus’ interactions with them reveal that he wants to hear them, nonetheless. Jesus wants them to experience being known, even if they’re not ready to accept or agree. It’s a level of “customer service” (to put it mildly!) we can all aim for as we communicate vision, strategy, and more in our ministries.

Why Ministries Need Learning Cultures

Why does ministry inherently lend itself to a learning culture? As Tim Shapiro, president of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, explains:

For a congregation to achieve or accomplish something new, it’s not just a matter of doing something. It’s almost always a matter of learning to do something new. There are many things that happen in a faith community in which something new doesn’t have to be learned. If it’s summertime and the air conditioners need new filters, chances are somebody has done that before. You just have the volunteer do it or call the air conditioning company. The congregation has achieved an objective, as simple as it might be, but they haven’t had to learn to do something new.

If it’s a matter of consequence, congregations don’t just do new things. They learn to do new things — learning that is a durable change of behavior or attitudes or ways of thinking.

For instance, imagine a congregation is seeking to start a new Wednesday evening program. This new program is designed not only for the elementary school children in their congregation but the elementary school children who go to the school two blocks away. It’s the first time the church has reached out to that school. So the congregation is going to need to learn durable new ways of behaving, thinking and feeling about such an endeavor.

howyourcongregationlearns_coverThis idea of behaviors, values, and ways of thinking–that’s culture in a nutshell. This means, to do something new, something of new or great vision, we need the right culture. We can’t avoid it:

Congregations, like most human communities, need to learn how to do new things, just as a family learns new things when an infant enters that system, and corporations that are trying to earn profits have to learn new things to keep up with the markets. Read the rest, here…

Scarcity in Ministry

Does scarcity impact your planning and leadership in ministry?

As Brene Brown explains:

“Scarcity is the ‘never enough’ problem. The word scarce is from the Old Norman French scars, meaning ‘restricted in quantity’ (c. 1300). Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyper aware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking…Nostalgia is also a dangerous form of comparison” (26).

Scarcity in ministry might look like:

  • Ignoring a mission Jesus shares with the Church (i.e. “go and make disciples”), or not engaging in it wholeheartedly, out of fear that “we won’t have enough” for our other ministries
  • Allowing key staff and volunteer ministry leaders to become worn down due to time-demands or structures (i.e. aversion to flex-work schedules, etc.) that create a busyness and stress surrounding time
  • Not dreaming a true vision because “we don’t have enough interested people”
  • Becoming stagnant or inward focused, thinking “we can’t do what we used to do–be meaningful in people’s lives, relevant to the community, etc., because of today’s ‘problems’”

scarcitychapimage-1640Brown continues, “We get scarcity because we live it” (25).

This can and should convict us.

How do we contribute to a “hyper awareness” of lack?

An awareness that allows a “lack” in time, resources, or abilities to become a paralyzing excuse. Our attitudes certainly matter. During his earthly ministry, how often did Jesus operate out of scarcity–a “never enough” mentality? Not too often. And when the Twelve succumbed to the temptation (which happens to us all at times!) Jesus pulled them back. When the twelve disciples said, “dismiss them [the five thousand] so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat,” Jesus Led them away from scarcity to utter confidence and boldness in God’s power acting in their very moment, saying, “Give them some food yourselves” (Mk 6:36-37).

How do we avoid living scarcity?

A compelling clue comes at the very end of Acts of the Apostles. We see the words “boldly” (parresias) and “unhindered.” These are the Evangelist Luke’s final concluding words to us. Recall, this is the same Luke who in his Gospel, filled his early chapters with encouragements to not fear (i.e. Lk 1:75, 2:10). The boldness of the early believers demonstrated throughout the entire book of Acts flows from their trust in and relationship with God. This relationship is alive and possible because of their prayers in the Spirit.

They were led by the Spirit to closer communion with God, and the more I grow in my relationship with Jesus the Lord, the more trusting, confident, and ultimately bold, I will be. And, walking with Jesus, I can see the challenges, see the areas of objective scarcity, but not be “hyper aware,” not be frozen by it, not be dismayed. I can then move from operating out of scarcity, to leading, relating, planning, and ministering with trust and bold confidence in God’s abundance. That God who “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens” desires to share “his own blessed life” with us (Eph 1:3; Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1). This powerful reality should not be hindered by my own temptation of seeing and living scarcity the present.

Assessing Your Catechesis for Evangelization

Assessing (or “measuring”) how you’re doing when it comes to fostering initial and on-going conversion in a ministry is one of the toughest, yet most necessary, processes a leader must continually work through. It’s tough because it involves loving enough to speak the truth, being willing to change beloved techniques or programs that need to evolve, and it’s just plain hard to even develop good metrics or measures to use in assessment.

7-558-living-as-missionary-disciples-cover-150One of the hidden gems within the recently released Living as Missionary Disciples resource from the USCCB is this set of assessment worksheets  designed for use by individuals or small groups (they start around pg. 14 of the .pdf download, aka “pg. 1” of the internal numbering).

Unleashing all of these at once on a team of leaders would likely not be a good strategy. But the potential here is great! These tools could be used to assess existing programs or strategies over a multi-year period, coach and develop catechists, unite staff and key leaders around a vision, or design new initiatives.

They key is to actually use them as a tool, not an end. Assessment is a means to improve what you’re already doing, not an administrative burden that bears little fruit. Assessment without reflection, processing, personal coaching/development of leaders/catechists, and connection to implementation isn’t going to bear fruit. And, it might even be a waste of time. But 🙂 by making the commitment to leverage a great resource like this from the USCCB within your leadership development pipeline and continual planning processes? Now that’s a way to stay grounded and aligned to Jesus’ central mission for us, to go and make disciples (Mt 28:19).