Ministerial Recovery

We all fail sometimes. Sometimes the failure is minor… sometimes it can be spectacular. Sometimes one has control over the situation of the failure, and sometimes not.

Failure is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, failures are great opportunities to grow. But not all failures are equal to each other. Consider three forms of failure.

  1.  Failure of Vision. A minister lacks visiona clear vision or perhaps the minister’s vision proves to be leading in the wrong direction.
  2. Failure of Competence.  A minister lacks the skill-set and/or experience for what he/she is doing.
  3. Failure of Trustworthiness. The minister violates trust by cheating, or breaking a promise.

The last one, failure of trustworthiness needs a bit of explanation. After all, to fail in doing what one promises to do is not automatically a trustworthy issue, in my opinion. For me trustworthiness has to do with the martial virtues– Courage (doing what is right despite fear), Duty (doing what is right regardless of preference), and Honor (doing what is right despite lack of oversight). Failure in these virtues is a failure of trustworthiness. These failures are all very different.

What is easiest to personally correct?

Trustworthiness Failure. In theory this can be done quickly with repentance. However, in practice it can take awhile because failure in the area of trustworthiness will continue to be a temptation during stress. Ministry has lots of stresses.

Vision Failure. Nehemiah went from no vision to a very clear vision in four months. Paul and Moses got at least a start of a vision in a very quick event (Damascus Road and Burning Bush), even if they needed new vision adjustments periodically. I believe vision is a human AND divine activity. Ultimately, a lack of vision I believe is a failure on the human side, rather than the divine side. But it is correctable.

Competence Failure. Training, mentoring, and experience can be gained in a few months to a few years.

What is the easiest to recover from?

Vision Failure. People will commonly accept the transition from a muddy vision to a clear vision, or a change of direction, especially if the change can be clearly articulated.

Competence Failure. People generally understand that people start out without skills and knowledge. They may wait awhile for the person to prove himself/herself but another chance will normally be given.

Trustworthiness Failure. Some understand and give another chance and some don’t. We don’t know why John Mark quit on the first missionary journey… but probably an issue of lack of courage or duty. His uncle Barnabas was ready quickly to give him a second chance. Paul, on the other hand took a few years to warm up to him. Some will never forget a failure of trustworthiness.

What do we tend to emphasize?

Competence.  Preparation for ministry often focuses on learning skills and doctrine.

Depends. Some focus more on morals or trustworthiness, while others more on calling/vision. Either way, they are often given less priority than ministerial competence.

What failure is most risky?

Trustworthiness Failure.  Regardless of whether one is in charge or a worker bee, a failure in this area can sour future opportunities for ministry (especially if due to failure in terms of honor).

The Others. One can learn as a mentee (protege or apprentice) without a lot of risk. Additionally, in that role, one doesn’t really need to have a clear vision. One can learn while working helping another’s vision. These are bigger issues if the person is a leader.



A Language of Foolishness

I have been reading a couple of books on Pastoral Theology. One is a classic:  “The Minister as a Diagnostician” by Paul Pruyser. The other is “The Word of God and Pastoral Care” by Howard Stone. Both of these books note a problem with chaplains and other ministers.  The problem is the rejection of theological language in ministry in favor of the language of psychology (or sociology or social work).

There can be a number of reasons for this. First, some of the language of theology is academic and little adapted to practical ministry. Second, the language of the social sciences are often more precise and agreed upon (at least at a specific point of time).

But another thing is that sometimes ministers are rather apologetic about their tradition. In chaplaincy work, one has to minister to people that do not necessarily respect or understand one’s tradition and language. As such, it is tempting to incorporate the language of the social sciences on the presumption that it will be more accepted by those they minister to. Additionally, some chaplains become embarrassed by the sloppy thinking and language of popularized (TV) Christianity. They don’t wish to be identified with such forms of Christianity. (I can understand that concern.)

Unfortunately, much is lost. The language of Christian theology is better for existential questions, meaning, and ethics than the social sciences. Additionally, religious faith and spirituality are of great importance for countless millions of people.

This is not just a problem in chaplaincy but in missions as well. We want to contextualize our faith… interpreting it in a way that is understandable and appreciated by those who are not Christians. The challenge is finding the balance.

At one end, one can use language and concepts that make no sense to the hearer. It may be clear to Christians… but not very effective in bringing truth to others.

At the other end, one can lose the language and Christian concepts in the quest of being relevant in the context.  Again, not very effective.

Clearly, the goal is between the two extremes, finding relevance in context while holding to the truth in the message.

Losing one’s heritage is not the solution to contextualize to another heritage. There needs to be a tension between these extremes.

I have been there. I was at a Christmas gathering with a diverse number of people. Some were Christian of one variety or another, some nominal and some not. Some were generally secular. A couple were Muslim. I struggled in finding a comfortable language for expressing a religious Christmas message in that diversity. Using language that makes no sense to the hearers is useless. But using vague inclusive language essentially doesn’t say anything either.

I am reminded of the words of St. Paul,

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God   –I Corinthians 1:18

One must ultimately embrace a certain language of foolishness– a willingness to sounding foolish… while not embracing such a label as a badge of honor.

I am still struggling with this.

The Patriotically Incorrect Missionary

When I was in college (30+ years ago) many of us were struck at the excesses of a movement that showed itself in the term “Political Correctness” or PC for short. It sought to avoid language that appeared to demean or sound judgmental. At its best, it reminded us to be careful with our language… reminding us words matter, and that they can both hurt or heal. I remember my time in the Navy where horrible, horrible language was often used for THEM… whoever “them” may be– at the time often women, homesexuals, or Iraqis. I remember suffering through a class at Surface Warfare Officer’s School (SWOS) where the instructor started the class with jokes– almost all of them starting with the “There is nobody who is ___________ here, is there?” One time, when the joke section went “open mike,” the guy who sat next to me raised his hand saying that he had a joke. When he got to the front of the classroom, he went into a five minute sermon on the destructiveness of jokes… and seemingly suggesting that all jokes are hurtful. He was “Booed” back to his seat. I can’t remember if I joined in the catcalls or not. But, I did find the joke time annoying, so I am not sure.

But at its worst, political correctness can force a sterile groupthink where free exchange of ideas is squashed in the name of tolerance. And as the term “political” implies in the name, there was often a political agenda where certain groups were protected while others were fair game. Sometimes it appears to actually do the opposite of its aim. I recall in college hearing of a college women’s volleyball team where they would describe some members as being “vertically challenged” rather than say “short.” To me, that is counterproductive since “short” may or may not be disparaging, but “vertically challenged” can only be viewed as derogatory. The SWOS story showed both sides of things where the politically correct appeared to reject any sort of group cohesion through irreverence, while the politically incorrect could be quite hurtful, and be annoyed that others get hurt, “not getting it.”

Right now in my home country (or perhaps ONE of my home countries) there is a balkanization, or new tribalism, that could be described in terms of being “patriotically correct.” When I was in the Navy, a friend of mine, also an officer, told me, “A weird thing happened to me yesterday. I was driving around and stopped for lunch, and this old guy began talking to me. When he learned that I was in the Navy, he said, ‘Thanks for your service to our country.’ I wanted to tell him, ‘I’m not seeking to serve my country out of some deep well of patriotic fervor. I am just doing my job.’ Of course I didn’t say that.” I found that story funny myself. Who would thank a person for just doing their job, and tie it to some sort of nationalism?

At least I found that funny until about 20 years later, more than a decade after leaving the Navy, when I started having people come up to me and say, “Thanks for your service to our country.” It seemed so strange. I did figure-eights in the Red Sea during the Gulf War while doing embargo operations. I can assure you that I have done much more to serve my country well (and other countries) as a missionary in the Philippines than I ever did in the Navy. But I can hardly say that. That seems to be Patriotically Incorrect. I am not anti-military. My son is considering joining the military and I am fine with that. I would be a proud parent. But I would be a proud parent if he went into something entirely different— neither greater nor lesser. That seems to be a politically incorrect view as well.

Recently, they have started putting NFL (American) football on TV here in the Philippines, and so after many years of not seeing it, I watch it on occasion. It is interesting that some of my friends in the US are boycotting NFL games. Boycotting in this case apparently means turning to a different channel. I have no problem with that. CFL can be fun to watch, and Rugby and Australian Rules Football are wonderful, arguably preferable, alternatives to American football. Apparently, this so-called boycotting is done because some athletes go down on one knee rather than stand at attention during the National Anthem. I can see the concern to some extent. Here in the Philippines, I always stand during the singing of “Lupang Hinirang,” the Philippine National Anthem, and join in the singing. It just seems like the respectful thing to do for a country that has welcomed me as a guest for over 14 years. But the irony with regards to the reaction to the NFL still strikes me… the use of an empty symbolic gesture to express anger about an empty symbolic gesture (making in fact that second gesture much less empty).

There seems to be a new tribalism, or at least an increase in it. It is understood by the old adage, referenced and castigated in the Bible, “Love your friends, and hate your enemies.” Clearly that is not what we are called to do… but it is hard especially when “tribal” battlelines are drawn. It is hard for us to do and hard for others to respond.

“God’s love, when it comes to us, obliges us to ‘love the neighbor.’ How is the person before us responding to this obligation? Responses can run the gamut from amoral anarchy to rigid perfectionism, when people are experiencing a broken relationship with God. On the other hand, in persons who have a sound relationship with God, there must be at least hints of a healthy sense of filial and agapic responsibility.” -Howard Stone “The Word of God and Pastoral Care,” page 47

Consider how that attitude of partiality might show it self in the table below in terms of our response to a person from the “One of Us” tribe doing something good, or somethin bad, versus our response to a member of the “One of Them” tribe.

Does something good or says something good

Does something bad or says something bad

“One of Us”

We congratulate and recognize the actions as tied to virtue

We attack or question motives of the accuser, and/or give benefit of the doubt to ‘our guy’

“One of Them”

We minimize or question motives

We judge and attack; and feel awfully good about it, and ourselves.

The problem is that this is really hugely immoral. Right and Wrong is no respecter of persons. Giving “benefit of the doubt” sounds godly, but it is not. Benefit of the doubt is only moral if it is given to all parties. That is, if a member of the “One of Them” tribe is charged with misbehavior, we should equally be open to giving benefit of the doubt. Additionally, if giving benefit of the doubt to the accused means disbelieving the accuser, that is dishonest. An honest response would be to take the matter seriously but bracket one’s person opinions as one seeks to determine the truth. Benefit of the doubt is a last resort, at best.

Drawing back to Missions, I believe missionaries should be to some extent Patriotically Incorrect. Missionaries should be first of all servants of God’s Kingdom, not some earthly kingdom— regardless of whether such a kingdom is nation-state, denomination, or organization. Missionaries shouldn’t be quick to bring along their political agendas into the mission field with them. I have heard TV preachers from the US that, for some reason, get broadcast in the Philippines. They end up sharing their wacky politics. But it is forgivable. I don’t suppose it is their fault that some group in the Philippines has the bad taste to rebroadcast. But some missionaries come over here and bring there politics with them. I have heard both American and Korean missionaries give their, “Why can’t you Filipinos be more like us” speech. Don’t understand that. No matter how passionate a missionary is for or against the 2nd Amendment, or “Obamacare” those issues are irrelevant in the Philippines. The Philippines is not under the jurisdiction of the US Constitution nor of the Affordable Care Act. Frankly, it does not matter to the Philippines whether the US is a “Christian Nation” or “The First Secular Nation.” Arguments could be made for both perspectives, but neither are relevant ourside of its borders.

Of course, how political a missionary should be with regards to their ministry country is harder to determine. I have heard some odd stories of missionary behavior. I heard of a missionary here in the Philippines who poured some (holy? blessed?) oil on a government leader’s chair as some sort of Christian magic to keep anyone that is religiously divergent from sitting in that seat as leader. That seems like an odd role for a missionary certainly, yet a missionary should stand up for the plight of the dispossessed and oppressed… and oppose abuses, both legal and illegal. Where a good line is, I don’t know. My own denomination is fairly apolitical most of the time in the Philippines, but I also work with a couple of denominations that are intensely political. I feel the ideal is between those extremes.

The Lord’s Prayer says that we are to pray that God’s Kingdom would come– His will be done, on earth as it (presently) is in heaven. The focus is on God’s will and the Kingdom of heaven, not on someone else’s ideology and political will. I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure that living out the Lord’s Prayer is Patriotically Incorrect.