11 January 2008

Christian Ministers and Real Life Experience

As someone who is still a new minister, I'm musing today on the concept of the vocation of Christian ministry and 'real life experience'. Somewhere else, there was some comment on whether or not ministers have 'real life experience' and whether or not this was a good or necessary thing.

Up until becoming a minister, my life experience was probably what I'd call 'age appropriate'. I was doing the same things as many people in their late 40s were doing. We married late and didn't have children, so I wasn't seeing them off to university, but we were both working at jobs where we had some years of experience and we were trying to pay off our mortgage, etc., etc.

Now that I'm a minister, I've had a different set of experiences. I've sat with a dead body. I've visited someone a day before their death. I regularly visit nursing homes where it's difficult to communicate with people because of the illnesses they have (either physical or mental incapacity). People show me their surgery scars, their leg-ulcers and tell me about their incontinence. Many people share the hurts of their lives, their worries, their disappointments, their anger and their rage. Somehow, these 'negative' feelings tend to outweigh the 'positive' ones in quantity, but I'd like to think that it's because people feel safe telling me this sort of thing; still, it's not always easy to listen to large quantities of peoples' problems.

My short experience as a minister has made me even more aware of the fagility of human life and the love and grace of God.

I'm genuinely at a loss to believe that what I've experienced so far as a minister is not 'Real Life'. In fact, I suspect it's more 'Real Life' than my previous experience.


Peter Kirk said...

Why is so much Christian "ministry" about the sick and dying? Could this be one reason why the church so often seems to be sick and dying? Let's have ministers who focus on the healthy and vigorous, and the church might start to be more like them.

PamBG said...

Peter, what do you suggest that the church 'do' with you when you are sick and dying?

I'm sorry, but my mind boggles at this statement and I think my blood pressure just went up.

I think 'What would Jesus do?' figures in here.

Give me some biblical reflection on stories about Jesus and the sick and dying please?

I don't seriously believe that Jesus wants the church to abandon our members when they are ill and dying and I sure as heck hope you don't either.

Rev Tony B said...

Isn't this a classic "either...or" fallacy? Surely ministry and life is "both...and"? I deal with the negative stuff all the time - sometimes I think that is the most important thing I can do for someone, be there when nobody else can be. But I also do the positive stuff, and celebrate with folk when thngs are good. Where's the problem? Where do folk most need to see God's presence articulated?

Methodist Preacher said...

Peter, I think you have a point.

But Pam is right that we have a duty of care to those who are sick and dying. However those sick and dying with a vision (and there are many) know that we need to be healthy and vigorous.

The trouble is, those of us who say that, feel that we are slapped down by a Methodist system that can't cope with any form of dissent or questioning.

This evening I had a wonderful conversation with a real saint who wanted to tell me that she enjoyed my book on Francis Asbury. She served God in the past, and I'm certain she will serve God in the future (even at 83 and after a stroke) but she is as frustrated as me with the attitudes and leadership of the connexion!

PamBG said...

Isn't this a classic "either...or" fallacy? Surely ministry and life is "both...and"?

I'm not sure exactly who this is addressed to, Tony?

If it's addressed to me, I didn't mean to set up an 'either or' scenario in my original post.

PamBG said...

David H, I'm not going to argue with you. You've significantly contributed to me feeling discouraged in facing a situation that is not of my making. I'm certain that I'm called to be where I am - both location and service status - and I will remain here until God tells me otherwise. My personal experience is that God is fully capable of making it abundantly clear when I am to move on.

I don't personally feel that I'm useless and, if it were simply a matter of money, I know where I could make a lot more. If it were a matter of status, I know a sector where I can go to be a respected matriarch with years of expertise rather than a beginner bumbling at God's call to do her best at something new.

Go discourage the people at Connexion or some other minister who is genuinely making a balls-up of things. I think Dave W, Richard, Paul and I are doing our best in tough circumstances.

And please don't ever try to hug me again unless we have things sorted out between us.

Anonymous said...

Pam, thank you for your post. You've changed my thinking, or at least made me realised how my thinking has been changed. I remember in seminary, surrounded by many just out of college who planned for fall reading week like Spring Break, giving my strange looks when I said I wasn't going anywhere, but staying at school to study (they came around by next semester!). I thought it might have been good for some of them to spend at least a year between going straight from university to seminary (maybe still it would be a good idea), but reading your post I realise, what experience do any of us have in our first year of ministry? I also know that I have a good friend in Pennsylvania who went straight from uni to seminary, and he is a fantastic minister.

Sally said...

Pam, like Dave (42) I am replying with a post of my own- I believe you are right btw.

PamBG said...

Sally, I'm assuming you've asked for an email reply, so I'm saying this here - out of context.

Do you reduce the size of your photographs before you post them on your blog? I - sadly - often don't read your blog any more (although I do monitor it on bloglines) because the size of it frequently 'blows up' my Outlook. If you're not reducing the size of the photos, I'm wondering if it could help?

I'll look forward to your reply and hope I can read it!

PamBG said...

I also know that I have a good friend in Pennsylvania who went straight from uni to seminary, and he is a fantastic minister.

Will, I think that this is where we all hope and pray that the church institution itself 'gets it right' when trying to discern the ministry of individuals.

The church does need younger people in ministry and, in the UK, we need to get this right. I think we've been too fearful of allowing younger people to candidate (I'll put my hands up and include myself in that fear sometimes). I probably worry about young ministers who 'think they know it all' but I'll bet I look like that myself to someone with a generation more experience than I have!

DaveW said...


Surely anything that

'blows up' my Outlook.

must be considered a blessing, a joy and worthy of celebration for helping you away from the dark side.

PamBG said...

Yes, Dave, but my computer consultant won't come and reformat my hard drive for Ubuntu and I'm too scared to do it myself, so what can I say? ;-)

N.b., I meant to say 'Explorer' and not 'Outlook'. D'oh!

DaveW said...


try Firefox instead of explorer. It won't break explorer but is a better browser (faster, more secure, better standards support, open source) see http://www.mozilla.com

Peter Kirk said...

Pam, I know I was a bit provocative, and quite deliberately so. I certainly don't mean to suggest that the church abandons the sick and the dying. What I was reacting to was partly your closing suggestion that this is more "Real Life" than your previous "age appropriate" experiences. Of course Tony is correct that ministry should not be "either ... or", it must be "both ... and".

But there are two things which I would like to challenge.

One is the public perception of the church as only being interested in and of interest to the sick and dying, of being irrelevant to the young and healthy. I feel that the church needs to be pro-active to break this harmful stereotype.

The other is the way in which the church is called on to perform funeral rites for those who have almost never been near a church in their life, who make no real claim to be Christians, and yet expect a minister to see them off. This is a job which should be done by professional undertakers, who can employ ordained people with a special calling for this if they wish. I know of clergy who are spending up to half their working week dealing with deaths of people they know nothing about. And they can't even charge a proper professional fee for their services. Of course some ministers justify this from the opportunity to witness for Christ to the relatives of the deceased, but this is rarely effective where there are no existing church connections. I would suggest that ministers agree to take funerals and visit the relatives only at the death of church members or their close relatives.

PamBG said...

What I was reacting to was partly your closing suggestion that this is more "Real Life" than your previous "age appropriate" experiences.

Well, that was a bit of hyperbole on my part too. But I do think that most 'real life' is organised to avoid and deny the truths that: 1) Anyone can become seriously ill or incapacitated at any time and; 2) Anyone can die at any point in their life.

And my post was also a reaction to that on another blog that the church's main mission is to be 'entrepreneurial' and make converts. I know that this is a tried-and-tested evangelical formula, but I don't call myself an evangelical and my faith is about much more to me than proving to others that I'm right so that they can prove to others that we're right and the church will grow.

Arguably, if we say (simplistically) that evangelical faith is about being saved and getting to heaven, surely death and dying is a part of that process?

The older I get, the more my faith is a rich tapestry and the more I learn of it's treasures. The God who suffers with me. The God who sees in an elderly man or woman not a feeble body or brain but a ripening soul ready to flower in eternity. There is a whole depth of wealth in our faith that we often seem to reduce to a mechanistic 'Make converts, get them into church, let's all say "Yay! We've got truth!"' To me, that cheapens the Christian faith.

DaveW said...


"One is the public perception of the church as only being interested in and of interest to the sick and dying, of being irrelevant to the young and healthy."

Actually I find other stereotypes more common:

- churches are only for in rich people (infant school kids)

- churches are only interested in their own people (families that I have met when doing funerals for example)

- Christians are hypocrites they only want our money (when we go carol singing around the pubs and refuse to collect money, instead handing out chocolate)

- you can't be a christian or go to church if your life is in a mess

I find all these are much more common than thinking we are only interested in the sick and dying.

"I would suggest that ministers agree to take funerals and visit the relatives only at the death of church members or their close relatives."

Are you going all hyperbole again? I am pretty confident that this would not fit with your understanding of the ministry of Jesus.

Peter Kirk said...

Well, I think we are all using hyperbole here at times. But I don't think that ministers should feel an obligation to take a funeral for everyone who asks them - when this can amount to several per week (for an Anglican) and disrupt the regular work of their church. Many clergy will christen and marry only people who have real links with their church. They should have the right to say the same about funerals, at their own discretion and depending on their workload. Undertakers would be free to hire their own ministers if the relatives of the deceased want this.

Jesus did not drop everything to rush to every sickbed he was told about, John 11:6. He moved on from places where he was not having an effective ministry, and told his disciples to do the same, Luke 9:5.

PamBG said...

Well, if 'a minister's right to refuse funerals' is the main thing that you're talking about, then we are talking about completely different issues here.

The situation for Anglicans is difficult, I agree; but, as I understand it, Anglican clergy are legally obliged to take the funeral of anyone who lives in their parish.

This is part of being the established church. Personally speaking, I'm all for disestablishment, bur really it's nothing to do with me.

Where I am, non-conformist ministers are not asked by the Funeral Directors to take a funeral unless the person specifies 'Methodist', 'URC' or whatever. This is despite Anglicans and non-conformist clergy requesting that non-affiliated funerals be spread around.

I've done one funeral for a non-church member since I arrived. It's one of the few ministries where I actually feel like I can connect with people in a meaningful way and help them.

There are all sorts of things I do that are tedious, boring and administrative. I'd much rather be sharing the gospel with a bereaved non-church person than doing admin work even if doing a funeral doesn't result in a bum on the pew. But members won't do the admin and we can't afford to pay anyone else to do it. To me, that's wrong priorities as well.

Fat Prophet said...

The conversation around funerals is quite interesting especially the comments about unaffiliated people. Our minister has recently been asked to conduct a funeral for a life long member and as is often the case for members agreed to waive the fees. the only problem is no one at the church knows the person - even our longest serving member of nearly 80 years has no idea. We do wonder if the family had got the right dnomination!!

DaveW said...

Fat Prophet,

I don't charge for members (or adherents) but most churches have a membership list :-) That kind of defines who is a member and therefore the relationship with the family.

Anonymous said...

Interesting Pam, I read your post from a different perspective and didn't see it as either/or, and nothing at all to be contrary about.

I see you living in the moment (which is what, by God's grace you have been given) and being fully present.

We are all called to that. Thank you for this post and for bringing your gifts with abandon.

Bene D

PamBG said...

Whew, thank you for understanding what I meant, BD.

Rev Tony B said...

"Isn't this a classic "either...or" fallacy? Surely ministry and life is "both...and"?
I'm not sure exactly who this is addressed to, Tony?"

Sorry, Pam - it was addressed to Peter Kirk's response. He was suggesting we should focus on the healthy and vigorous rather then the sick and dying. My point was that ministry to is to all.