Obstacles to faithful ministry

Brian Drayton's book, "On Living with a Concern for Gospel Ministry," starts with a chapter called, "The dilemma of gospel ministry in the twenty-first century." In it, he discusses some of the issues that, at both an individual and corporate level, impede our understanding of and faithfulness to leadings in the ministry. He includes in his list things like "the fragmentation of the Quaker movement" and "skepticism about ministry as a calling." He writes that, while many of these problems are widespread, every person who experiences a call to the ministry will have their own list of challenges and obstacles.

My ministry is a "nascent ministry." It feels to me very much like a kitten that is not yet able to open its eyes: fumbling around, bumping into things, unable to stray too far from the familiar. But for all its newness, I am already aware of some of my personal obstacles in being faithful to it.

First (and as a member of FGC's Youth Ministries committee, I have to blush a little at confessing this one), I am skeptical of my youth. When I think about being identified as a minister or traveling in the ministry, there is a part of me that says, "Why not wait for more seasoning, more experience? You are, after all, nowhere near being the most seasoned, experienced, knowledgeable, or grounded Friend that you are capable of being. Think about how much more you'll be able to offer to Friends in a few years or decades."

Nothing will cripple a ministry more effectively than waiting until you are the perfect person to deliver it. In order to serve God best, I need only to evaluate the gifts that I have now, not compare them to the gifts that I think I may have in the future. The FGC Travelling Ministries program's understanding of the term "seasoned Friend" was very helpful to me in this realization, reminding me both of the gravity of the concept of being "seasoned" and its lack of external prerequisites. A seasoned Friend, by TMP's definition, is simply someone who is "consciously treading on the path of conviction... [and] has made sufficient progress to be helpful to others along the way."

In addition, I must realize (along with many other people in the Religious Society of Friends) that gifts of the Spirit do not just grow; they wax, wane, shift, transform, dissapear, and reappear in endless incarnations. The set of gifts that I have right now is unique and precious, and I must honor it for what it is. With every gift that God gives us comes a responsibility to use it well and generously. The question is not, "Are my gifts ready?" but instead, "What work is best suited to what my gifts are right now?"

Jeremiah speaks beautifully to my anxiety and self-doubt in chapter 1, verses 6-8:

Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth." But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, `I am only a youth'; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD."

When one is asked to be a servant of God, the only answer is, "Yes." We cannot be insufficient for the work, because we are not doing it; it is being done through us. We are ready, we are able, because if we were not, we would not be called.

The second obstacle I experience in ministry is getting stuck in my "head space," the rationally-driven part of me that believes nothing without proof, and so is constantly confounded in any understanding of God. My faith, my ministry- indeed, everything about my life- falls apart when examined under the lens of rational "objectivity." I begin to think that maybe I've just made all this up to give meaning to my life, and when I am able to even halfway convince myself of that, everything about me begins to look a little bit ridiculous. These occasional episodes of doubt and confusion are disruptive enough that even when they have passed, they make me doubt my fitness to minister. How can I be a faithful gospel minister without a constant certainty of God's existence?

The more I sit with that question, the more it, simultaneously, begins to be solved and begins to be irrelevant. It is solved as, brick by brick, I pull down the walls between my head and my heart, my intellect and my spirituality, and I begin to find a space where both my awareness of God and my openness to knowledge are constant. When I (unconciously) kept the two things separate, I had to switch back and forth, but as I reconcile them, I more fully and consistently experience them both. At the same time, the question of personal certainty becomes irrelevant as I grow in an understanding that ministry is less about belief and more about witness. One does not need to intellectually accept any set of beliefs or doctrine in order to minister. In fact, I would argue (though I'm sure many Friends would disagree) that is not strictly necessary for a minister to believe in a power called God. The work of a Quaker minister is to be spiritually receptive and to manifest the goodness of God, not to expound it as doctrine.

The final obstacle that I've recognized thus far in my leading to ministry is a general unfamiliarity with the process of recording ministers, of travelling in the ministry- even with what the word minister means in a Quaker context. I am slowly building a more solid understanding of these concepts, but the fact remains that I am a person who learns primarily through observing others, and in the Quaker circles I was raised in, there were no recognized ministers to observe.

In the end, this gap in my early Quaker experience may prove one of the greatest blessings. I am diving into Quaker literature to answer the questions and concerns that have not been spoken to in my meetings, and as a result, I am getting to experience the writings of both early and contemporary Friends with a fresh perspective, at a time in my life when I am exquisitely open to receiving and acting on their most radical truths. I hear their words in a different way than if I had been exposed them all along, and the experience has been life-changing.

I'm sure that, at every step in the process of recognizing and living out the ministry to which God is calling me, there will be new challenges to face. My stubborn brain will come up with infinite variations on the theme of why I am unfit; God in equal stubbornness will wear away at my reluctance until it is transformed into obedience. But I hope that in naming my obstacles, I can more intentionally engage with God in the process of nurturing and calling forth the ministry I am asked to do in his name.