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Defining Ministry or Muddling It? A Reflection on an Article “Assigned” to Me

January 4, 2018

Not too long ago, one of my readers sent me a collection of sayings or aphorisms on the topic of ministry. The collection is entitled Defining MinistryThe reader, who apparently does not think I follow modern trends very well, scolded me for being out-of-touch and recommended that I review the list. That reader apparently believes that those maxims describe what I should be like but am not.

I took my “assignment” seriously and read each one of the sayings; I’m happy to report that I don’t measure up to most of them! The collection is too large to reproduce here and in addition I have not obtained the author’s permission to publish the material here.

I think we do well to look at a few of them if we want to know how some people view the concept of ministry and the role of pastoring.

I want to emphasize that I have serious problems with every one of the “proverbs” I am about to list. I believe that they water down the kind of leadership and clear teaching that God expects from his ordained ministers. Christ’s Great Commission (Mt 28:18-20) was that His appointed apostles should go forth to the whole world to teach clearly what He had commanded, to make disciples, and to draw those disciples into the sacramental life of the Church unambiguously through baptism. So, in the Great Commission, there are clear truths to be announced and a mission to bring people out of darkness into light. The Lord sent them out to the world because the world needed light, truth, teaching, and a call to access mercy through repentance. In effect, the apostles were given a threefold office: to teach (as the text clearly says), to govern (the text says that they were to teach the commandments of the Lord), and to sanctify (the text says that they are to baptize). Therefore, this was the ministry, the work of the apostles and their successors (the bishops, priests, and deacons). St. Paul, particularly in the Pastoral Epistles, repeatedly instructed Titus and Timothy to teach, govern, and sanctify. Further, he said that they were to appoint other bishops, priests, and deacons to do the same work.

All of this seems rather plain in scriptural texts, but sadly many of these things do not seem to be so plain to some, who are more influenced by cultural trends than the instructions of Sacred Scripture and Tradition.

One the problems that all the sayings have is that they are all in the form of antitheses. Each one has the following structure:

“Ministry is not about ‘A’, it is about ‘B’.”

The problem with this structure is that it often leads to a false dichotomy. Perhaps the author does not mean them to be understood absolutely, but a reader cannot be sure given their rather absolute structure. Perhaps if the structure had been, “Ministry is more ‘A’ than ‘B’,” then the message would have been clearer.

With this background in mind, let’s look at some of the adages.

Ministry is not about doing; it is about growing.

Why place growing and doing in opposition to each other? Isn’t growing a form of doing? Doesn’t doing advance growth?

If I (as a priest) were to say that ministry is not about doing, it would suggest that I could sit in my room all day and still call it “ministry” as long it somehow promoted “growth.” This seems silly; if I did that most people would call me lazy.

If this saying is directed toward those to whom I minister, it is also false, because while I surely do want them to grow, Jesus also makes it clear that He has things for us to “do” such as repent, believe the gospel, turn away from sin, deny ourselves, take up our cross, keep the commandments, love our neighbor, evangelize, cast out demons, and heal. He also warns, Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Mt 7:21). And in the judgment scene of Matthew 25:31ff it is clearly important to Him that we actually do things such as feeding the poor and giving drink to the thirsty.

Growth is nice, but deeds are surely required as well. They should not be opposed to each other.

Ministry is not about pulling people toward something; it is about walking with people while searching.

How strange and unbiblical! The road to Emmaus comes to mind; Jesus walked with them and “pulled” them to recognize the truth that was before them. Having heard their complaints and confusion, He called the foolish and slow to believe (Luke 24:25). He went on to “pull” them toward the truth, instructing them at great length.

“Walking with people while searching” paints a picture of groping, not teaching. Jesus says, And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit (Mt 15:14). Clearly the Lord sent His ministers to bring the light and direction of His teaching to those who are searching, not just to search around with them and facilitate their searching. We are to help them find answers. Instructing the ignorant is a spiritual work of mercy as is counseling the doubtful.

Sacred ministers such as priest are not “know-it-alls,” but we are supposed to have answers and provide clear direction based on our prayer, our study of Sacred Truth, and our anointing. Our call isn’t merely to be out there “searching.” We’re supposed to be teaching because the Lord has already provided answers in His Word and in Sacred Tradition.

And we are supposed to be pulling people toward something—actually, toward Someone. Jesus says that this is exactly what the Father is doing through His Church: No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught of God” (Jn 6:44-45).

Ministry is not about providing answers; it is about provoking more and more fresh questions.

Again we have the false dichotomy. Why are answers and “more questions” opposed to each other? The fact is, answers provoke more questions; questions seldom provoke questions. A person has a question and then waits for an answer; nothing happens until an answer is forthcoming. This answer usually provokes more questions that seek clarification. There is no dichotomy between providing answers and provoking more questions. In fact, there is a strong correlation between them.

So answers are of great importance both in preaching and in the ministry of the Gospel. Clearly the Lord sent us out with teaching, with answers to the questions that are in people’s hearts.

It is true that one teaching technique involves not answering all questions or solving every problem too quickly. This is an especially good method to use with children, who should often be encouraged to struggle with questions and problems so as to learn how to solve problems and to learn how to learn.

But if this is what the maxim is getting at, why not just say that? Instead, we are presented with a false dichotomy that says that giving answers is a bad thing, or at least that it is worse thing than sending people away to come up with more questions (the answers to which they will presumably not get from us).

Ministry is not about promoting doctrine; it is about announcing Jesus.

Again, why put these in opposition? Jesus sent them out to teach doctrine: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Talk about promoting doctrine! Jesus says that they are not just to teach it; they are to summon disciples to obedience. He warns, For whoever is ashamed of me and of my teachings in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mk 8:38). Thus Jesus connects Himself to His teachings, His doctrine, and His words; He is the Word, the Logos, made flesh. He says that to reject His teaching, His doctrine, is to reject Him and to face judgement for that.

St. Paul exhorted Titus, But as for you, speak the things that are consistent with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). St. Paul links doctrine to Christ, as he should, because they are connected. He writes, What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 1:13). Ministry is promoting doctrine, and in promoting Christ’s teachings we are helping to announce Jesus.

There are dozens of other sayings in the list, and it’s pretty much all downhill from these few. The final one in the collection takes the cake:

Ministry is not about whether one believes in God; it is about following the Christ.

Here is a word to the wise: if you ever happen upon a “minister” who does not believe in God, run, do not walk, to the nearest exit! Further, if you ever happen upon a “ministry” that says it is not important for you to believe in God, make another hasty exit.

There is nothing—nothing—more important than faith in Jesus Christ. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). Jesus warns, If you do not come to believe that I AM, you will die in your sins (Jn 8:24).

The entire work of the Scriptures is to bring us to faith in Jesus, who is Christ and Lord. St. John writes, There were many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (Jn 20:31).

Nothing could be more flawed and confused than this final “proverb.” There is simply no ministry at all apart from faith in Christ Jesus as Lord. Nothing else matters without faith. What does it even mean to follow the Christ if one does not believe in God?

So, a message to the person who mailed me this list of sayings (over 35 in number): I did read them and have pondered whether my ministry conforms to them. I must say that it does not. I plead guilty to not assimilating these notions of “ministry.” Frankly, I am so far removed from them that I cannot even begin to conceive of how I would apply them to my life.

I just have this crazy idea that my work as a priest is to teach, govern, and sanctify God’s people; and to be taught by, governed by, and sanctified by the Church through the pastors of my own soul. I have this strange notion that there is a truth to be found and to be taught with clarity, patience, and conviction. Living the question is a cute concept, but without any answers at all, questions are cruel and taunting.

I also have this odd idea that Jesus did have a doctrine and that He identified with it, saying, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He warned that we should follow Him, for no one would come to the Father except through Him.

Something tells me that ministry is about providing answers and setting forth doctrine. Because teaching and insisting was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, and “pulling” people to Father through faith was His deepest desire for us, I am convinced that my ministry should be no less.

Here is a depiction of Christ, the Teacher. In this video, He is teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum:

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Comments (23)

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  1. Deb says:

    It would be unkind of me to suggest that the reader who sent you the collection of………..I am not sure what those are………….is not a Catholic, or most likely not even a Christian. I would not go so far as to suggest they are smoking something as they complied their list……..but, something like that.
    I just don’t have the words. You did. Good words. You are a very patient priest and kind priest. Yep.

  2. This list sounds like one of those people who contributes to Patheos correllating Jesus with Buddha. I particularly like your assessment of the final one in the collection. Thank you Monsignor for your ministry, it gives me comfort and foundation in a world with too much information.

  3. Nick says:

    The best sayings on ministry are the lines of the Our Father. It may seem strange, but the Lord’s Prayer really sums up the priesthood.

  4. Jeannie Lawrence says:

    I hope in the future you will not waste any more of your thoughts or time on rubbish such as this, Msgr. Pope. I saw it for pure flummery after the first ‘proverb’. I would rather you have us more of your solid instructions than defend your teaching to your very LOST accuser. I will pray for that person of very small sight. They were not blessed with the words of my Irish grandmother that have been my staff for much of my life. But I’ll state them now in the hope they might learn from her sainted wisdom. Still carrying a bit of lilt in her voice she would tilt her head and say, “Ah now, and how is THIS gonna help ye git ta heaven?” Using that measure to view their deeds would be far wiser than trying to instruct you!

  5. Just A Sinner says:

    Monsignor, you’re ministry is not like those proverbs? Truly?

    Well, thanks be to God it isn’t! I for one would not be visiting your blog if it were!!

    You’re following in the footsteps of the Apostles – teaching and guiding the flock (Gods’ flock)as instructed by Jesus. If I’m to get to Heaven then I need a Teacher who will tell me the Truth, guide me according to Gods’ Will, help me grow in sanctity through the Sacraments via your Ministry in the Catholic Priesthood, and for you to guide and encourage my co-operation with Gods’ Grace.

    Questions without answers creates confusion. Confusion comes from the devil. Just because it may be intended to make one search for the truth, doesn’t necessarily mean the conclusion ones’ conscience comes to IS the TRUTH. Hence we need upright Shepherds to guide us and clarify teachings, we need Doctrine and Tradition.

    We believe Christ IS God – the second person of the Holy Trinity. But if “Ministry is not about whether one believes in God, it is about following the Christ”, then why would one “follow Christ”? You wouldn’t. You follow Christ because you believe in God and believe He is God. There is a difference between following Christ and being a disciple of Christ.

    The examples of these “proverbs” you’ve mentioned are just waffle!

    I pray God will continue to guide you in your Catholic Priesthood, Monsignor, and I also pray God to help the soul who sent you these “proverbs”.

    God bless.

  6. David F says:

    That’s a very odd set of “proverbs”; they read like agnostic slogans for those who seek a Church that demands nothing of them. I don’t understand people who play at religion. Either live it or reject it outright; this lukewarm approach is incomprehensible to me.

  7. Martha G. says:

    Revelation 3:16.
    The “lukewarm” approach to “ministry” spends its time assuring its target audience that it will declare no truths, give no answers, make no demands, and espouse no beliefs. I surmise that these “ministers” aim to fill the pews and the coffers by disagreeing with no one and accommodating everyone.
    Of course that’s a fool’s errand. As my dear father said in reference to one of these “churches”, “If I can believe anything, then I believe I’ll sleep in on Sunday morning!”

    • Israel B says:

      I feel sorry for the position Parish priests are in today. Proclaim the “hard truths” (clearly written in Scripture) or make people “feel Redeemed/Uplifted”.

      Conventional wisdom dictates erring toward the “soft” side so as to maximize potential attendance and revenue. The quickest way to get “reassigned” is have your collections trend downward.

      Pick your poison. Truth and obscurity….or superficial “acclaim” and betrayal to your vows.

  8. Richard Connell says:

    To accept the Christ means to accept that Jesus is truly God and truly man, so that last one is at best nonsensical.

    There are people who just want to see the world burn and there are people who can’t stand the idea of any pain at all, especially an eternal pain of punishment called hell.

    “During World War II, almost all Buddhists temples strongly supported Japan’s militarization.”–https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_in_Japan#Japanese_Imperialism_(1931%E2%80%931945)

    These proverbs can be described as spiritual artillery fire.

  9. nicholas mansell says:

    These MUST come from or through the American EPISCOPAL church whose current
    presiding bishop, Mrs Jeffords-Schori said on NPR: To be a CHristian, its
    not important what you believe, but rather that we can all come together
    at the Eucharist. Just the opposite of apostolic and post apostolic teaching.

  10. MC says:

    It is ironic that the reader who supplied you these “35 theses” actually ACTED more in line with what you wrote than with what he supposedly believes in. Just for instance: “Ministry is not about promoting doctrine; it is about announcing Jesus.” This statement itself is a doctrine. To propose it for acceptance to another is promoting doctrine. This doctrine is not from Christ, and so fails to “announce Jesus.” Similar assessments could be made for the rest. In “ministering” to you, he actually proved your point.

  11. tg says:

    The person who gave you the list is part of the new breed of touchy feely Christianity. It’s all peace, love, and Kumbaya. There’s no judgement. No hell. No rules. Just say you love Jesus and all will be well. That’s not what the Bible says but that doesn’t matter. They just find little snippets of scripture here and there to support their ideas. I pity them. They’re the kind of people Jesus talked about when he said, “I never knew you.”

    I have had conversations with folks like these. You can’t change their mind. They don’t care what the Bible says or the CCC. They’re only concerned with what they hear from pastors who are more concerned with placating their congregations than imparting the truth.

    You’re doing a great job, Monsignor. Pastors like you are the real ministers.

  12. Reverend Lawrence Farley, pd says:

    WISDOM. The confusion in the world has dispersed everywhere. WISDOM. On June 29, 1972, Pope Paul VI said, “from some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered into the temple of God” (da qualche fessura sia entrato il fumo di Satana nel tempio di Dio (Insegnamenti [1972], 707). WISDOM. In the Gospel, we hear Jesus say, “what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”. (Matthew 13:11-12). WISDOM. St. John the evangelist urges use to, “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world”. (1 John 4:1). Today, So much nonsense passes for wisdom simply because the media has the capacity to spread the errors of so many voices far and wide. WISDOM. Jesus said, “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive. How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God”? (John 5:43-44). WISDOM. On account of (because of) man’s tendency toward confusion, Jesus explained why he used parables: “because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them”. (Matthew 13-15). When human beings abandon the wisdom of God in order to seek the wisdom of the world they get lost in the fog of error or the smoke of Satan or babbling nonsense of their own false reasonings.

  13. Friend says:

    All good responses re this person’s formula (doctrine) addressing the logical fallacies and unbiblical wishful thinking, but this person is in danger of being ‘drawn’ and drawing many into sin with many ‘questions’.. I mean, this seems like self-serving utilitarianism and a desire to exert one’s own will as opposed to docility to the Spirit and obedience (listening) to God.

  14. Donna says:

    I much prefer your definition of ministry, Monsignor, and I’m grateful I get to experience your ministry through this blog.

  15. Morrie Chamberlain says:

    My thoughts go to the person who sent the 35 proverbs. Quite common in substance abuse recovery programs is the mastery of the tongue (or in this case the keyboard) with these three questions:1) Should it be said? 2) Should it be said now? and 3) Should I be the one to say it? The silliness of the 35 proverbs tells me that none of these questions would be answered in the affirmative.

    How often do I get upset with posts by heretical or heterodox Catholics (especially certain clergy) but I ponder these questions and realize quite often that very rarely would anything that I would write would change any hearts or minds of them or their followers. The teaching of the Church is quite clear in certain areas. To those people that will not accept the teaching prayer is often the only recourse.

  16. for you says:

    And then there is the Wisdom that comes from above… thank you for yours!

  17. Tom Cohoe says:

    This is a person that needs a good priest.

  18. Paul B Rimmer says:

    Normally I completely disagree with you. This time, however, I think you’re right. I read through that list of ‘proverbs’. If that list shows what a good minister is, then every good minister is useless, and they should get rid of the profession. They should to work in a soup kitchen instead, so that they can make their business feeding the hungry (“ministry is not about feeding thousands”) instead of just watching starving people with this quizzical stupid look on their faces wondering what hunger means to them (“it is about recognizing our hungers”).

    In short, I like the way you do ministry a whole lot more.

  19. Quadratus says:

    If our Lord had followed the tenets proposed by Defining Ministry from the link provided, and the Apostles had as well, there would be no written gospels, no sacramental structure, no evangelization., and no visible Church. In fact, we would not be having this discussion because there would be no Christian religion at all. This type of sound bite theology, constructed on hyper sensitized egos, warped by neo-gnostic modernist propaganda, desires a Christ figure who actually creates nothing and sits back and watches as we all entertain ourselves around the proverbial campfire, and shape-shift into ethereal beings of our own imaginations run wild.

  20. BP says:

    That list sounds like the lyrics to one of Haas’s typically banal songs that seem to pass for hymns. I really don’t want to hear the tune to which it would be set.