My first ordained ministry was about "transformation." As a new, second career pastor, I was called to revitalize a declining congregation. My means: innovative and entrepreneurial approaches to ministry.
I embraced this rescue call and quickly unpacked the superhero cape I had from a 15-year career in business development at a multinational corporation. I was accustomed to saving the day, creating something out of nothing, and demonstrating financial success.
Needless to say, my cape was quickly shredded by the jagged edges of resentment that many of the 60 congregants felt for my new ideas. My proven formulas for development and success were dismissed by the complex relationships of a church community. After three years, I was spiritually deflated and ready to return to the safe haven of the business world.
In hindsight, my critical error was to assume that I was responsible for producing ministry and that the 60 congregants were controlling shareholders in the enterprise. Unfortunately, many of my colleagues share this assumption.
Andrew Purves challenges this system of ministry, which is "long on duty and short on grace, long on what you must do and short on what Jesus has done and does for you." In The Crucifixion of Ministry, Purves dismantles the myth of self-reliance and rebuilds a basic pastoral theology on John the Baptist's words in John 3:30: "He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease." For pastors, slipping into the background is counterintuitive to our sense of leadership and competence. Yet Purves boldly asserts that God will crucify our ministries if we allow our messianic pretenses to take center stage.
Purves reframes ministry as belonging to Jesus Christ. From this foundation, the role of leaders is to discern and witness rather than to impose and direct. Had I applied this to my first call, I would have dedicated more time to prayerfully discerning who Jesus is and naming how he was already present and active in our congregation. Purves asserts that we are called to simply live into or graft onto Christ's continuing ministry in our midst.
In The Resurrection of Ministry, Purves balances the lament and pain of our crucified ministry with the celebration of Jesus' continued ministry today. Feeling convicted by Purves's first book, I embraced this sequel as a message of grace and hope.
Based on the theology of Resurrection and Ascension, Purves identifies 15 stepping stones that help pastors move beyond the sense of powerlessness and ambiguity of Holy Saturday to the hope and joy of Easter Sunday. The theology is extensive and insightful (as befits a professor of Reformed theology at Pittsburg Theological Seminary). He also reclaims John Calvin's doctrine of our union with Christ as the living, reigning, and acting Lord. Purves suggests several practices for embodying this theology, though they may be too elusive for time-compressed pastors. One suggestion is that pastors become better theologians by retiring from the office to the study, forsaking meetings for theological work, and reducing our busyness to invest more in proclamation. This ideal might be less elusive if Purves suggested ways a working pastor could fit that in.
Both books articulate a passionate response to the author's perception that many pastors are hesitant to acknowledge the reality that Jesus is alive and active in their ministries today. Perhaps this perception is accurate. However, my experience is that ministry demands that leaders speak a variety of languages, as Paul did at the Areopagus (Acts 17:17-34). Yes, belief is foundational, yet the language of belonging and the act of relationship are increasingly important as the church reaches beyond its walls to engage those unfamiliar with or suspicious of our Christian language of belief. Such sensitivity is not timidity but contextualization, which is the hallmark of Jesus' ministry both past and present.