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Commentary: The spirituality of ministry

Commentary: The spirituality of ministry

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Commentary: The spirituality of ministry

An e-Review commentary by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker | Dec. 7, 2009 {1109}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at
Over the years I have observed with fascination the conversation in the church about spirituality and ministry.
Forty years ago, the conversation was about the ministry as a profession. Books were written and seminars were held to teach ministers to view our vocation as a profession like all other professions. (An early example is “Profession: Minister — Confronting the Identity Crisis of the Parish Clergy,” published by Abingdon Press in 1968 by James D. Glasse, president of Lancaster Theological Seminary.) The motivation for emphasizing ministry as a profession was to improve the performance of ministers. Out of this conversation emerged more rigorous standards for credentialing clergy, requirements for continuing education, on-going clergy evaluation and a better system for setting goals for one’s work, organizing time off and increasing compensation for clergy.
This emphasis on the ministry as a profession came out of an awareness that ministers were no longer considered the best educated people in the community, and the ministry was no longer necessarily attracting the best and the brightest. It was also a response to the increasing complexity of the task of ministry, as churches became complex organizations with many activities and programs. Moreover, it was an attempt to protect clergy from burn-out because the concept of the ministry as a profession involved providing higher financial compensation for clergy and a way of putting some distance between the minister and his or her work so that the minister would not feel overwhelmed.
Another shift

Twenty years ago, the conversation shifted toward the ministry as spiritual leadership. This shift was not a shift away from the need to create professional standards and practices for the ministry, but it was a shift forward toward a deeper understanding of the ministry as something more than just another profession. There was a recognition across the church that the church expected its ministers to be spiritual leaders. This desire for spiritual leadership arose because the church sensed that it must be more than a beehive of religious activity; it must be a spiritual community, a communion of the saints — what the Greeks call koinonia and what the Slavs call sobornost. It cannot be a spiritual community unless its leaders are spiritual men and women. Out of this conversation came the emphasis upon clergy developing a regular practice of a spiritual life with daily prayer and study, retreats, spiritual renewal leaves, and clergy covenant groups.
I say that this has been a fascinating conversation because it reveals how the church as a whole, and all of us ministers personally, are struggling with ministry and spirituality. At its core, I think this conversation reveals that the practice of ministry today is often felt as a spiritually depleting experience. This is a painful acknowledgment to make. It is very painful to acknowledge that often doing ministry is detrimental to our spiritual life. Our hectic schedules, the work of planning and executing our plans, dealing with conflict, affecting institutional and cultural changes in the church, and dealing with the expectations of a denomination going through historic changes often leaves us with a sense of running for a long time on our own spiritual reserves rather than sensing that we are operating out of the strength and plenty of a superabundant spiritual life.
Ministry as spirituality

Let me say that I do not think this conversation is over. I do not think that we have yet got it right. Here is where I believe our 40-year conversation has led us. It has led us to a dualism. One the one hand, over here is our work. It is a demanding and hectic work. On the other hand, over there is our spiritual life. It is the place of renewal and refreshment. The church expects of us, and we expect of ourselves, that we be spiritual leaders as we do our demanding work, and so we try to have some time set aside to nurture our spiritual life with personal devotions, retreats and such. We have our work over here and our spiritual life over there. We think our challenge is to balance our work and our spiritual life. But this very idea of “balance” unveils the dualism in which we are stuck. We are trying to maintain balance of two things because we are assuming that there are two things we have to balance — our work over here and our spiritual life over there.
Let me submit that the way forward for us is to transcend this dualism. I submit that the way forward is not the way of “ministry and spirituality,” but “ministry as spirituality.”
I believe the apostle Paul is our model for living our ministry as spirituality.
Two of my favorite epistles are Ephesians and Second Corinthians. I love Ephesians because it is theological, mystical and eloquent. I love Second Corinthians because it is a mess. Second Corinthians contains some of the high theological themes of the New Testament — the great affirmation that in Jesus Christ it is always Yes; the declaration that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life; and the promise that in Christ there is a new creation. At the same time, Second Corinthians shows Paul almost embarrassing himself by boasting of his credentials as an apostle, disclosing his personal hurt because of his conflict with the people in Corinth over a moral issue, and discussing the tedious administration of organizing fund-raising among all the churches. So then, Ephesians gives a high and lofty view of the church and the Christian life, but Second Corinthians discloses, without any attempt to cover up anything, the struggle, the pain and the weariness through which yet shine the beauty of the Gospel and the splendor of the Christian life.
As I look at Paul’s description of his ministry as an apostle, as he describes it in Second Corinthians 6:1-10, I discover that, for Paul, his work and his spirituality are not separated. They form an integral whole. Just listen to Paul, “ … as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God. … ” What I think Paul is saying is that his spiritual life and formation — his “holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” — occurred because he was practicing his apostolic ministry with “afflictions, hardships, calamities … labor, sleepless nights … ” and so on. Clearly, for Paul, ministry is spirituality.

Ministry is the arena where we practice our spirituality and where we develop spiritually as persons created in the image of God, redeemed by Christ and being saved by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Daily practice

In the Catholic Church, there is an interesting way of classifying the clergy. The Catholics distinguish between the monastic clergy and the secular clergy. The monastic clergy live apart from the world and devote themselves to a life of prayer. The secular clergy are priests who serve congregations and in many other settings. The secular clergy are expected to be spiritual people, but they live their spiritual life in the world. The secular clergy have to live a “worldly spirituality,” not the spirituality of the monastery. In Methodism, we don’t have any monastic clergy. We are all “secular clergy.” Our vocation is not one of trying to be close to God by retreating from the world, but it is one of being close to God in the midst of the world as we perform our difficult ministry day by day. The “world” where we live includes the actual life of the church of Jesus Christ, which God planted in the midst of creation and history.
To simplify our challenge, I would put it like this: our ministry every day should be the struggle of prayer with God. I do not merely mean that we should pray every day. We should do that. We should have some time for prayer, study and meditation; and, we should offer prayers throughout the activities of the day. No, what I mean is that we should approach the arena of our work as the arena of wrestling with God in prayer.
P.T. Forsyth, the Scottish Congregationalist preacher and theologian, wrote in his brilliant book, “Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind” (Eerdmans, 1907, Second Printing 1966, p. 129), prayer for the preacher is “not prayer as sweet and seemly devotion at the day’s dawn or close, but prayer as an ingredient of the day’s work, pastoral and theological prayer, priest’s prayer. … ” When Forsyth speaks of “priest’s prayer,” he means that we approach every task, challenge and difficulty with our minds and our hearts open to the reality of God’s presence, God’s Word, and God’s will and with the full awareness that being faithful to God, and leading the church to be faithful to God, is going to be costly.
Every day a minister is confronted with the question, “Am I living in, and leading according to, God’s will?” You choose a text for preaching on Sunday, and you know immediately that if you proclaim God’s truth in that text, it will not be popular. Now you have a decision to make before God. You go to a committee meeting, and you encounter attitudes and approaches which would lead the church away from, not into, its mission. You have to decide whether you are going to say anything or not. You are accountable to the Lord of the church for your leadership. You receive a member into your study who starts pouring out criticism of your leadership. In that person’s criticism is both that person’s own disorder, but also some truth about your creaturely limits or failures. How can you respond with both courage and humility? The way you decide is crucial to your spiritual formation in God’s presence. A thousand examples could be cited from the everyday life of an ordinary minister to show that the ministry is more than just our work; it is our spirituality. It is the arena where we wrestle with God in prayer while we are dealing with the realities of the world.
I cannot think of any other regular vocation where one’s daily work is a more intense school of spiritual formation, for growing in virtue, for becoming a true human being, for living the life of prayer as wrestling with God.
I also cannot think of any other regular vocation where the experience of costly grace produces such sweetness of spirit when we can say, as the apostle Paul did later in his correspondence with the Corinthians, “(the Lord) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ ” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
We do not live in two worlds — ministry and spirituality. We live in one world where ministry is spirituality. It is God’s world, where costly grace shapes us daily and, if we are faithful to God in our life and leadership, where this grace fills us beyond measure so that we become the person God calls us and enables us to be.
This commentary was originally a message given by Whitaker Nov. 16 to clergy attending Clergy Day Apart at the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park, Fla.
News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.