Ministry is our response together to God’s love in creation, living into lives of intimate interrelationship with each other and with God. We are called by God as a people–a whole people. Through our nature as created beings we share an intimate connection with God and with each other. To say that God has given us work to do is not to say that God is a task-master and we have no will of our own but rather it is to say that we are beings of creation and into creation we live our lives, contributing who and what we are back to God.
Our interrelatedness is key to how we go about doing ministry. We cannot do the work that needs to be done alone; we need each other. Probably the finest example of ministry is Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet, so I will use this to illustrate my points about ministry. In order to wash the feet of another or have our feet washed by another, we have to be in community. Ministry therefore is not just to be thought of as the work that people do together but also participated in by the receiver of the work! When we wash someone’s feet, both the washer and the person being washed are engaged in the work of ministry (this, incidentally, also means that when we engage in ministry by giving to God, we are clearly engaged in ministry with God–God is not up in the clouds watching ministry happen but engaged with us in the midst of it!).
Ministry is a response because it does not develop out of nowhere. The washing of the feet is a ministry because feet get dirty and need to be washed. There is always something that causes ministry to happen–actually, innumerable things that all culminate in ministry happening. Not only does feet washing happen because feet get dirty, it also happens because we have water, we have learned the value in cleanliness, we know what it feels like to not be able to get clean, we have time to sit down and wash, etc. All the events and circumstances of our lives come together to allow ministry to occur by providing means, opportunity, and need.
How does mission fit into this understanding of ministry then? It goes back to God’s creation. We are intimately engaged with all of creation and God, and mission is our participation together in what God wants for the world. So washing people’s feet is not only ministry but also mission, because I am not washing people’s feet for just any reason–I am washing people’s feet because it is God’s mission in which we are participating.
How do I know it’s God’s mission? Because the scripture documents the continuing mission of God in which we still participate to this day. If you read the Bible, God is carefully crafting a story about God’s people in relationship. The story is one of brokenness and intimacy, a people who have the freedom to be as close or as far from God as they choose to be. God always approaches them where they are, much like a parent approaches a child. When a toddler has a temper tantrum, you don’t give the toddler a college Behavioral Psychology textbook and expect them to understand why their behavior is uncalled for! You approach the child where he or she is and gradually, as children develop and grow, you can keep slowly building up until you reach the college textbook level. God’s approach is the same, always approaching people where they are, ready to help them from where they are to the next level of their potential. Sometimes they react by distancing themselves from God and disaster always befalls them, and when they turn back to the way that God is showing them they find blessings once more. Each of God’s steps along the way build toward getting us to love each other more and love God more. Each of God’s steps build us toward closer relationship–not a coerced relationship but one where we freely choose for ourselves to be in relationships of love, which is the only genuine way it can occur.
When Jesus summarizes the Law as loving God and loving each other, he is summarizing the entire journey of a people of faith since the time of the Israelites and into the present day we find ourselves. We still have that same freedom to follow or ignore God, to increase or decrease the distance in our lives. God has left a clear path for us that blessings come into our lives when we, as a people, live in love of each other and all creation, so it is clear that God’s mission is one of living together in right relationship.
Where does that leave us in the relationship between mission and ministry then? If mission is God’s mission in which we are called to participate, then that which we do on behalf of God’s mission is our ministry in action. For the one who becomes a great business leader and shows how to live and lead with compassion, fairness, and justice, and demonstrates through example how to love God and the neighbor is, in fact, performing ministry, because he or she is fulfilling God’s mission for us to be in free right relationship with God and each other. What distinguishes ministry from our office is not the work we do but what is going on inside us when we do it.
As a priest, my ministry does not change (although my office changes), but I am intentionally proclaiming my ministry in a more visible fashion to those around me. The reason it is important for some people to do this is so that there is a visible example for people to see concerning ministry in practice in the world. The priest is not a better person than anyone else, but the priest is intentionally drawing people’s attention, not to glorify his or her own actions but to offer them as a guide for those seeking help in being more intentional about their own ministry. Ordained people serve as interpretive guides for people along the way.
Finally, it is important to emphasize once more that ministry is tied to intimate interrelatedness. Our ministries do not exist alone as separate entities from each other, including the ministry of the priest. The goal is not to try to get everyone to think the same or go about things the same way but instead about sharing in our diversity. It is a good thing that we are all different in our experiences, perspectives, skill sets, brokenness, and needs, because it is in sharing these things with each other that we grow.
In serving each other, we grew a little bit closer together and a little bit closer to God. Each challenge and trial, each celebration and triumph, is an opportunity to broaden our hearts, our vision, and our minds. We become better able to see things from outside of our perspectives and are better able to love. We are closer to the people God created us to be.
So with each foot I wash and each time my feet are washed, it is a step we take together toward our God. Thank God for feet, thank God for dirty feet, thank God for water, and thank God for giving us the ability to keep on washing.