The biggest question

By Rev. Jordan B. Davis (M.Div.‘14)
Congregational Corner

“What does this ministry really mean to you?”

This is a question that I long to ask and get a genuine answer for. However, I wonder if so many congregations and individuals struggle to answer this because it isn’t something that they have actually spent time considering.

In my days as a church relations officer, I saw hundreds of very viable ministries. There was so much potential, so much hope – I highlighted many of them in this blog! A few years later, it breaks my heart to connect with individuals and hear “oh, yea… we just didn’t have the support we needed” as they explain the demise of a beautiful thing.

As a transitional pastor, I have spent a great deal of time discerning what both the youth and the young adult ministries mean to my congregation, while at the same time discerning and questioning other congregations where I might serve next. I have also had to look in the mirror and find out what my ministry really means and how I plan to continue to find the nourishment it needs.

Over the last year, these are the points (in no particular order) that I have found myself leaning on as I discern the role of a ministry within a congregation and further, my role within that ministry –

What is the quality of the involvement by those the ministry is meant for? In my world of youth ministry, this does not focus on how many youth show up each Sunday but how many return each Sunday and are actually involved rather than sitting on the outskirts. When the youth show up, are they running in or standing at the car trying to convince their parents to let them go to a friend’s house instead? Has the ministry found a way to reach the intended crowd or is it so focused on being the next best thing? A pastor and search committee want to tell you how wonderful the ministry is, but nothing speaks louder than the actions and faces of those most directly affected by the ministry.

Who is involved in leading the ministry? As a young adult, it is easy for me to set a schedule and curriculum for my young adult group. The ministry isn’t about me though, and so I have asked for five young adults to help make these decisions and branch out further for weekly volunteers. When looking at the overall picture, are pastors the sole leader? Are parents the only ones volunteering? No sustainable ministry runs through the efforts or ideas of a single person but we also have to be careful how many are leading. Too many leaders make for long, unproductive meetings and very few opportunities for the occasional volunteer.

What is the attitude of the wider congregation? When I first arrived at my current congregation, it seemed that there was a line out the door for weeks. Every person was ready to tell me what went wrong before, who had been forgotten or ignored, the way they would do it if they were behind the desk, and why my efforts for a young adult ministry were nice but would likely not work. First, you have to know what the attitude is so that you can prepare yourself for it (like when the server at Chili’s says “Careful! The plate is hot” so you know to either not touch it all or to touch it gently as a test.) In the larger picture, we need to know the attitude so that we know what concerns will need to be addressed and who will be the first (and last) to step up and help you (see my second point).

What does the budget say about the ministry? When looking at the budget, do the line items match the ministry being described? One line item I am in the process of fixing is something as simple as the name of one of our summer youth trips. If the budget does not reflect the current trips and projects, how much does the session (or any committee or advisory board) know about the active ministry? Then there is the more complicated and all-to-present struggle in the youth ministry world – college students. It seems that every congregation wishes to minister to college students. However, so few have a line-item for that. Ministry takes money – point blank. If there is no line item, where does that money come from? Even if the value is almost non-existent, the presence of a line-item shows an effort to create and hope to sustain a ministry.

Finally, at the end of the day when everything has gone wrong and the team is exhausted, when there are more questions than answers and it seems like all hope is lost – will the ministry continue? Are those who attend, lead, and support invested enough to go home and get some rest before getting back to it tomorrow? Do the relationships forming the beautiful web of ministry continue to hold the community together despite the wind and rain trying to tear it apart? Do the prayers for healing and strength transform into prayers of thanksgiving as each person looks around the table and remembers the point of all of this – to love God and one another? Ministry is not easy and rarely provides the answers needed. It involves too many people to get a 100-percent approval rating. It is exhausting, emotionally taxing, self-sacrificing, beautiful and empowering work. Yes, it might seem like all hope is lost, but is there someone around the table who can remind us that all hope is found when we look to God instead of to the volunteer forms, budget sheet, attendance records, and latest viral article?

So, what does this ministry mean to you? Why do you attend, volunteer, or lead? What steps are you willing to take to ensure that there is a tomorrow? What support is present outside of the pastor’s office?

I encourage you to choose one ministry within your congregation and discuss with your leaders what the ministry really means to the congregation. Maybe you will learn that it means so much more than you ever thought; maybe you will learn that it is an item that should have been deleted off of the budget sheet and volunteer form years ago. It seems we so desperately want to be bigger and better than the church down the street that we forget how to be the best version of ourselves. I pray that each one of us might find new ways to discern what that means in our congregational and personal lives.

Alumna Jordan B. Davis is transitional associate pastor at Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church in Cary, North Carolina, and editor of Congregational Corner.