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Excellence in Ministry


Passage: Luke 12:13-31

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Stephen Graham

You fool! You fools! Strong language—usually reserved for hurling an invective against an adversary with whom all hope of reasoned discourse has broken down. These words of Jesus as told by Luke sound even more dismissive. God utters the ultimate put-down, “You fool, this very night you will be asked for your soul! Then who is going to possess all the things you have kept for yourself?”

We know the anxiety that produces competitiveness between brothers and inner turmoil with ourselves. We protest we only want enough, but no one knows how much is enough. We’re anxious that we do not have enough in us to do what is ours to do. But our anxiety cannot add one whit (18 inches) to one’s life, one more step to life’s walk. Anxious grasping is the pursuit of those who live in darkness not knowing that God is aware of their needs. Birds and flowers can be our models for depending on God. Seek the kingdom in firm belief that it is God’s desire to give it to you.

May we challenge those voices which haunt our existence that we do not have enough and are not enough for the challenges before us…rich in things and so pitifully poor toward God.

This story in Like offers a healthy inventory for assessing our own readiness to be “rich toward God.”

I experienced this desired quality in my nephew, Jay Rudd, a remarkably gifted soul who lived with Down Syndrome. He was highly defined. Easy to relate to. He knew clearly what he most wanted to do. I credit my sister, Kay Ann, who strengthened his latitude and longitude to pursue his wishes on the ski slopes of Utah or on the sideline as a trainer for the University of Utah football team, or on horseback on the beaches of Vanuatu, a group of islands in the South Pacific.

Jay was accomplished, persistent, and charming. Only a few weeks before he died Jay made this painting. I was captivated by it the moment I saw it. Sitting in his family’s living room, I immediately sent a message to a group of my peers in ministry. I was curious. What had influenced him?

Immediately, I received these reactions: This is the tau cross. The last consonant in the Greek alphabet. The image most often used to illustrate the text as “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” The cross of poverty. The cross of St. Francis. Jay’s cross!

One friend said, “Look at Jay’s signature written in the same form. He embraced the cross. He lived the cruciform life. Look at the large Y. It is as if he is saying, “Yes to life!”

I borrow Jay’s painting and his life as my case in point for a life “rich toward God.” A life well-lived that strives for excellence.

The keys for excellence in ministry are rich toward God.

  1.  A flourishing Christian way of life – We are not ministers first and Christians second. Excellence is grounded in this way of life. Not a pastor or a church first and Christian second. As Baptists we claim that every member is a minister. Every member a minister of peace, hope, and joy, a minister of music, youth, and children, organ, nursery, and fellowship, and mission, outreach, and faithfulness. Royal Lane is only as strong as your ministry. Take care, Be on the guard against all kinds of greed or stinginess! Verse 13. Say yes to your calling because God calls us all. May you as ministers be willing and able to be rich toward God. 
  1. Collegial – A common element I hear repeatedly is that ministers feel a growing sense of isolation. Thus, a heightened sense of competitiveness emerges. Ministers get lonely. But so do churches, especially when they begin to think they are in it alone. I am grateful for the Charles Foster Johnson and Rick Carpenter for preaching while we were on vacation. Both affirmed you for being a valued community of worship and witness known for your compassion and courage. Know and be known. You are not alone. God’s work in the world is always about building community. I cannot conceive of doing ministry alone. Nor should Royal Lane. Nurture relationships with partner churches across this country and around the world. Keep a chair at the table for Elijah! Invite others and make room for them. 
  1. Embodied or incarnational – “The physical presence of others is a source of joy.” (Bonhoeffer). It’s visible, human, flesh and bone. We have somehow disembodied ministry – ministers only “seem” human. “Humanness deserves to live in well-being” – the well-being of your minister is crucial to the well-being of your community. Ministers are a renewable resource not an expendable commodity – not throw-away. “I’m so tired of trying to keep my customers satisfied. Deputy sheriff said to be Tell me what you come for, boy. You better get your bags and flee. You’re in trouble boy, and you’re headed in for more!” Pastors and people are subject not objects. I am grateful to Lana Bolhouse who came over to sit by me in a tense meeting. She said, “Pastor, you’re turning red. It might be good for you to take a walk outside and get some fresh air.” She let me be human. Be real with each other. Jesus refused to deny either brother a place in the discussion. Let grace be embodied. Express yourself. I ask for what you need. 
  1. A balance of agency and accountability – agency is the sense of control that you feel in your life, your capacity to influence your own thoughts and behavior. Your ability to handle a wide range of tasks and situations. We have the agency to live the Gospel. I was once asked by a strong-heading committee to print something I before it was fully baked. I was asked if I had indeed done what they had told me to do. I breathed deeply and said I had not. The Old Testament Professor barked out, “Well, who do you work for boy?” His question let me find my agency. “Thank you, professor for helping me find clarity. I may work with you, beside you, and serve you, but I am clear I don’t work for you.” He said, “Thank you. That is well put and helpful to our discussion.” Encourage your new pastor to find his or her strength, to know his or her power. The goal of agency is that both pastor and people share their power in becoming all that God has called you to be. 
  1. Properly resourced – Together, we resource our pursuit of excellence. We are rich in God. Resource comes from the word resurrection – Re-sourcing is returning to the source of power; unleashing the power of the resurrection in our lives! Excellence is based on a theology of abundance – not a theology of scarcity. You have tremendous resources between yourselves/ The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We do not have what we have for ourselves alone. We have what we have to make known God’s love.

 My friend, Kyle Matthews, calls excellence by this same name in his song, “Waking Up to the World!”

I’m waking up to the world around me
I’m coming out of the deepest sleep
And the more I’m aware
The more I’m surprised how much I care

 And the miracle of someone else
Is rousing me out of myself
Rousing me out of myself!’

The cruciform life is not about barns. It is busy for others. The church is most excellent when the Spirit of God is rousing us out of ourselves. Excellence in ministry is found in Christ, whose life embodies the love of God, the man who knew the miracle of someone else, who brought God and humankind together by giving himself for us all. (I Timthy 2: 5).