Ministry: Learning How Much We Don’t Know

By John Calvi

The most sure way to get yourself into trouble is to offer to be of help. It works most of the time. It’s the kind of trouble that teaches the essences of spiritual life and cannot be replaced by reading or prayer. And the more desire you have to serve, the bigger the trouble you can find yourself in. Hence, the more you can learn.

The person who finds the finite call to do just so much has snuck into the best place. That person can say, put out the folding chairs each week and be done with it. It’s exacting. And from this limited task, one can extend the occasional extra, such as the perfectly placed smile landing just at the right moment upon the despairing receiver. Now that’s a good work place to learn ministry from.

The person who feels called to change the world any time soon might just as well sign up for exhaustion and confusion right now, not to mention frustration and disappointment. Not that these aren’t good learning tools but it takes a while to see just which class one has signed up for. And in the meanwhile, bags have been packed and tickets bought, and intention made to go to a specific place at a certain time which may or may not be on the actual menu, the cosmic menu. This is the beginning of the confusion. The whole idea of thinking you know is really quite an overstatement.

Ministry, it seems to me, can be thought of as a series of hopes and visions that can shift as the light changes. And perhaps it’s best to keep learning how much we don’t know from the beginning.

I personally have been working up a list of all the things I don’t know regarding my ministry and ran out of paper years ago. I am almost comfortable with the thought that for each thing I learn at least two unanswerable questions occur. At my best, I can laugh at this and myself and enjoy the absurdity. Other times it all makes me cranky and rude. I am hoping to live a very long time so I can get around to laughing at all of these cranky parts of myself.

I think there are two essences to ministry in Quaker understanding. The first is the idea of a continual practice of setting yourself aside so you can offer a gift from the divine, that light from above. For me, this practice has taken years of doing to even begin to think I can do it often. And even now, nearly two decades of hard work later, I still find the occasion of what I had thought was grounded clarity was my own fumbling of limited vision or understanding. True reverence and surrender are tonal and muscular events that do not come easily or automatically no matter how mature the ministry. Just as every good cook must wash his or her hands upon entering the kitchen, so too must every minister surrender the assumption of knowing and ask for guidance for every beginning. Humility and nakedness are prerequisite professional obligations in ministry.

I think the second essence of ministry is the necessity of having a clear sense of one’s own goodness, to know that at the core of our being we are an aspect of the divine’s fingers and breath. This sense of goodness can give us the capacity to witness things that would otherwise overwhelm us. Such a gift is to be with untouchable pain, to witness so that the receiver is changed by knowing that another sees their condition without flinching. And it’s the capacity to know our own worst, have mercy for it, and help another to learn that mercy for their worst too. All this comes from a sense of our own goodness and can refocus our intention from doing our most toward doing our best. This switch can detour us from exhaustion and despair to pragmatic compassion.
The essence of our goodness is learned by the exchange of compassion as an ongoing experience in regular and extraordinary ways. It also comes from the learning of power to reveal how we increase or decrease hope and trust. Whenever we use our power to increase hope and trust, we witness the building of good village life and peace. Whenever hope and trust are thwarted in our use of power, we see the beginning of conflict and the basis for war.

Perhaps ministry is that rare, too rare, song that teaches the pain as it lifts us up toward knowing what is possible.

John Calvi is a Released Friend from Putney Meeting in Vermont helping people to heal from trauma.

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