My SHAPE: E—Experience in Ministry

May 19, 2014

It’s an interesting thing about experience and ministry. Experience is not required to do something or to be someone useful to the Kingdom of God. There are many entry-level positions in God’s economy. But if one has had experience in ministry settings, one has some clues as to one’s gifts and calling. I remember my very first mission trip, a month-long excursion to Guatemala after its 1976 catastrophic earthquake. Based on that experience—riding a school bus from the Bay Area the entire length of Mexico into Guatemala, mixing cement and setting reinforced concrete brick, cleaning bathrooms, and speaking with the locals through an interpreter—I came to the conclusion that God was not calling me to be a foreign missionary! I had reason later in life to reevaluate that assessment, and I did participate in another mission endeavor (four months in Zimbabwe in 1994). Though that amazing venture went much better, I still believe that my primary mission field is here in 95% unchurched San Francisco Bay Area. But the experiences have been valuable for understanding myself and appreciating where I thrive.

I have been an ordained Presbyterian pastor since 1987, but for twelve years before that I was a lay specialist in music, small groups, and discipleship ministries at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (what we’d now call a mega-church). After my ordination, I served another large Presbyterian church in the East Bay, as Associate Pastor for Adult Ministries. During this time I honed God’s gifts of teaching, preaching, leadership, and administration. Also during this period, I got involved in Presbytery and was elected for the first time as a commissioner to General Assembly in 1992. Ever since then, I have been involved in organizing the work of more theologically conservative Presbyterians through national renewal organizations Presbyterians For Renewal and the Presbyterian Coalition. In 1997, I moved thirteen miles away to become the senior pastor of a medium-sized church in downtown Concord, California. Then preaching almost every week, teaching a regular Sunday school class, moderating Session, leading a staff through its various transitions, and helping people resolve conflicts, I developed another set of skills and gifts by necessity. When my time there was completed, I shifted course into academia, bearing down on full-time pursuit of a Doctor of Ministry degree, writing a dissertation, and teaching courses for Fuller’s regional campuses on “Teaching for Christian Formation,” “Teaching the Bible,” “The Missional Church and Its Leadership,” and “Preaching Practicum.” Finding another pastoral call has been an elusive goal, but since finishing my D.Min. in 2011 I have served part-time at a large Lutheran church (ELCA, with whom Presbyterians are in “full communion”) as a parish associate.

Those are the activities that appear on my resumé. Add the experiences of professional vocal performance (of the classical genre, primarily), musical theater, and record albums.

And then, there has been this six-month adventure slaying the Beast of lung cancer and the blogging that accompanied it.

I have had a lot of ministry experience, primarily working with adults. There aren’t too many ministry situations that would be out of my league at this point, but the question remains: which of these experiences might carry forward or suggest something new in the next season of my life? In God’s economy, nothing is wasted. The value of any particular involvement is assessed and used by the One who is orchestrating Kingdom work. On the other hand, God is also able to start a new thing in and through me, regardless of previous practice or lack thereof. We have plenty of biblical data points to support that assertion:

Abraham, called out of Ur “to a place I will show you,” to become “father of a great nation.” We know nothing of Abraham’s background or qualifications other than God’s sovereign choice (Genesis 12).

Judges like Deborah appear out of nowhere to answer God’s call to give leadership in Israel before the nation had a king (Judges 4-5).

Prophets about whom we know precious little are hustled out of obscurity to become prominent voices of godly reason. Hosea is assigned particularly hazardous duty (The Book of Hosea).

The lowly maiden Mary was chosen precisely because of her inexperience and her humble situation (Luke 1-2).

So, while ministry experience is helpful to observe how God uses a person, it is not necessary to prove one’s worth or abilities, if in fact God is calling a person to do a particular task. In my case, though I have had lots of ministry experience, what I really have gained in the last few decades is confidence that God can make me able for whatever is needed in a particular time or season. One can also come to the conclusion, like the Apostle Paul, that the achievements and certificates of accomplishment one might gather are worth nothing ultimately, but only that one knows and loves the Savior, Jesus Christ, and is available to do his bidding (Philippians 3:8). So that kind of leaves the door open to new things, doesn’t it?

In my next post, I will gather all the observations about my SHAPE and come to some conclusions about how I will serve the Lord in this new season.

One Response to “My SHAPE: E—Experience in Ministry”

  1. Lee Jensema Says:

    RevMary, perhaps your next ministry will be related to what u’re going thru right now – cancer treatments – which is enabling u to learn to encourage those going thru cancer treatments.

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