Casting a Wider Net

May 28, 2014

Ministry transitions are sometimes difficult to navigate. There is always the pesky need to “make a living” while following Jesus into the unknown. In the hour-long Q & A with almost 200 Ugandan pastors last August, one of the dominant themes was financial support for the pastors who desired to work in the ministry full-time. They were frustrated because the overwhelming demands of pastoral care and the need to work a job that would pay their living expenses clashed. The deep poverty of their parishioners—a pastoral care issue in its own right—meant that the community did not have the funds to support a full-time minister and cover a church budget. Mind you, their congregations’ expenses were minimal because they did not have a lot of assets to maintain; but still, their pastors needed to eat and provide for their own families. The advice to them was, “Get a job where you can find one, and work like your parishioners do to make a living. The ministry will by necessity flow around your labor.”

In this period of the church year, between Easter and Pentecost, I am pondering how Jesus’ eleven remaining disciples managed what appeared to be a major ministry transition. We have precious little biblical data about the activities of the disciples after their world turned upside down on Good Friday and then Easter. Matthew mentions only that the disciples followed Jesus’ post-resurrection instruction to meet him at “the mountain” in Galilee, where they saw him, worshipped him, and received the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). Mark, in an epilogue the earliest manuscripts do not include, focuses on the “lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe” the testimony of those who had seen the resurrected Christ (Mark 16:9-14). So clearly, there were some disciples who were sitting on their duffs or otherwise occupied, paralyzed in the face of the gospel’s implications. Luke records more close encounters with the disciples, including the two on their walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and the Eleven, assembled in Jerusalem, with whom Jesus ate (24:36-43).

It is John who gives us a tantalizing clue as to the ongoing activity of his followers: Jesus appears to the gathered disciples locked behind closed doors (John 20:19-23), then to Thomas the Twin who missed that appearance and doubted that the Lord was risen (20:24-29). “Afterward,” that is, some time later but within the 40-day period between his resurrection and ascension, Jesus appeared again to his disciples who were fishing in the Sea of Galilee. It might have been a foray out on the lake for old time’s sake, or it might have been a routine income-producing necessity. In either case, the night of trolling was futile; they caught nothing. Early the next morning, Jesus in his new post-resurrection body, called out to them from the shore and told them to try casting their nets on the other side of the boat. When they did so, the nets filled beyond capacity and they couldn’t even haul the catch in. At this point, they recognized Jesus and swam the hundred yards to shore for a joyful reunion (21:1-14).

Following a freshly cooked breakfast on the beach, Jesus took Peter aside to ask, “Do you love me?” When Peter answered (three times), “Yes,” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” and began to tell him what was to come (21:15-19). Peter went on to lead the new Jesus-following movement, along with James and John, with Jerusalem (not Galilee) as their base of operations. We hear nothing more about the other eight disciples (except for the Pentecost event in Luke 2). What is the possibility that among the original eleven, the only “full-time Christian workers” were Peter, James, and John, and the other eight (plus Matthias, who was elected to replace Judas) were self-supporting laymen who lived out their faith and the Great Commission in the marketplace? [More on that topic in a later post.]

I ask the question because one of the ministry transitions I am seeing more of these days is the move from full-time pastoring to some other line of work. In the PC(USA) tribe, there are more trained and ordained “teaching elders” (i.e. ministers) than there are positions as church pastors. I am among those who, sometime between 2006 and 2011, abandoned what was a futile search for a full-time pastorate and found other things to do in the Lord’s name. This included teaching for Fuller Seminary, a wonderful well of challenge that has since dried up.

It seems as though the Lord, through these circumstances, has suggested casting my nets on the other side of the boat. I have a deep assurance that fruitful ministry will be found in another kind of “fishing.” Hence my reassignment to the ministry of writing while maintaining ties in a local congregation where I (will, as of June 1) have part-time pastoral responsibilities.

The missional good news in all of this is that Jesus’ followers are dispersing into the world. They carry with them the gospel of hope and salvation and plant seeds through their teaching-by-example. Yes, they must “make a living” somehow, and I will be the first to say that finding that occupation can be frustrating and diverting. But if we receive the challenge as a reassignment from the Lord, there is great potential for filling the nets! So my prayer for you, even as it continues for myself, is that we find great joy in serving Christ through our work, whatever that turns out to be. I pray that we would be fruitful witnesses of the resurrection as we live in its power, and that we would be surprised and humbled by the power of God at work within and through us.

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2 Responses to “Casting a Wider Net”

  1. Dennis Evans Says:

    Will you say more about what you see as the changing form of the church and ifs ministry and mission in communities that want a pastor but struggle with the demands of meeting a salary, plus the maintenance of facilities and programs? What will be the role or shape of church membership or church commitment in a world where pastors will mostly be tent-makers?

    • revmary Says:

      Hey Dennis, a great question and I don’t know the answer to it! I’ve gained some perspective watching things happen in Kenya and Uganda, but even THEY think they’ve arrived as a church when they have a building and a staff, etc. etc. I think the missional movement, as “introduced” by Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (ed. Guder) gives a good starting point, but again, it is from the standpoint of an established congregation sending out a subset into the world to set down new roots (akin to “The Celtic Way of Evangelism” [Hunter]). I think the SHAPE of church membership will be smaller, and tent making will require MORE pastors of SMALLER “congregations” and that house churches will see a resurgence. Facilities, while especially helpful in wild & crazy climates, are not required everywhere; and programs (structured and staffed) are overrated as a success marker (a lesson from Willow Creek). The theological reclamation is in the area of discipleship and equipping, along the lines of Reformation’s “priesthood of all believers.” I am a Presbyterian serving a Lutheran congregation at the moment, and there is such irony in that Lutherans are much more pastor-centric than those who have a Reformed organization (ordained offices, parity between clergy and non-clergy). Somehow, through intentional community and spiritual growth, we must become a people who are willing and able to share the responsibilities for all aspects of ministry, inward and outward.

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