Mistaking means for ends

goalMany of you reading this are involved in some form of ministry. You do what you do because you believe in it, and you may even have some sense of having received that ministry as a calling from God. You rejoice when the ministry succeeds and people are helped.

Rightly so.

But certain subtle shifts in perspective can creep in with success. At first, you saw the ministry as a means to an end, as a way to achieve God’s purposes.

And then, somewhere along the way, a more institutional mindset took over. The ministry had proven its value; it could be taken for granted that it was a legitimate means to a valuable end. The question became less and less “Is this a good thing?” or “Should we keep doing this?” and more “How do we keep it going?” Perceptions of personal power and significance began to attach themselves to the success of the ministry; it became possible to be leery of rivals.

Maintaining the ministry, in other words, or one’s position in it, became an end in itself.

I don’t mean this in an absolute way. As ministries grow, institutional questions will necessarily assert themselves. Whom do we hire? What roles and responsibilities will they have? How much can we pay them? How do we pay the rent and keep the lights on? Is it time to expand? And hey…whose turn was it to make the coffee this morning?

Such questions can’t be ignored. Indeed, it would be morally irresponsible to do so, especially to the extent that the ministry relies upon charitable giving. But do we then stop questioning why we bother to do any of this in the first place?

To me, this is what makes John the Baptist’s parting words in the Fourth Gospel (see the previous post) so poignant. His disciples weren’t ready for him to “decrease”; they were still caught up in the numbers game and were jealous of Jesus’ rise in prominence.

Jealous? Of the Messiah? John would have none of it. He knew what he had been called to do, and he had done it. He was filled with joy to have had the privilege of being on the Messiah’s team, and if it was time for him to retire from the game, so be it. No resentment, no regrets.

I’m no stranger to the numbers game. Neither is anyone who must undergo the periodic evaluation of their work, whether in ministry or otherwise. But we don’t have to let the game cause us to lose sight of the goal, or of the proper relationship between means and ends.

Yes, there are things we must do if our ministries are to survive the pressures of the day. But maintaining our ministries is never an end in itself. Nor is clinging to the institutional influence to which we are accustomed. Either our ministries exist to glorify God and further his purposes, or they cease to be ministries. Either our calling is to intentionally and conscientiously serve God or we will find ourselves serving…ourselves.

And when the time comes for us to humbly decrease as John did, may we do so with the same sense of joy and gratitude.