A dramatic story—perhaps an urban legend—about John Wimber, one of the founders of the Vineyard Movement, relates to something that happened following his conversion to Christianity around 1963. It is said that he began attending a church nearby. After several weeks he confronted an usher following a worship service and asked, “When do we do the stuff?”
“The stuff? What do you mean the stuff?” inquired the usher. Agitated John replied, “The stuff Jesus did. Heal the sick, Restore sight to the blind. Raise the dead. Feed thousands.”
“Oh,” said the usher, “we don’t do that stuff. We believe in it, but we don’t do it anymore.” Grabbing the usher by the lapels of his coat Wimber said angrily, “You don’t understand. I gave up sex and drugs for this. I’m going to do the stuff?”
Doing the Stuff Rather Than Just Knowing the Stuff
Wimber’s ministry life that followed was one of experiencing the stuff rather than just knowing about the stuff. Doing rather than knowing is one of the classic dichotomies for Christian ministers. The debate about theological education versus ministry preparation is often one on rather it is important to know the stuff, or to do and lead others to do the stuff. Of course the answer is and/both, but that does not stop the debate, the actions, and the consequences.
This doing and knowing dichotomy has come up again; fueled by the article in The Atlantic magazine entitled Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy. This was followed by an article in The Christian Century by Carol Howard Merritt with the title, Pastors in Poverty.
Both of these articles—although pointing out a real challenge—are exercises in missing the point of Christian ministry service. The Atlantic article does describe more the plight of one minister and suggests the pattern is widespread. Merritt’s column seeks to suggest some solutions which focus on an entitlement mindset for clergy and a connectional denominational polity.
My desire is to reframe the dialogue around the ultimate goal of doing the stuff rather than just knowing the stuff. I would like to offer several strategic insights from my perspective.
My First Thoughts
First, just because a person is called into Christian ministry, engages in formal theological education, and is ordained does not mean they are entitled to a full-time salary and benefits position in a local congregation, missionary or missional role, or some other church-related role. This entitlement mentality must morph into an entrepreneurial mentality focused on doing the stuff.
Second, distinct advantages exist for a bi-vocational or tent-making role for many people in Christian ministry. This is particularly true if their tent-making role brings them into regular dialogue with persons who are preChristians, unchurched, underchurched, dechurched, and other expressions of spiritual seekers. Christian ministers too often become isolated in an overly churched culture. With what they know about the stuff they need to intentionally place themselves in roles where they can naturally do the stuff.
Third, too many people think primarily about Christian ministry roles in existing congregations. In spite of a resurgence of the starting of new congregations, in too many denominational tribes and theological education affinity groups church planting is a not a valued form of ministry except when done in faraway places. What better opportunity can there be to create a movement of doing the stuff than by launching a new missional community that may become a congregation.
Fourth, there are some changing economic realities in first world cultures like North America that have altered the possibility that a person can serve in a full-time Christian ministry role in a local congregation. One is that clergy have experienced an upward socioeconomic mobility that has increased their basic salary and benefit requirements. Coupled with this is that the cost of comprehensive life and welfare benefits to clergy households has gone up exponentially while church income is flat or only incrementally growing.
Add into this that the financial wish lists of North American households have grown to where the percentage of income they share through their local congregation is decreasing. It now probably takes a congregation with an average weekly worship attendance of 125 to 135 to support a full-time pastor. Since at least 60 percent of all congregations are smaller than this, if means the finances are not there. By the way, this has great implications for a necessary increase in bi-vocational pastors, fields of churches, and other models of doing the stuff.
Fifth, and not the focus of this post but something that must be added, too many economic models of formal ministry preparation are broken and clergy are asked to shoulder the economic debt of the broken system rather than being freed to do the stuff. Theological education needs a major reconceptualization. Just sayin’.
I urge all in Christian ministry to go forth and do the stuff.