I need a better way to speak of “work as ministry”

A week ago I attended a conference for ministry-minded folks with a desire for reaching college students. At one point I found myself sitting next to a young man of African American ancestry, who was obviously very intelligent, in his last year of school, and was considering joining staff with the collegiate ministry he was a part of. Because of this possibility, he had been allowed to tag along — getting a glimpse of what he might sign up for, I guess.

As we spoke, it became clear that he was actually quite torn on the possibility and wasn’t sure he really wanted to join a collegiate ministry staff or any ministry staff for that matter. He admitted honestly that he actually rather liked the idea of working in his career field.

I was intrigued. After a few questions and comments from both of us, seeking to be both encouraging and suggestive, I said something to the effect of, “Well, you know it’s just as righteous and good to go into the marketplace and you can view that work as ministry, right?”

He quickly, before I could even finish the sentence, as if he had heard it before and wanted to assure me he totally understood the idea, began to say, “Oh! Yea; yea; I know! Sure!” and happily reassured me that he knew he could definitely share the gospel with the people in his workplace and career field and that it was ministry as well.

Funny thing though was that as he said this supposed reality that he was trying to convey he grasped, both his face and his voice became very distant and dry. It was like as if his inner dialogue was thinking, if even only subconsciously, “Yea, I have no idea what that means or what that looks like.” Perhaps even, “That actually sounds horrible. But, I know I’m supposed to say this with enthusiasm.”

He even looked into the distance. It was obvious his mind struggled with the idea at least a bit. I felt sorry for him. I knew the confusion and discouragement of this wrestle.

I immediately realized that I had done a really poor job of saying what I meant, but I sat there looking at him, thinking to myself, “No, that’s not what I mean, yet, I don’t know how to say what I mean.”

I had never felt so clearly the confusion on, and inability to articulate, the idea of “work as ministry”.

Even now, the phrase, “work as ministry” doesn’t seem sufficient, clear, compelling, or encompassing of what I was suggesting and trying to think through with this young man. Even “work for ministry” doens’t seem to do it justice.

This concept is precisely what I’ve found myself contemplating now for three years. And, while I feel I can mentally grasp it, I realized in this moment that I can not yet articulate as well as I feel I understand it in my mind — especially to someone who has heard the trite, “share the gospel at work and be a minister” ideology.

Within seconds of this moment, the session we were waiting on began, and I never spoke to this young man again. Still, I sat there for a good five or ten minutes, missing what was going on in the room while I contemplated to myself what it was I was truly wanting to communicate on the matter and how I could better state it so as to not be confused with the preconceived notion of what it means to do work as ministry.

I resolved to myself right then that I would come up with a distinguishable, simple, compelling way to talk about going into career marketplace work and doing it as ministry.

I’m still contemplating this a week and a half later.

It’s equally both humorous and sad to me that this is so difficult.

Why have we created such a divide between those who do “vocational ministry” and those who do “career work” (to fund those in ministry)? Why have we devolved career work into nothing more than a necessary obligation to fund those in full-time ministry and, while you’re at it, a place to practice annoying people until they “repent and believe” so that you’ll stop pestering them long enough to do their work and not get fired.

When we look back at history, we see many “vocational ministers” — as we’d call them today — with skills to pay the bills besides their speaking and teaching abilities. We also see many skilled laborers, farmers, and businessmen serving their communities, providing jobs and pay, and becoming trusted and respected leaders, influencers, and witnesses of Christ because of it.

I believe people have a hard time imagining how they could “share the gospel at work” because, in reality, we have a really hard time doing it. I am not hired to chat about the gospel. I am hired to do good, hard work that gets the necessary tasks done. Plain and simple.

I’m not saying a person should not or will not have times where he or she can speak to people in a manner that bears witness to the gospel or perhaps even evangelizes them. Realistically, we will have those moments and we should be ready for maximizing them. I’m simply saying that I don’t think it’s helpful to communicate the ideology that this is why we should become an employee. It’s not. If we think so, we’ll not only be extremely annoying and frustrating to our fellow workers and employer, but we’ll also face a great deal of frustration and discouragement ourselves most likely.

So, this is only a taste of my thinking. The written realization that I need to formulate and articulate this concept more fully and clearly. I need to be able to communicate it in a clear and compelling manner that’s recognizably different from what I don’t mean by it — an “elevator pitch” of sorts. It is not within the scope of this post to form the elevator pitch though. So, I will work on this.

I resolve to do this.

Any help and thoughts would be appreciated. In the meantime, I’m going to go read this again and again.

Leave a thought?