Ministry often seems like a very placid vocation. We engage with congregants as they heal from their surgeries. We attend birthday parties and anniversary celebrations, officiate weddings, and baptize babies and adults. Even the tedious paperwork, the sermon preparation, and the thousand hours of meetings are calm ways for us to serve God and neighbor.
Occasionally, we will stumble upon experiences which are more sinister and threatening: the times our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves feel like they are in danger. These are moments when we feel our most vulnerable and questioning the calls we have accepted.
Recently, we’ve seen how fellow clergy in Charleston, South Carolina have been gunned down within their sanctuary during a standard Bible study. Only days after this horrendous crime, news stories report black churches being torched and 20 women clergy in the African Methodist Episcopal congregations receiving letters threatening their lives and the well-being of their families.
I’ll be honest – if I was them, I’d be running far away from my church, changing my name, and hiding under my bed. I suppose I’m much like Peter on the day of the crucifixion – ready to cling on to the known of this life rather than stand in the openness of peril that can come with being a pastor.
Through these recent accounts rooted in racism and sexism, we are reminded once again that ministry is not safe.
I don’t necessarily know how we forget this reality. Jesus himself found that doing justice and showing kindness led him to capital punishment. Most of his closest followers during the first century CE met the end of their life while practicing extravagant love and grace.
In the 1940’s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood against the powers of the Nazi regime. Instead of staying in the safety of the United States, he returned to be in solidarity with those persecuted in Europe. Due to the controversial nature of his messages, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned in 1943 and executed in 1945.
Threats against the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. were nothing new during his mid-twentieth century ministry. Yet even in the face of danger, abiding in the shadow-filled valleys, sitting in jail cells, walking in marches, Dr. King never was intimidated to cease his work. His life was cut short at the age of 39 by a sniper in Memphis.
As Jesus said in Matthew 10 “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” I believe that those who place themselves, their reputations, and their well-beings at risk experience the presence of God in deeper ways than most of us ever will.
If we keep ourselves in the safest places in ministry and church life, we will never grow as clergy. If we decide to preach on safe subjects week after week, never take part in rallies, or never speak in public or write opinions for newspaper columns, we will never understand the ministry of Christ.
At no point of our ministry are we completely free from hazards, even if we hide under beds, change our names, and move to other cities. We can only stay safe for so long. Not only is ministry unsafe physically, but our hearts and souls are in harm’s way as we place our most vulnerable selves on the line. We love extravagantly, and when our parishioner walks away from the church, we blame ourselves. When someone walks out of a sermon we’ve preached on a difficult subject, we question following the call of God. We wonder what we could have done differently if a congregant commits suicide or a crime. When we open our hearts fully to ministry, we will undoubtedly be hurt time and again when our loved congregants die and we no longer see their bright faces Sunday after Sunday. We will lose a piece of our lives every time our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls are threatened, but then we will gain something greater in return. Maybe we will see a glimpse of God’s presence as fear dissipates around us.
As Pastor Mary Rhodes, one of the women receiving a threatening letter said “Nothing is going to stop me from doing what God has called me to do.” With faith and determination, these pastors continue in the valleys of the shadows of death knowing that God has prepared a table in the presence of their enemies.
Knowing that we can gain a new sense of Christ, ministry, and love, what could we do differently today to risk a part of ourselves for our ministry? What can we do to stand firmly in faith even in the face of threats? And in what ways can we support our siblings in ministry as they abide in the great shadows of threats?