Friday, March 22, 2013

The Cost of Ministry

I  gave this talk yesterday at St. Paul's University to about 160 students and colleagues during our 'Discernment Day', a day given over for our department of theology students to examine their call to ministry.

Not so long ago I read this article, 'Jets for Jesus' by Sunday Oguntola in the December web edition of Christianity Today:

Gulfstream G650

Allegations of extravagant living among Nigeria’s Pentecostal preachers have deepened following the gift of a private jet to the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria.  The multi-million dollar jet – a 10 seater with a range of 3,900 nautical miles – was presented to Ayo Oritsejafor by members of his congregation, Word of Life Bible Church in the oil-rich Delta state city of Warri.  The gift celebrated the pastor’s birthday and his 40th anniversary in ministry.
Oritsejafor, who also serves as president of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, joins a growing list of preachers with private jets in the West African nation, which is Africa’s largest oil producer.
Gulfstream G650

David Oyedepo, the founder of Living Faith Ministries (popularly known as Winners’ Chapel) in Lagos, Nigeria’s major port and most populous city, owns three Gulfstreams (plus a Learjet) worth almost US $100 million.  By contrast, Oritsejafor’s Bombardier Challenger jet is worth less than US $5 million.  Enoch Adeboye, general overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, also owns a private jet.  So does the flamboyant founder of Christ Embassy Church, Chris Oyakhilome. 

Apart from preachers, only top business tycoons and a few governors and politiciaqns own private jets in a nation where more than 70% live on less than US $1 per day…. [Moreover] most Christians in [Nigeria] remain poor, fueling anger that pastors have been feeding fat on their parishioners. 
Gideon Para-Mallam, regional secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, said such preachers are setting bad examples.  ‘This represents another minus to Christianity in a country riddled with much corruption,’ he said.  ‘We are simply displaying the rottenness of what has become of Nigeria.  It is so sad.’… 
But Oritsejafor defends the gift, maintaining that has private jet is a necessity and not a luxury.  ‘Sometimes my schedule is so complicated,’ he said at a press conference.  ‘Now I can move.  I can even go and come back home.  It is a bit more convenient for me, and I suspect that this is one of the reason a lot of these other preachers have planes.’ 

Oritsejafor has his defenders.  To Wale Oke, national vice president of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, a jet is just a tool for faster evangelization.  ‘How can an Ayo Orisejafor, who has to minister around the globe, pastor a very large congregation in Warri and attend to critical national matters in Abuja if he has to keep waiting at the airports, in a system where nothing is predictable?’  he asked.  He maintained Pentecostal preachers will buy more jets to cope with expanding ministries.  ‘They ain’t seen anything yet!  More of us will yet buy and maintain our jets because, by the mercy of God, we have been given the wisdom to do so.’
Learjet 85

A call to follow Christ, a call to serve Christ, is a call to suffer.  It’s a call to die.  There are many, not just in Nigeria but in my country and even here in Kenya who will say that Christ calls us to success, that Christ calls us into blessing, that Christ calls us to prosperity and abundant life, and that means enjoying all the riches and privileges and status and power that the world around us dreams about.  These people are lying.

This is what Jesus really says:  ‘If anyone wants to come after me, let him/let her deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever would save their life will lose it, but whoever loses his or her life for my sake and the gospel will save it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?  Or what will they give in return for their life.’ (Matthew 16:24-26)

Gulfstream G650 interior

It would seem that you and I have a choice to make today.  We can continue to believe these so-called ‘successful’ pastors, we can continue to believe what the world around us is telling us that our ministries are supposed to be about success, about more and more numbers, more and more influence, more and more prominence, higher and higher positions, more and more titles, or we can choose to follow Jesus.  The way of the world is upward mobility.  The way of a lot of people in the church is upward mobility.  Success!  Prosperity!  Blessing here and now!  You may indeed find these things at the top.  But you’ll look in vain to find Jesus there on the top of the mountain, on the top rung of the ladder.  He simply is not up.  He’s down.  The way of Jesus is what Henri Nouwen calls downward mobility. When Jesus calls you and me to follow him, which way are you going?  Are you going up?  Or are you going down?

We love titles, don’t we?  But since my first time in Kenya more than 33 years ago, I’ve witnessed a kind of ‘title inflation’ that makes my head spin.  Back in 1980 when I was living with a pastor in the rural areas, there were ‘pastors’ and there were ‘reverends.’  My friend was a ‘pastor’ and he was serving 5 different congregations.  When I came back a few years later, my friend had become a ‘reverend’.  By the end of the 1980s, I noticed that it was no longer enough to be just a ‘pastor’ or even just a ‘reverend’.  More and more men were appointing themselves ‘bishop’.  Soon there were lots of bishops here in Nairobi, and even more bishops out in the rural areas.  There were even some who claimed to be archbishops.  Then, evidently there were too many bishops, because the next trend was to become an apostle.  Apostles are evidently special, and the great selling point is that an apostle trumps a bishop on the authority scale.  It hardly matters that I’ve never heard anyone give a cogent explanation of what an apostle actually is.  More recently, some leaders have turned to the title of prophet.  Then there are the compound titles that I have started seeing on church signs, usually accompanied by a picture of the exalted leader and his wife, and underneath is Apostle Bishop so and so, or Prophet and Apostle so and so.  Most recently at a church near where I live, the very large sign by the road was a celebration of the ministry of the bishop apostle prophet so and so.  The next week I went by the sign had changed.  Instead of letting us know that a bishop apostle prophet so and so was in residence, the new sign said that the bishop apostle prophet DR so and so was around to bless people and collect their offerings.

Not surprisingly, Jesus has a different perspective. ‘These people tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.  They do all their deeds to be seen by others…  and they love to have the place of honor at banquets (and harambees) and the best seats in the synagogues [and up on politicians platforms], and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi [or bishop, or apostle or prophet or daktari].  But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.  And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.  The greatest among you will be your slave.  And all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Matthew 23:4-12)

I think the biggest cost of the ministry is letting go of the world’s way of doing things, of the world’s way of seeing things, of the world’s way of understanding things.  The church today is the opposite of holy.  We are both in the world, and we are completely of it. Look at the way we do things.  Look at how we treat people.  Jesus says that you will know the tree by its fruit.  If the church is filled with worldly people motivated by worldly goals and producing worldly fruit, then what we have is not something that Jesus is going to recognize as his.  We have a saying in my country:  If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck.

Or to put it another way, we have lost the capacity to exercise discernment.  And as a result, we have adopted uncritically the thinking of the world around us and applied it to our churches and our understanding of Christian ministry.  The best example I can think of is that of ‘leadership’.  Please understand that I’m not trying to attack or condemn anybody by what I’m about to say.  Instead I want to provoke an honest discussion.

So allow me a few thoughts on Church ‘leadership’ as we find it in the New Testament.  First we must understand that ‘leadership’ is not a New Testament word; it’s a modern word.  Leadership implies authority, initiative, direction, management and control.  In many ways, leadership is a power word, and assumes a perspective on the world around us and takes on a certain posture and demands a certain course of action.  Leadership is a man’s word and its context describes a man’s context.  Today churches of all kinds have seminars on ‘leadership’. We give our shepherds three easy steps on being a more effective leader.  So many of our churches are so large that we need our ‘leaders’ to become more effective managers.  All of this is intended to enable our churches to function as effective institutions.  But none of this is found in our New Testament.  In fact, the emphasis throughout, indeed the direct teaching of Jesus himself and the apostles takes us in the exact opposite direction.

Jesus’ followers were to be different, known for putting the needs of others before their own, known for being like slaves in their readiness to do whatever for whoever was needy, known for being like Jesus himself.  ‘If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.’ (John 13:14-15)  In this Jesus leads by example.  He takes on the posture of a slave, and for those homes too humble for a slave, the posture of a woman.

Immediately after Jesus offers the disciples the bread of his body and the cup of his blood, a quarrel breaks out as to which one of them should be the one in charge over the rest of them.  ‘Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.  But you are not to be like that.  Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.  For who is greater, the one is at the table or the one who serves?  Is it not the one who is at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.’ (Luke 22:25-27)  This is only one of several passages that I could point to where the disciples import their cultural understanding of leadership into what Jesus is calling them to do and be, only to have Jesus present them with an alternative vision of what it means to be his people that is so radical and unexpected that his disciples simply cannot fathom it.

I suggest that it isn’t just the disciples who had trouble fathoming Jesus’ vision for discipleship and for the community of disciples that would be known by his name.  Every generation of Christian church has struggled with the profound temptation to import the surrounding culture’s understanding of leadership and authority into the church.  When one looks at the historical record, one finds that the Church has repeatedly taken the easier road and abandoned Jesus’ blueprint in favor of the way it’s always been done.  The evidence for this can be seen everywhere throughout the history of the Church to the present day.  At almost every point, the church and her ministers look nothing like what Jesus was talking about and calling his followers to be and do.  And it’s not just Nigerian pastors with jets that come out looking not so good in light of Jesus’ example.  The discrepancy is simply shocking.

Paul’s vision for the Church is no less shocking and just as ignored.  Paul envisions a community where there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no slave or free person. (Galatians 3:28).  And in the Church, everybody is gifted by the Holy Spirit for ministry.  The emphasis is on the Holy Spirit empowering each member of the Church to love the other.  And together the local church, as it loves one another, becomes the ‘body of Christ’, the presence of Jesus to the members and the surrounding community.  The only hierarchy Paul knows is measured by how many people one loves or ‘edifies’.

The reason we find this shocking and difficult and even impossible today is because if we were to behave this way as ministers and as churches, it would involve suffering, it would involve giving up positions and power and perks, and it would involve getting involved in the lives of people, and this is always messy, this is always difficult, this always involves suffering.  The first Christians understood this.  They willingly gave up from their own possessions enough so that it was said there was not a person in need in their midst.  I’m not necessarily advocating communism.  But generosity that doesn’t cost me anything is not generosity.  And love that doesn’t cost me anything is not love.  I don’t think the Lord is very much impressed by the number of Mercedes Benzes in our parking lots, and the big men who dole out lots of money to the applause of everybody at harambees.  I think he still prefers the widow who by putting in two shillings put in everything she had.

I’m meant to be talking of the cost of ministry.  And I’ve spent most all my time talking about what I take to be the hardest thing about genuine ministry, and that is seeing ourselves and our work and the world around us from Christ’s perspective.  His perspective changes everything and it makes it possible for us to let go of our worldly ways and perspectives and to trust him instead and to start doing the things he is calling us to do.  This is the Lord’s way.  But I will not pretend that it is the easy way.  The way of the world, the way of the Nigerian pastors and their jets, the way of becoming a somebody, this is a much easier way by far.  Jesus says, ‘Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who walk in it.  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’ (Matthew 7:13-14)

It is a hard way, and more than once I’ve been pushed down, and I didn’t think I could go on.  I’ve been a university campus minister with InterVarsity Christian fellowship; I was a Presbyterian pastor for twenty two years.  My smallest congregation was 42 souls, my largest 1600.  I’ve been a missionary and a theological educator.  And right now I’m just a church member.  And I help out around here.  But Jesus didn’t call me to a career; ministry is not a profession.  Instead Jesus called me to follow him.  And he doesn’t promise a nice salary package, or a nice car, or school fees for my kids, or a beautiful house.  Because when Jesus calls, it’s a call to die.  I’ve lived long enough to know this by experience.  By following Jesus I turned my back on a nice ladder-climbing career in the Presbyterian Church, by following Jesus I had to leave behind home and family and everything that was familiar and comfortable. Choosing to follow Jesus meant I had to give up any hope of an academic career.  Choosing to follow Jesus meant I buried myself and my family in Ethiopia for 8 difficult years.  And when choosing to follow Jesus meant that I chose to be vulnerable with my board of elders about my struggle with depression, I spent the next two years fending off their attempts to throw me off the ship. And they finally succeeded.  And it hurt terribly.  When I chose to follow Jesus into the Orthodox Church after fourteen years of wrestling with the consequences, I lost my job and I lost my mission and I nearly lost everything.  Following Jesus has been very costly.  And I will not make up some happy ending that in my experience does not yet exist.  It has been really hard, and has only become more so the older I get.  But I keep going because Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ And Jesus I have always found to be faithful.  

I will not mislead you and say that it has been worth it.  It has been hard, there has been pain, there has been suffering, and there has been grief.  But we do not live by sight, do we?  We are called to live by faith.  I have not yet received what I am hoping for – the wholeness, the healing, the reconciliation, the restoration, the new life.  But these are all things that we are promised.  In the meantime, what Jesus calls us to do and to be is simply to be his love.  His love in our families, his love where live, his love in our church, his love where we work, his love right here and right now.  And this, brothers and sisters, is why ministry is so costly.  

Too often we are called to love into lives and circumstances where people have themselves not learned to love as Jesus does.  The church is meant to be the one place on the planet where we can experience the love of Jesus.  But it isn’t.   It is this love that leads to a cross.  It is this love that gives and gives and gives.  That tries to help, that tries to hold, that tries to go the extra mile, to give up the extra coat, that forgives when offended and sinned against, that’s quick to ask forgiveness when I’m the one who has done wrong, is patient, is kind, is not envious or arrogant or rude, does not insist on its own way, not irritable or resentful, doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)  As we do these things, sometimes we are ignored.  Sometimes we are wounded.  Sometimes we are crucified.  And too often these things happen to us at the hands of our fellow believers in Christ.  Our suffering comes at the hands of those who should know better.  Just as the suffering of others too often comes at our own hands.

So we come back to where we started.  We have a choice.  We can live lives that are all about ourselves and our success and our name and reputation and our ministry.  Or we can follow Jesus, and let go of the world’s way of seeing things and doing things and take on Jesus’ yoke of love instead.  The way of the world, or the way of the cross.  It’s that simple.  I leave you with Jesus’ own call.

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11: 28-30)


  1. Thank you. May you know more of God's blessing (and I mean His kind, not the "upwardly mobile" kind), even here, while we wait and hope, and seek to receive and give love.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Onesimus/Bill; this is so uplifting AND challenging in the Jesus sort of way. Thank you for sharing about your depression too.
    I wrote a book about my journey with depression, anti-depressants, and the questions & fallout they raise. It's called "Thank God for antidepressants!", under my maiden name, Jane Newman, & available on Amazon, kindle or paperback. Just in case you might be interested.