Leaning into Tensions in Ministry

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by Christopher Easley

On an apple-picking trip one brisk October, I learned of the glories of the giant rubber band potato launcher. Not to be confused with its more ambitious cousin the potato cannon, the giant rubber band potato launcher is a satisfyingly analog ballistic endeavor. A small pouch forms the center intersection of four giant rubber bands, anchored at opposite points of a wooden bulwark. For five dollars, school children (and childlike adults) took their turn launching potatoes at a target thirty yards away. I may or may not have hit the bullseye.

The physical principles of the potato launcher are simple: vectors of tension, pulling in different directions, can align appropriately to produce one powerful forward motion toward a target. And what’s true of potato launchers is also true of ministry in the church. In any congregation or on any team, tensions arise from diverse personalities, gifts, and concerns. People tug the potato in different directions. But that’s not actually a problem. In fact, it’s built into God’s design for his people and their shared mission. We need the tensions of ministry in order to stay on target. Getting to know your own natural “direction,” and those of your teammates, will help you use the energy of those differences to ultimately pull together in the same direction, to the benefit of everyone you serve.

Given to the Church, for the World

In Ephesians 4, Paul writes of five kinds of leaders that Jesus has given to the church: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (4:11-12 ESV). Note that these leaders are given “to equip the saints,” that is, to serve everyone else in the church, everyday believers from all walks of life. And those everyday saints have their own “work of ministry” to do. Pastor and writer Skye Jethani points out that the “ministry” described here is not necessarily the ministry that happens at church. It’s the work of the people of God out and about in the world, wherever that work is, “in business, the trades, the arts, medicine, education, or elsewhere.” In other words, if you’re leading in church, you’re a rubber band. Your people are the potato. Your work exists to launch them out into the world, where they’re on mission, loving God and neighbor wherever they go.

That’s why getting the Ephesians 4 roles right matters. Not everyone will find themselves in one of these roles (most won’t), but everyone is built up for their own work in the world when these roles function as they are meant to. N.T. Wright calls the roles that Paul mentions “specialist ministries,” meeting the distinct needs of God’s people as they serve the world. And it’s because each person who serves in one of these capacities is a specialist, looking at a particular set of needs, that tensions so quickly arise. At the risk of oversimplification, I’ve sketched out a simple definition for each of these five ministries.

Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds, and Teachers

Apostles pioneer missional movements.

Evangelists call the lost to faith.

Prophets declare the truth that’s needed now to God’s people.

Shepherds work for the well-being and maturity of the flock.

Teachers make spiritual ideas clear for a faithful walk with God.

Because each of these ministries has a different focus, each also has a different set of strengths.

Primary Strengths

Apostles

  • The right foundation for ministry
  • Leaders and leadership

Prophets

  • The truth
  • What needs to change

Evangelists

  • The lost
  • “Who’s not here yet”

Shepherds

  • People and the care they need
  • “Who’s already here”

Teachers

  • People understanding how to live with God
  • Guarding against false teaching and poor theology

Similarly, each role is prone to its own weaknesses.

Primary Temptations (Weaknesses)

Apostles

  • Pushing people into burnout
  • Not realizing what new ministry “costs” in terms of building

Prophets

  • Black-and-white thinking when nuance is needed
  • Insensitivity

Evangelists

  • Neglecting depth of spiritual formation for Christians
  • Spiritual manipulation

Shepherds

  • Caring more about how people feel than what they need
  • Lack of boldness in inviting or challenging someone

Teachers

  • Retreating into theory when action is needed
  • Thinking that ideas are enough for spiritual change

When a team of people with multiple gifts works together, it’s easy for team members’ weaknesses to aggravate each other. What one person is most concerned about is just the area that someone else is prone to neglect. Emotions run high, and unhealthy conflict emerges. In our rubber band analogy, this is when the band snaps and hits you. I call these experiences “snap moments,” both because of the rubber band image and because they’re the moments when we snap at each other (or are tempted to). Snap moments are a domain where we can all afford greater self-awareness. To make things practical, I’ve sketched out common snaps for and from each ministry role. If you serve on a church or ministry leadership team, take time to consider where you fit. Do you identify more with one of the fivefold gifts? If so, how might your focus snap your teammates? Conversely, when you find yourself snapped by a teammate, consider how this might be connected to their ministry gift. 

Practice: Identify Your Snap Moments

Apostles get snapped by . . .

  • No concern for equipping the saints
  • Leaders or staff just doing the work themselves
  • No long-term vision

Apostles snap others with . . .

  • Indifference about individual people
  • Running over teammates

Prophets get snapped by . . .

  • Contentment with the status quo

Prophets snap others with . . .

  • Truth without grace

Evangelists get snapped by . . .

  • No concern for reaching the lost
  • Time given to theory or theology without action

Evangelists snap others with . . .

  • Not enough attention to building systems
  • Little concern for ongoing pastoral care

Shepherds get snapped by . . .

  • Lack of concern for people’s wounds and needs
  • Programs that try to make people “fit” when they don’t

Shepherds snap others with . . .

  • Unwillingness to think about big-picture strategy
  • Spiritualizing avoidance of hard leadership questions

Teachers get snapped by . . .

  • Action without appropriate theological grounding
  • Ministry “messaging” overwhelming biblical content

Teachers snap others with . . .

  • Rigidness of thought; people can’t ask questions
  • Lack of urgency for ministry action

As sinners, we’ll snap each other more often than we care to admit. But those moments are opportunities to show grace to each other, and to learn how to call each other forward. As we learn to bear with each other and anticipate points of tension, we can all pull each other closer to the target: building up the body of Christ, for the sake of the world.


Image Credit: Photos from Giphy

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