Why We Won't Put Ministry First Any More

by Eddy Hall


Our greatest crisis bore down upon us--a crisis that would shake us to our roots, that would call into question the very existence of our ministry.

   On the surface our progress looked respectable. In two and a half years, the Community of the Servant had grown from three families to five; our paid staff had grown from zero to four; we were immersed in the work of an emergency family shelter; churches and friends were supporting us, cheering us on.

   But within the community, all was not well. We were finding it hard to forgive one another, to give each other freedom to minister, to submit to one another. We couldn't agree on any major ministry decisions. Even minor issues provoked resentment.

   We had originally come together around a common calling to minister to the poor out of a context of Christian community. As these problems boiled over, we took a good hard look at ourselves. What was wrong with us? Why couldn't our group--so deeply committed to our common ministry--learn to work together? Why was our "body" so sick?

   Our problem, we concluded, was that we had let doing ministry to the poor crowd out community-building. Task had squeezed out relationship. In our eagerness to produce fruit--''minis-try"--we had neglected the tree from which the fruit of corporate ministry had to grow--spiritual community.

   As a group,then, we decided to reorder our priorities. We agreed to draw the line on ministry projects--to not take on any new tasks. At the same time, we increased our time commitment to community-building and vowed to give more attention to resolving conflicts.

   If only we would give the health of our community life the priority it deserved, then, we believed, the tree would become healthy, and its fruit would become healthy, too.

   In October 1983, the bomb fell. For the first time ever in our community, we heard a family say: "We're dropping out." Two weeks later, a second family left. A third family became inactive.

   Our little community was dead. Our only major ministry program was dead. Everything we had worked to build over two and a half years--it had all collapsed. Only my immediate family and my sister were left.

   What could we do? Where could we go? What do you do when your life calling lies in shambles at your feet?

   Within only days, we had our answer. God had not released us from this place. We would stay. We would start over.

Community of the Spirit is a gift of the Spirit; it comes not when we focus on common task, or even on community, but when we focus on God.

   Months of painful postmortem examination followed. Where had we gone wrong? As the Spirit searched my heart, I recalled many mistakes--most simply the result of inexperience. I also found sin--failure to obey specific aspects of God's call for me. I repented and received forgiveness.

   But there was more. I came to see that our problem went much deeper than putting task ahead of relationships. The measures the group had taken to heal our community life had not only been too little too late; they had also failed to get to the root of the problem. Even community was an inadequate foundation for ministry. We had put tremendous energy into trying to cultivate community--and community had fallen apart. What we had built was not the community of the Spirit, but a human community. Bonhoeffer comments:

   "The existence of any Christian life together depends on whether it succeeds at the right time in bringing out the ability to distinguish between a human ideal and God's reallty, between spiritual and human community."

   The life or death of a Christian cornmunity is determined by whether it achieves sober wisdom on this point as soon as possible.

   The Community of the Servant had falled to become a community of the Spirit because we had looked for community in the wrong places. We had looked first to a common task. That had not created community. Then we had looked to a common effort to build community. But we found that a human commitment to creating community, however strong, however devout, however well-intentioned, cannot produce a community of the Spirit.

   Community of the Spirit is a gift of the Spirit; it comes not when we focus on common task, or even on community, but when we focus on God.

   But hadn't we done that? God had been central to our theology. Our commitment to God had been genuine.

   Yes, all true. But our experience of God had not been at the center of our life together. We had not looked to God, but to ourselves, to create community. We had not seen that the only possible source for the common life we sought was the Common Life within us, the life of the indwelling Spirit.

   In our short history, the Community of the Servant had encountered our three priorities in reverse order. Our attempts to minister to the poor showed us our need to make community priority over task; then our failures in community drove us back even further to that most basic experience of all--our relationship with God.

Community, we came to see, must be grounded in our living experience of God--not just our commitment to God, not just our beliefs about God, but our experience of God at work in and through our lives.

   Community, we came to see, must be grounded in our living experience of God--not just our commitment to God, not just our beliefs about God, but our experience of God at work in and through our lives. It is only that experienced life we share that can forge us into healthy spiritual community and empower us for ministry. Just as the fruit of corporate mmistry can be healthy only if it grows from the tree of healthy Christian community, so true spiritual community is always rooted in the community members' actual experience of God.

   Thomas Kelley pictured the relationship of outward ministry to prayer much the same:

   "Christian practice is not exhausted in outward deeds. These are the fruits, not the roots. A practicing Christian must above all be one who practices the perpetual return of the soul to the inner sanctuary."

   If we were to bear spiritual fruit out of a context of Christian community, our upside-down priorities would have to be turned right side up. They would have to become: first, experiencing God, second Christian community, and third corporate ministry.

   Corporate ministry--the fruit; Christian community--the tree that bears the fruit; our experience of God is the root that nourishes both the tree and its fruit.

   As we looked back on the collapse of our community, we saw that we had little to show for our first two and a half years together except what we learned from our mistakes. But was that really so little? Couldn't it be that all the pain of those early years was not too high a price to pay for the treasures that came out of them? For it was upon those insights that we built as God began to gather together a new community.

   Within a few months of its death, God breathed new life into the Community of the Servant. The inactive family became active agaln, new members were added. Over the next two years, in an atmosphere of Spirit-given unity and mutual ministry, God began to heal the wounds of the previous years.

   In late 1985, the group sensed that just as the community had been called together in 1981, God was calling us apart, calling us to move on. In contrast to the crisis of two years earlier, this decision was reached in unity, with community relationships at their best.

   Our family was led to the newly formed church-community of New Hope Fellowship in Hope, Idaho. Here the three priorities learned at such high cost through the Community of the Servant continue to guide us. What a joy it was to see the brothers and sisters here moving so easily, so naturally, so supernaturally, into the experience of community the Spirit gives.

   We have seen what happens when we put ministry first. And, we have seen what happens when we put relationship with God first, Christian community second, corporate mission third. That's why we won't be putting ministry first any more.

Reprinted from VOICES magazine, January, 1989.

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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on March 16, 2005