by Bo Sanders
As a second-generation Methodist minister who is now primarily working to train young women and men for Christian ministry, I think about theology and its implications all the time. It has never been more evident that our ideas have consequences, and our ideas about God have serious ramifications in our congregations and communities.
The traditional mechanism of control and denominational authority that has provided regulation – even if through coercion or fear at times – is diminishing at alarming (and/or exhilarating) rates.
The reality of being human and ministering with humans to humans is that not everything is always a possibility! There are certain choices that are simply not on the menu of possibilities. We are dealing with a limited menu. This narrowing happens in two definite directions:
- Not every action is available to everyone in every circumstance. While we are actors with a certain degree of agency within our own circumstances, our past experiences limit the options that we see as ‘available’ on the menu of possibilities in any given scenario.
- Even those possibilities we are aware of become limited further when options that do not live up to the model of Christ are eliminated. We are not at liberty to use methods that counter the revealed nature and character of God in order to accomplish things in God’s name and to God’s glory.
As I read The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord recently, two kinds of questions ran through my head. First, I thought about who else needs to read this and who would I like to talk to about these ideas. Second, I thought about how it will impact the way we organize, act as, and lead the church, if it’s true.
So, to paraphrase a classic sentiment: if this is true, how then shall we lead? (When I say lead in church context I mean “to facilitate and model ministry of people to each other and the world around them in a way that honors Christ’s model.”)
My concern as a ‘practical theologian’ is the implications of the model that Oord proposes for our understanding of the nature and character of the divine. The book does a good job at exploring what it means to be a human agent acting within time and history. I want to look at some ramifications for church leadership and ministry.
Four implications for church leadership in this framework I want to present are the following (As a preacher and a preacher’s son I love alliteration and delight in the sheer playfulness of employing it. As an educator I also embrace its power as a heuristic.):
Interpretation: A gift that any leader/mentor/soul-friend has is to simply ask the question that will begin the process and open the door to analysis. The question is this: “Talk to me about your options here – help me understand why you see these as your options.”
Investigation: Once the initial menu is created, a second step is to explore. “If you were a different person or had a different personality or skill-set, what do wish you could do that you don’t feel like you can?”
Innovation: When we partner with what is, we provide possibilities for what can be. The uncontrolling love of God means that the power of God’s spirit is waiting for us in each moment with potentials that were not available to us before. We ask big picture (teleological) questions about how we want this situation to turn out. “If you had the power, without changing the past, to see this develop into a best-case scenario … what would that look like?” Then we ask, “Is there anyway, with the options we have, to move in that direction?”
Impartation: Perhaps the most powerful and underutilized tool in Christian ministry is the ability to impart to people (gift to them) the grace that is in you. So much of religious activity and spirituality has become the conveying of content (information) and not the transfer of insight and wisdom. Every believer has God’s spirit within them. That is a grace (a spiritual gift) that you can impart to those you lead.
Uncontrolling church leadership recognizes that we begin with a limited menu and that not all of the options are available to everyone in every circumstance. It then begins to partner with what is to bring about what can be and to create new possibilities and open up new options. It cannot guarantee a specific outcome, and doing so would require certain things which would invalidate the entire project anyway.
Once you come to terms with the ‘bad news’ that we are all dealing with limitations and restrictions, you can begin to entertain the ‘good news’ that there is an ever-expanding set of possibilities where the God of creation and creativity is involved!
Uncontrolling ministry opens up the possibility of what can be by imagination (expanding the menu of possibilities) and impartation. In this way, we option that were simply not available before. When we are partnering with the loving God to minister to, and with, God’s people in Jesus’ name, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit so that God’s name and glory can be spread through the world that God loves so much, the menu begins to expand exponentially.