When I was a brand new missions pastor, I was given a great piece of advice from the lead pastors that I reported to.
“Beware Evangelical talk,” they said.
“Given your position,” they continued, “you will have countless opportunities to meet and network with other pastors and people in ministry. Many of them will want to spend precious time talking about what they are about to do, or what they would like to see happen in the future (you will too). Watch out for this, and spend your time first actually getting things done, and then you will have something to talk about.”
I nodded and tucked this piece of advice away. Before long I found out just how necessary the warning was. I was inundated with invitations to meet with other ministry professionals to “connect,” “network,” and get to know one another. Some good came out of these meetings, and some important relationships were formed. But there were also many meetings where it wasn’t quite clear in the end why the meeting had taken place at all, beyond us feeling good about having spent some social time with a new person in a somewhat-related role. Plus, we were in Louisville, so the coffee was often quite good (Sunergos, Quills, Vint, etc.).
Group gatherings of ministry professionals could be the worst in this regard, and not only in ministry contexts in the West. This is a dynamic that also continues on the mission field when groups of workers from different organizations meet together. It usually goes like this. A bunch of evangelical ministry types feel the urge to meet together regularly because “unity” and “the kingdom is bigger than your church” and “don’t be tribal because that’s bad.” But these vague notions don’t often get any more defined than that. So the group meets, and when it’s time to share the bulk of the time is spent by those talking about exciting things that seem right about to get started – or it’s monopolized by someone who has had some measure of success and now believes that what they did is the silver bullet for everyone else’s context. Most leave vaguely encouraged, but each would be hard-pressed to define anything specific that came of those several hours spent together. “Yeah, it was… good to… connect?”
Any time I’m asked to be part of planning a time like this, I always ask for one condition for the sharing time, “Can people please stick to what they’ve actually seen happen and resist the urge to share about items they think are right on the cusp of being the next great thing?” I often find myself needing templates and models that have actually proved faithful and fruitful, not just creative ideas that might work or might go down in flames (I tend to have too many of those on my own already). And at least in our context, the work is hard enough that always focusing on that new relationship or initiative seems to be a bit of a coping mechanism that keeps us from facing our repeated setbacks. We’ve sometimes lamented that our corner of Central Asia could be called The Land of a Thousand False Starts due to how many promising beginnings simply fail to go anywhere. Workers focus on what’s just around the bend for 10 years and then go home disillusioned, without having left anything behind that lasts.
“But ministry is all about relationships!” Yes, relationships are key, and I don’t mean to minimize the importance of having a network of trusted friends. Meetings, whether one-on-one or a group, can be a great way to build the type of trusting relationships that just might someday save your life – or keep your church from imploding. Effective ministry requires having these kinds of friendships with others who are allies or at least co-belligerants. But the cost of long rambling meetings must also be taken into account. Does it take away from time you could be shepherding your people? Sharing the gospel with the lost? Learning the local language and culture? Working on those important but not urgent projects that seem to be forever punted? Prayer?
I’ve found that a very slight uptick in definition, common ground, and goals for ministry networking can lead to making the best use of the time when meeting with other Evangelicals. What exactly is this meeting and why am I going to it? Why are they wanting to meet with me? What piece of wisdom or experience or help can be gleaned from this time? And what can I give to serve them? How much common ground do we share in terms of theology and methodology? (This last question helps to focus the conversation on the more appropriate areas of partnership).
Building the relationship is often a win in itself, but not always. When thought has been put in to define the meeting, work out its purpose and at least one goal, and do some theological/methodological triage, then relational ministry meetings often are worth the time invested. But without thinking through these things on some level, we risk getting pulled into the Evangelical Ministry Talk Vortex. And one can spend decades in there, floating around from one meeting over coffee to another.
Beware Evangelical Talk. It’s a subtle danger in a world without enough laborers. Let’s get to work, and then we will have a great time meeting to talk about it later.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash