Originally I was going to name this post: “For Women Only: 3 Things They Never Taught Us in Seminary” and it was going to be an exposition of the various ways women can feel lonely in a “man’s world.” However, after thinking about it for a while, I decided that this was not really the direction I wanted to go.
You see, the word “ministry” can often be quite misrepresentative. Everyone who is a Christian and who is actively seeking to follow Christ, to evangelize, and to reach out and support others is already engaged in ministry. It doesn’t matter if you’re an elementary school teacher, an engineer, or an at home mom…you’re doing ministry, and you’re likely doing it full-force. Now here’s where it gets a bit tricky. Oftentimes in the professional world, we get a bit muddled and try to segregate “ministry” (as in helping out at the church food bank) and “vocational MINISTRY” (as in being a pastor, woman’s worker, youth leader, or any other paid position). But once again this is misleading. That’s because even if you never preach a sermon, you probably are logging in those same hours… in fact, you’re probably also in full-time ministry. How many diapers did you change this week again? How many errands did you run for the kids? How many times did you bite your tongue when your co-worker was going at you because you wanted to be a good Christian influence? You get the picture. When we try to put “ministry” in a box it ends up disastrously because it becomes more about what we (or what society) thinks are the most fundamental tasks for the Kingdom versus what Christ thinks are the most important.
And what exactly does God say is the most important task in full-time vocational ministry? It is this:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+12%3A30-31)
Loving God, seeking to follow His will, and in turn reaching out to others who need us the most.
But how exactly do we do that more practically? Look no further than the book of James:
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+1%3A27&version=NASB)
Or in the words of Eugene Petersen’s The Message: Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+1%3A27&version=MSG)
Menno Simons got it right when he gave this brilliant explanation and expanded upon this passage:
“True evangelical faith is of such a nature it cannot lie dormant, but spreads itself out in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love;
it dies to flesh and blood (1);
it destroys all lusts and forbidden desires (2);
it seeks, serves and fears God in its inmost soul (3);
it clothes the naked (4);
it feeds the hungry (5);
it comforts the sorrowful (6);
it shelters the destitute (7);
it aids and consoles the sad (8);
it does good to those who do it harm (9); it serves those that harm it (10);
it prays for those who persecute it (11);
it teaches, admonishes and judges us with the Word of the Lord (12);
it seeks those who are lost (13);
it binds up what is wounded (14);
it heals the sick (15);
it saves what is strong (sound) (16);
it becomes all things to all people (17).
The persecution, suffering and anguish that come to it for the sake of the Lord’s truth have become a glorious joy and comfort to it.” (https://themennonite.org/feature/true-evangelical-faith/)
I have the first part of this quote featured on my Skype, Google HangOut, and Facebook and I try to include it once in a while when I am preaching just to keep in fresh and in the front of people’s minds. It’s a text I try to live by. It’s a text that breathes life into who I am and into my existence.
So now that we understand and realize that we are ALL called to full-time vocational ministry, what do we do? I’m going to be open and honest with you for a minute: even having the assurance that you’re in the field God called you to, doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. Women still have to face all sorts of pressures.
Women have to face outward pressures. It is easy for us to feel lonely and singled out. You may be blessed to have a core group of friends who support you in your ministry despite your gender, but you’re also going to constantly have people in your face who suggest that serving God is a sin in your case because you have an XX chromosome and not an XY. You’re going to face discouragement when sharp disagreements occur. And you might be frustrated when the only positions you can get are working with kids or youth and you really don’t see yourself doing either. Even if you are surrounded by people who accept your calling, you might still feel lonely because you will be one woman among a barrage of men. The men you work with might be wonderful, but you might still long for a deeper connection – one which only a woman-to-woman bridge can bring.
Women also face internal pressures. Ideas they bring to themselves about what success looks like. The pressure to conform to social norms that they themselves feel are important, or a certain shyness that makes them unable to be assertive to men. I’ve written more about that in my recent blog post: “Boundless Possibilities” you can read it here: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2016/08/18/boundless-possibilities-dismantling-the-myth-of-the-good-little-church-girl/
I’m sure I could write a hundred different blog posts addressing a hundred different ways to tackle this problem, but I think it really all comes down to 4 key points. If you want to succeed and have longevity in your ministry – any kind of ministry, you must: know who you are, know whose you are, know where you are, and know why you’re there.
Know Who You Are
I’ve mentioned in a few other posts that my inward struggle to accept myself for who God has made me to be has been an ongoing battle…and one that I often don’t succeed at because I’m a pacifist. I’ve also shared how I’ve begun addressing that issue and recommended a fantastic resource called Daughters of the King (http://www.dot-k.com/). This great website also has a 7 minute audio clip speaking words of affirmation and truth. In the description it reads: “It is important that you know who you are in Christ. If you are going to accomplish anything in the earth for God’s glory, it will first begin with you knowing who you are. Be blessed as you listen to Scriptures from God’s Word that will give you clear understanding into your identity.”
The key to maintaining a strong and vibrant ministry is understanding and accepting who you were made to be. It’s about recognizing the unique ministry you have which only you are capable of achieving at this time and to this particular group of people. It’s about not comparing yourself to others. Realizing that you have strengths and gifts that they don’t have, but also that you have many blindspots and weaknesses where you will need to rely on others and delegate tasks to them because they will be a better fit. It’s about seeking out resources to improve on those areas where you still need to grow. And it’s about being mentored so that you can be the best version of yourself you can possibly be without worrying or caring so much about what others around you are (or aren’t) doing.
Know Whose You Are
We belong solely to Christ and our ministry flows from His desire for us to please Him and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit who permits that to happen. Everything that happens in our life takes place for a purpose. There is no meaningless or wasted moment when we follow and serve Christ. Even the most difficult and painful times can bring us closer to Him if we are willing for that to happen. When we know who we are in Christ, we follow the Voice of the Good Shepherd (not endless societal rants or superficial theological disagreements). We become attuned to His Words and His will…forsaking all others and realizing that sometimes His calling upon our life will bring about rejection and discord.
It’s also recognizing when we need to drop a circular argument because it’s getting us nowhere. Of course, we rely on those emotionally closest to us to provide support and encouragement and we long for people to hear what we have to say and affirm it. However, the Bible also tells us “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans%2012:18) Scripture also tells us to avoid endless quarrels, and worthless quandaries and instead seek to edify one another in our attempt to build up the Body of Christ: “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Titus+3%3A9&version=NASB). In other words, next time you want to harp on your favourite controversial passage, ask yourself what you’re really going to accomplish through it and why you really want to do it. If you need more help in this area, check out my recent blog post on this topic: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2016/08/22/when-we-disagree-with-each-other-tips-learned-in-life/
When we are secure in Christ, we don’t have to worry about whether or not people will like us or try to get everyone to see things from our point of view. Knowing WHOSE we are, is just as important as knowing WHO we are because it reminds us that without Christ we can do nothing and thus, any ministry we are called to belongs to Him. Not to those who disagree with us. And not even to ourselves.
Know Where You Are
There is a famous African proverb that says: “if you don’t know where you are, or where you’re going, any bus will do.”
For years I have dreaded these two questions in a job interview:
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
What will you do if you don’t get this job?
I’m an extreme planner. Not only do I have a 5 year plan, but I also have a 10 and 15 year one. But over time, I’ve learned that “In their hearts human beings plan their lives. But the Lord decides where their steps will take them.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Proverbs%2016%3A9) In other words, just when I think I’ve figured it out, my life drastically changes.
Take my current position. Never in my entire high school or undergrad career would I have seen myself working with people who have intellectual disabilities. The thought never crossed my mind… I was destined to be a full time pastor in the Mennonite Church. Then, all of a sudden, in my first year of seminary, my heart tugged me in this direction. It was completely unplanned and unexpected, but now I have been in the field for almost 4 years. I love what I do and see it as my primary focus and ministry. It has grown from curiosity into an intense calling, affirmed by others around me.
Well, not everyone. Some people think I’m wasting my education and should go back into full-time pastoring…but in the end of the day, you need to rely on Christ’s will and plan for your life. After all, it’s your life, not theirs. When Christ clearly shows you what you are to do, you don’t hold back, you go do it…even when others around you might not understand or might think it’s foolish and pointless.
So where are you today? Are you young or old? Are you just beginning your academic journey or have you been retired for years? Where are you currently living?
When you think about your age, life-stage, and geographical position, each place brings with it new opportunities for witness and evangelism. Opportunities that you might not have had in previous years and that you might not have again because this is where you are RIGHT NOW, at this particular season. Think about how you can be a good steward with where you find yourself at this moment. Don’t keep looking back – preserved in the past like a stand-still pillar of salt. Don’t keep reminiscing about the “good old days” neglecting the current reality. And conversely, don’t become too future focused. Don’t keep grasping for the next goal without taking a moment to pause and reflect on what you have just accomplished. Live in the here and now. Live in this tension of the “now” and “not yet”. Live with the assurance that God is going to move in many mighty ways to the people you are encountering at the bank, the grocery store, your local church, your favourite coffee shop, and the ice rink. That’s really the key to a successful ministry.
Know Why You’re There
Have you ever found yourself in a trying situation – a place you never wanted to be, never want to go back to, and would never wish on your worst enemy? Have you ever asked God why He placed you there to begin with?
Helen Rosevear was such a woman. A young, idealistic English doctor in the D.R. Congo, she soon found herself face to face with rebel soldiers, force, and violation. Yet, she chose to ask God the question: “Why am I here? What can I accomplish through this terrible injustice?” God spoke quietly and softly to her heart reminding her of who she was and whose she was. She recounts this question in particular “are you willing to trust Me even if I never tell you why?” In her fear, pain, and frustration, she humbly submitted regardless of the cost. She later publicly shared her testimony on numerous occasions where she proclaimed “the question is not ‘is it worth it?’ but ‘is He worthy?’” Because of Rosevear’s great internal strength of character, she has become a hero of the faith to many including a mentor to myself. Oh that we would have such a faith!
You might have found yourself in a similar position, or you might find yourself in a less intense one… but we all face struggles and difficulties of various kinds throughout our journey in life. When we’re stuck at that job we don’t want to be in, we can ask ourselves “why is God calling me here? What is He trying to teach me through this work place? How can He use me to minister and benefit others?” When we’re about to lose it with our children we can ask God for the grace we need reminding ourselves that He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love even despite our rebellion and disobedience to Him (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+145%3A8&version=NASB). When we find ourselves in a time of utter confusion and at a crossroads, unsure of exactly where we are or why we’re there, we can rest in Him and His promise to clarify our calling and our direction.
If you need more guidance in this area, one of my fellow MennoNerds Benjamin L. Corey recently wrote a series of posts on this very topic as he recounts a deep personal loss he recently experienced. Two of his posts in particularly really stuck out to me because of their honesty and depth. Corey gives us the great reminder that even in loss and confusion, it’s okay to question God and to be angry. Even when we’re following Christ and relying fully on Him, we’re still going to have many questions – that’s to be expected. But we also know where to turn for the answers.
Being a woman in ministry is a difficult and often painful place to be, but my following these four steps of knowing WHO we are, WHOSE we are, WHERE we are, and WHY we are there, our ministry will become much more robust. When we keep seeking the guidance of the One who called us into His glorious hope, it also becomes so worth it. May you experience a glimpse of His joy as you seek and serve Him with the people He has entrusted you with TODAY.