Negotiating the Paradoxes of Ministry
People seldom have to choose between right and wrong.
Once upon a time, not long ago it seems, I embarked on a journey to be a pastor. I felt call to do battle with the forces of evil in the name of God. I was going to be on the side of righteousness, of course, in a cosmic struggle with sin. Life was sharp in its distinctions in those early days—God/Satan, Light/Dark, Righteousness/Sin, Right/Wrong—and I was determined to be on the left side of those distinctions.
On top of that, I was going to help other people be on the left side of those distinctions as well. I was going to persuade people to choose God over Satan, light over dark, righteousness over sin, and right over wrong. I was going to hone my skills as a minister—preaching, counseling, witnessing, praying—so that I could be an effective ambassador for the left side.
At some indefinable point in my ministry, though, I discovered the Decision Paradox: People seldom have to choose between right and wrong. It completely exploded my early concept of ministry, but I do believe that knowing about this paradox has made me a wiser pastor and a better person.
Frankly, I’m surprised now I didn’t learn the Decision Paradox earlier. I kept bumping into it, but my old training in seeing life as a series of either/or propositions blurred my vision. I began to notice, though, that people in my church did not have to make decisions between right and wrong. When they talked to me about the gut-wrenching issues they were dealing with, my old template of black and white was useless. Come to find out, these people were not wrestling with black and white decisions at all. They had to choose among various shades of gray.
• The family with the husband and father on life support. Should they keep him hooked up indefinitely, or should they pull the plug? How would they know when it was time to take him off the machine?
• The parents with their troubled teenager. Should they take him out of school and send him to a rehab boot camp facility? Or should they leave him alone and hope he comes to his senses and rights his course?
• The finance committee with its unexpected budget surplus. Should the committee, in an extravagant gesture of gratitude, propose that we give all of the surplus to a mission effort in India? Or should the committee recommend that we use the money to address pressing needs in our own church?
• The old couple living in their beloved house for fifty years. In light of their health problems, should they move to an assisted living facility? But then again, in light of their long history in that house, could they bear to leave it? Which way should they go?
I discovered these were the kinds of issues with which people struggled. Not one of these issues was black and white or cut and dried. Not one of them fit the ministerial template I had imposed upon reality. Not one of them needed a crusader on a white horse with simplistic answers. This was the real stuff of life, and it had nothing to do with choosing God over the devil. It had everything to do with trying to discern the will of God in a complicated, gray world.
Knowing and affirming the Decision Paradox has affected my life as a pastor in at least four ways:
First, it has enabled me to look at the “gray-ness” in my own life. You see, not only did I discover that the world is more complicated than simple blacks and whites; I also discovered that I am a mixed bag of blacks and whites. This paradox reigns not only in the world at large; it reigns in my own heart. I am more complicated and “gray” than I care to say.
My old image of myself as the “good pastor” with the “good answers” trying to convince bad people to become “good people” went down in a heap of honest reality. The truth, I discovered as I wrestled with the real issues real people brought to me, is that I am a confused sinner myself, not some pristine, lily-white answer-man for God.
For one thing, I’m not a “good pastor.” I am a pastor, for sure, but one with his own problems and “issues.” To call myself “good” is more than a stretch.
I am not loaded with “good answers” either. I think I have learned a few things along the way, but I know a lot less now than I did when I was crusading atop my white horse. I no longer think I have to dispense simple answers to people’s complicated problems.
And, for that matter, I no longer think I need to convince bad people to become “good people.” It has turned out that some of those bad people are better people than me, even more Christian than me. I no longer say or imply, “Come, be as good as me,” but “Let’s all go throw our floundering selves on the mercy of God.”
It’s a painful thing for pastors to have to come to grips with their own humanity, their own invisible web of mixed motives and tangled flaws. In a passage from Robertson Davies’ novel Fifth Business, a woman named Liesl chides an uptight Calvinist named Ramsey for not admitting his humanity:
You should take a look at this side of your life you have not lived. Now don’t wriggle and snuffle and try to protest. I don’t mean you should have secret drunken weeks and a widow in a lacy flat who expects you every Thursday, like some suburban ruffian. You are a lot more than that. But every man has a devil, and a man of unusual quality, like yourself, Ramsey, has an unusual devil. You must get to know your personal devil. You must even get to know his father, the Old Devil. Oh, this Christianity! Even when people swear they don’t believe in it, the fifteen hundred years of Christianity that has made our world is in their bones and they want to show they can be Christians without Christ. Those are the worst; they have the cruelty of doctrine without the poetic grace of myth.
I’m trying to come to grips with my own devil. And I’ve learned that I can’t be a Christian without Christ.
Second, it has enabled me to sit more comfortably in the silence. Without an awareness of the Decision Paradox, I felt obligated to provide airtight answers to people. When they grieved, I had to tell them why God had taken their loved one. When they came with perplexing questions about the Bible, I had to give them an impressive response. When they were angry with God, I had to defend God and quote Scriptures to back up my defense. Without the Decision Paradox, I had to be an answer-man, a holy encyclopedia of retorts and responses.
But once I learned the Decision Paradox, I gave that up. I don’t have to tell anyone why God took their loved one. I don’t know why that person died, so why pretend? I don’t have to have every answer to every question about the Bible. Some of the Bible is so mystifying I have no clue how to interpret it. And when someone is angry with God, I usually think that person has every right to be angry, and I make little effort to defend or protect God. I might even sit beside that person in her grief and rail at God myself.
Since most of the decisions people have to grapple with are various shades of gray, why try to inject black and white into the mix? Why not sit with them in silence in the grayness of it all, seeking the will of God, asking not for answers but for Presence?
Understanding the Decision Paradox, that people seldom have to choose between right and wrong, means that I’m free—no, called—to sit with people at the crossroads and not yell advice at them.
Third, it has kept me from being seduced by the false dichotomies of our culture. Because the Decision Paradox makes me aware of nuance and subtlety, it rescues me from the “broad brush” mentality used in television and newspapers. The media must communicate in sound bites and headlines, which means there is no place at all for nuance and subtlety.
According to the media, you have to be pro-homosexuality or anti-homosexuality, pro-abortion or anti-abortion, pro-president or anti-president, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. Because time and space are short, the media must paint with a broad brush, and we all get the idea that reality is an either/or experience. We’re either in this camp, or we’re in the opposing camp. Life on screen and page is depicted as cut and dried.
But, as I said, life in the real world is anything but cut and dried. Not all homosexuals are exactly alike. Not all abortions are exactly alike either. It is possible to like some things about the president and despise other things. It is also possible to vote Republican one election and Democrat the next election and to be conservative on some issues and liberal on others. Life in the real world is messy, gray, and complicated and can’t be captured in sound bites and headlines.
As a pastor aware of the Decision Paradox, I can admit that fact and minister accordingly. I can take up residence in the uncomfortable “middle” and not identify with any of the extremes the media portrays. I know that life is not really black and white and that many of the decisions people have to make are not black and white either.
Truthfully, I don’t care much about people’s politics, social stands, or voting records. I’m called to minister to people regardless of their ideology. Some of the people in my church are tree-huggers and feminists. Some listen to Limbaugh every day. Some are theological liberals who read Spong, and some are conservatives who read Dobson. But I’m called to be the pastor of all these folks, and I’m not going to let a label get in the way.
I’ve learned that all of them—liberals and conservatives, Christians and non-Christians, Republicans and Democrats—have to make tough decisions that are seldom black and white. If I can provide them some wisdom in that process or be a pastoral presence of love in that process, I will be giving them the best gift I can offer.
Fourth, it has informed my preaching and invited me to be honest in the pulpit. When I remember that life is not usually black and white and that the decisions people have to make are not black and white, I can then try to fashion sermons that better match the real colors of their world.
I realize now that for years my sermons have been a whole lot simpler than reality is. For years, I have handed searching people three points and a poem. More than I care to admit, my sermons are still simpler than real life.
But knowing the Decision Paradox at least helps me try to craft sermons that match people’s experience of life. If the decisions they are wrestling with are tough, gray, and complicated, I can hardly justify sermons that are easy, white, and simple. If I give them enough of those easy, white, simple sermons, they will eventually shake my hand at the door on Sunday morning and tell me how wonderful the message was, but then they’ll leave knowing that I don’t really have a clue.
I have kept all of my sermon notes through the years. I have dozens of folders bulging with homiletical masterpieces. Sometimes when I’m feeling especially courageous, I flip through those folders and look at some of the trivia I’ve foisted off on good people. I see sermons on how to be happy, how to know the will of God, how to hear the voice of God, how to survive a tragedy, how to raise happy children. When I peruse those folders I see that I’ve been heavy on the “how to’s.”
I’ve also been heavy on the easy, white, and simple. Some of those sermons have three or four points, the first word often beginning with the same letter. If only the “four C’s” could really connect a person to God. If only the “3 P’s” could guarantee parents happy children. But life simply won’t conform to the structure of those old sermons, and the most appropriate place for them is probably the dumpster out behind the fellowship hall.
But I’m getting better. The older I get, the more honest I become. And the older I get, the more I try to craft sermons in the image of life itself. The Decision Paradox has nudged me toward authenticity.
There are still days when I grow wistful for how it used to be. I long for the days of certainty, days when I saw myself on the white horse rushing to the rescue of people looking for black and white answers. On busy weeks, when I lack sufficient time to prepare a sermon, I occasionally take out one of those old sermons, brush the dust off of it, and give it a go.
Inevitably, the sermon fizzles. I know better now, and my heart is not in “The Six Ways to Know the Will of God.” I know that life is not as simple as my sermon and that to reach modern people, I had better get in touch with their experience.
Among other things, I have the Decision Paradox to thank for that.
Robertson Davies, Fifth Business (New York: Penguin, 1970), 226.
This post originally appeared as Chapter 11: The Decision Paradox in The Leadership Labyrinth: Negotiating the Paradoxes of Ministry by Judson Edwards.