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Tuesday
Sep142010

Suffering and ministry - an interview with Ajith Fernando

Yesterday afternoon I had the privelage of participating in an interview with Ajith Fernando. The interview was arranged by Jon Hirst who heads up the Lausanne Blogger Network. Please also see this article by Jon Hirst on the Lausanne Blog (Barriers don't equal thwarted ministry).

Among the participants on the call were 'Tall Skinny Kiwi'. You can read Andrew's post here - thanks Andrew, it was good to hear your voice. AjithFernando.JPG

The interview with Ajith was structured around a pre-Congress paper that he has prepared for the upcoming Lausanne Congress in Cape Town.  You can read his article here:  “To Serve is to Suffer.”

Central to Ajith's discussion is that far too frequently Christian workers (ministers, missionaries etc.) see suffering and hardship as an indication that they are NOT within the will of God.

As a result there is a tendency to leave service in a particular region, or within a particular ministry area since suffering and hardship is seen as an indication that God is not blessing the work the person is involved in.

This line of thinking raised a number of critical points for consideration.

Subtle hedonism in contemporary Western ecclesiology - the allure of prosperity and success.

As I participated in the interview a thought emerged - perhaps the subtle influence of secular hedonism has found fertile ground in the Christian West, and even found theological substance through the triumphalism of the Christian Church in first world countries?

In a world where success is measured by the size of the Church building, the budget for media and outreach, where the most successful ministers represent CEO's more than servants, it is not surprising that we have 'bought' the notion that success can be directly equated with God's blessing.

I have heard colleagues speaking of a particular Church or Pastor being blessed because they have a large congregation, a healthy salary (or stipend) and perhaps drive a fancy car and live in a good neighborhood. This is certainly the image that is portrayed by popular Christian programming on most Christian television stations.

As a result some Christian ministers can easily come to believe that if they face hardship, struggle, or simply are not seeing massive numerical growth in their ministry, that they are not within God's divine will.

Somehow we have forgotten that God chose to establish His gracious reign not by power, but by grace, not from an earthly throne, but from the suffering of the cross of Christ. I would do well to be reminded that servanthood requires humility, and humility often involves humble circumstances and even suffering.

Pseudo martyrdom - the glorification of suffering and poverty.

Another interesting thought that emerged for me was the notion that in some contexts suffering and poverty are romanticized (e.g., missionaries who go from first world settings to serve in poorer settings. Or, in South Africa where we have urban ministers moving to impoverished rural areas). I have little doubt that so much good work gets done by persons who take such a sacrificial approach to ministry. However, I am always concerned for their wellbeing, and even more so for the wellbeing of their families in such circumstances.

In my opinion romanticizing suffering in ministry is as dangerous as chasing after success and comfort.  Whilst some are called to suffer for the faith I am always extremely cautious of those who 'seek out suffering' for the sake of their ministry.  In my own experience, and I share this with great authenticity and even embarrassment, I have sometimes suffered for the faith in order to make a point or to satisfy a need for attention for a cause, or worse even my ego.  It is even more frightening when one considers that in some instances innocent persons (the children of ministers) may be subjected to emotional, or even physical, harm because of choices that are made on their behalf.

I would encourage persons who intend to enter the mission field or ministry at great personal cost to do so under very careful advice and care of a group of persons.  Be sure to understand the implications of your choice, and as far as it is possible please set up structures of support for yourself and your family.

I personally believe that God cannot be honoured when families are destroyed through suffering in ministry.

Obedience versus balance

What stood out for me from Ajith's engagement with the bloggers was his strong emphasis upon radical obedience to Christ and Christ's call. The contemporary secular call is for a balanced life. What is most often implied in this is some form of balance between physical demands (the need for rest, a stable income, amiable working conditions etc.) and emotional wellbeing (stress management, good working relationships, support to deal with traumatic experiences etc.).

Indeed, balance is a very good start, but it is not enough in ministry! What is needed is obedience, and not the kind of obedience that leads to suffering, but the kind of obedience that leads one to live and act within the will of God. Surely this kind of obedience is contextual (being an obedient minister in Sri Lanka may be different from being an obedient minister in California).

Ajith was not naive about the hardships and struggles of ministry. In fact in answer to a question he suggested various means to support persons who face physical, emotional or spiritual hardship. Among other things he suggested the need for a strong and supportive community of care, accountability to wise and trusted persons on matters of scheduling, financial commitments etc. He also encouraged the creation of space for open dialogue, the sharing of frustration and disappointment as well as the opportunity to craft realistic expectations within a particular ministry context.

In short, I found his approach very pastoral and responsible. It balanced the reality that sometimes a call to ministry will involve struggle, and perhaps even suffering. It acknowledged that we have created a culture in which we try to avoid struggle at all costs (sometimes even 'spiritualising' necessary sacrifice by labeling it an indication of a lack of God's blessing). Yet, at the same time he encouraged the formation of structures to support ministers and their families in their servant role in community. Service is seldom easy, and the calling to service will require a great deal of spiritual, emotional and physical support.

Concluding questions.

I am still left with one question - in the tradition of spiritual discernment there may be some instances in which a lack of personal fulfilment, or the presence of some form of suffering (spiritual, physical or emotional) may be an indication that the person is in the wrong place or doing the wrong things. How can one tell the difference between true spiritual discernment and plain struggle?

You may have some answers or suggestions! I'd love to hear from you if you do.

Please let me also encourage you to join the Lausanne Global Conversation. It is a wonderful platform for engagement around a myriad of issues related to knowing Christ and making Him known throughout the world.

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Reader Comments (3)

It was a privilege to be on the call with you!

September 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMary DeMuth

Hi Mary,

Thanks so much for the comment. Have you managed to post your thoughts on the interview yet? I would love to link your blog post.

Look forward to connecting on the next call.

God bless,

Dion

September 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDion Forster

thanks Dion. Great to be in the same "room" with you. Good advice on missionary martyrdom.

September 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterandrew jones (tallskinnykiwi)

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