However gifted and skilled ministers may be, however hard-working and committed they may be, ultimately they are dependent upon the grace of God at work in our lives. “Apart from me”, said Jesus, “you can do nothing” (John 15.5).
This means, said William Temple:
“All fruit that I ever bear or can bear comes wholly from his life within me. No particle of it is mine as distinct from His. There is, no doubt, some part of His whole purpose that He would accomplish through me; that is my work, my fruit, in the sense that I, and not another, am the channel of His life for this end; but in no other sense. Whatever has its ultimate origin in myself is sin.”
John Perry, a former Bishop of Chelmsford, has said much the same thing:
“The hardest lesson to accept and learn about Christian leadership is that it has to be in God’s strength and not our own. Other qualifications for leadership are necessary, but the primary qualification is a recognition that God’s work has to be done in his way and with his power. This cuts across the accepted attitude, ‘I can do this in my own strength’.”
As a result pastors are first and foremost called to be men and women of God, who day by day seek to open themselves to his life-giving and life-sustaining presence. God in his grace has called us to be his ministers, and it is God who by his Spirit who alone can empower us for ministry. “The grace of God”, says Timothy Geoffrion, “creates the only sure foundation for personal transformation and dynamic spiritual leadership.” If we are to be effective ministers of the Gospel then we must live lives that are totally dependent upon God.
However, dependence upon the grace of God is not to be confused with incompetency. To argue, as does Ruth Gouldbourne, the senior minister of Bloomsbury Baptist Church in Central London that ‘incompetence’ in ministry is desirable is misleading (see ‘In praise of Incompetence: Ministerial Formation and the Development of the Rooted Person’ 168-202 in Truth that never dies: the G.R. Beasley-Murray Memorial Lectures 2002-2012, Lutterworth Press, Cambridge 2014,edited by Nigel Wright). There is nothing praise-worthy about incompetency.
It is true that there are times when ministry “happens at the very edge of (or even beyond) competency”. There are times when we are conscious of God through his Spirit accomplishing “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3.20). But this is no reason to decry skills and competences in ministry by praising ‘incompetency’ in ministry. Gouldbourne’s concern is that
… if skills and competences define our ministry, we run the risk of fearing to go beyond what we know we can do, what we are confident we can accomplish, and our activity and service become what we can do rather than our openness to what the Spirit is doing to us.
But I believe that we should be much more concerned about the risk of incompetency among ministers. In the parable of the talents it is the incompetent steward who buried his talent, who is rightly condemned by his master.
The exercise of ministry in dependence upon God is not to be equated with “a basic commitment to incompetency”; and even less, when incompetence is defined as “the acceptance of what it is to be human; to be weak, created and fallible”. This is not the heart of ministry, nor do I believe it is “the heart of discipleship”. The reverse is the case: the heart of ministry is surely the desire by the grace of God to be competent in the service of Christ. To my mind Gouldbourne unhelpfully stretches language, not least when she declares that “in the incarnation, we see the second person of the Trinity embrace and live in the reality of incompetence”. To suggest that our Lord was ‘inadequate’, ‘unfit’ and ‘incapable’ (which the term ‘incompetent’ actually means) would have surprised the Gospel writers!
The desire for competency in ministry is not be equated with any sense of self-sufficiency in ministry. The pursuit of competency is motivated by a desire to serve God to the best of our ability, while recognising that all that we are and do in ministry is dependent upon the grace of God.
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