Dependence upon the grace of God is not to be confused with incompetency

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.

[Note from the editor: If you want to respond to this post – comments are now enabled on – come and join in the discussion!]


  1. ‘They were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He makes even the deaf hear, and the mute speak!”’
    The word ‘well’ gives the search string away but searches on terms such as ‘zeal’, ‘earnest’ reveal a wealth of Biblical calls simply to do our absolute best for the Kingdom and to do it with enthusiasm. Doesn’t the writer of Hebrews say something about how we should run the race of faith etc etc.
    I haven’t read in full what Ruth Gouldboune has written but the use of terms such as incompetence is very unwise. How well do I remember one of my college courses bearing the title, “The Use of Language”.
    Is it just me getting older or does anyone else wince when they hear a sponge cake described as ‘awesome’ or a child’s mischief described as ‘despicable’? The words we use convey a great deal.
    Surely one of the indications of the call to ministry is the discovery and recognition of the gifts needed for ministry – but all gifts need training, honing and practice.
    I partly remember a Sunday School poem which had a line that went something like this, “To be the best that I can be, for truth and righteousness and Thee ….”.
    Just a few random thoughts, really supporting what you’re saying Paul.

  2. Paul: it strikes me that you are being a little unfair to Ruth Gouldbourne! I admit, of course, that the title of her lecture does imply that competence in ministry doesn’t matter; but I suspect that it was chosen merely to grab people’s attention and does not reflect the main thrust of her argument.

    For she quite explicitly states, “It is not that I suggest that those who are ministers should be incompetent. It is right and proper that our churches should be able to depend on and assume that those whom we accredit and recognise are ‘competent’ in appropriate things” – although she goes on to say that “the competences that are required and worked at … are by no means a minimalistic list of tasks that the bare title ‘competences’ might suggest”. She further asks the question, “What happens if I am incompetent, unproductive, ineffective?” and replies, “If I make a mess of my job, then either I have to increase my skills and/or knowledge, or I have to get out”. This does not seem to me to be a mute endorsement of incompetence, far less an extolling of its virtues!

    It seems to me that Ruth is saying two things. The first is that she feels we are in danger of following widespread secular practice and reducing ministry to competence in a specific range of skills. This, she suggests, is far too functionalist an approach to ministry and reduces it to “the things we do” rather than encompassing “the people we are”. And she sees this – rightly or wrongly – evidenced in the training that is offered to ministers. I don’t think she is in any way against that training in skills; but she seems to be arguing for something more: a ministerial formation which integrates both personal spirituality and practical training. In many ways she seems to be moving away from an understanding of ministry which “sets apart” people with certain recognised gifts and calling to do certain tasks, and towards a more “catholic” or “anglican” approach which regards ordination to ministry as effecting some kind of ontological change in the person concerned – not that she actually says so!

    The other thing which I think she is saying is that ministers will inevitably encounter situations which push them beyond their trained competences. This can happen in sermon preparation, when the preacher “having used all the tools of analysis, criticism, rhetoric and all the other skills we develop”, finally has a “confrontation with the Living Word that invites us to dare to speak what cannot be spoken and to trust that the Living Word will communicate”. Equally, there are pastoral situations which go beyond the sharing of burdens and the solving of problems and become “simply the meeting of one human being with another in the presence of the Presence that is greater than them both”. These are but some of the examples she brings to bear which she uses to show that we may encounter a transcendence of God at those precise moments when we find ourselves stretched beyond the limits of our normal skills and professional experience. This, she says, is to be valued; but t isn’t normative.

    To be honest, I don’t actually think that you and Ruth are all that far apart from each other in what you are saying, although I would have thought that you are very different from a personality point of view and using different forms of language to express yourselves! I think that both of you would agree that good training and professional development must go hand-in-hand with the minister’s inner spiritual growth and reflection; although I suspect that you are more of a pragmatist and activist while Ruth is more reflective – I apologise if that judgement may be wildly in error! Ultimately I don’t think that Ruth (despite the title of her lecture) is really arguing against incompetence at all. She is arguing against a functionalist approach to ministry which overvalues the “doing” and undervalues the “being”. And she is also, I think, wary of ministers ever saying – at least in an emergency situation – “I’m sorry, I can’t even try to help you, it’s outside my range of competency”. That is the time to throw oneself onto the mercy of God and trust i the inspiration and aid of the Holy Spirit.

    Paul: you begin your blog with a statement that, ultimately ministers are dependent upon the grace of God at work in their lives and can achieve nothing without the grace of Christ. I am sure that none of us would disagree. What, I think, Ruth is putting into the spotlight is the balance between “dependency on God” and “the competences achieved through practical training”. That is a balance which must be correctly achieved.

  3. Reading this post I remember I’d had the same ‘reaction’ before to the way ‘professionalism’ and ‘incompetency’ was used when you (rather harshly and slightly misleadingly I think) misunderstood John Piper’s thrust in his book ‘Brothers, We Are Not Professionals’. I made brief mention of that in my own blog post early in 2014 (see below for link).

    Given Andrew’s comments below, I am inclined to agree that this distinction between competency and professionism and the critique of others who use ‘words’ that suggest incompetency, must be more carefully thought through, because it seems to me in both cases there has been a profound misunderstanding of the authors intention, leading to a critique that is responding to a point not raised!

    Neither Piper nor Gouldbourne could surely be counted among the incompetent and unprofessional!

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