Ministry can be a lonely business. Just check Google and you will see a host of entries featuring the loneliness of ministers. For although ministers are surrounded by people, most are not surrounded by ‘colleagues’: rather they work alone.
When I was inducted to my first pastorate, I too knew something of that loneliness. I was a ‘solo’ minister. There was no other minister with whom I could share the pastoral task. True, I had some super ‘deacons’ (the Baptist term for lay-leaders) – but although they were good friends and great encouragers, none of them had ever known what it was like to be a minister. However, within a matter of a few years a ‘pastoral associate’ was appointed and life changed. From then on I have always worked with others. To be precise, in the two churches where I was the pastor, I was blessed over the years with a total of 13 colleagues.
Or is ‘colleague’ the best term? I love the expression that Paul uses in Phil 4.3, where he describes an unknown church leader as ‘a loyal yoke-fellow’ (suzuge). Unfortunately, modern English translations do not do justice to the metaphor and provide other synonyms such as “a loyal companion” (NRSV), “my loyal comrade” (REB), “my true companion” (NIV), “my faithful partner (GNB). For once the AV (as also the RSV) are to be preferred: “a true yokefellow”. A yoke-fellow implies the closest of partnerships in which we are bound together to fulfil a common task. In the words of Stanley Ott, “We are yoked to other believers in loyalty, friendship, and service. Yokefellows are ‘teammates’ pulling a common load in service to Christ – a great picture of a ministry team”. It is also a great picture of the kind of relationships that I have enjoyed with my 13 ‘colleagues’.
It was only a few months ago, however, that I realised that I had never paid tribute publicly to my ‘magnificent thirteen’. I had paid tribute individually to each of them when the time came for them to move on, but I had never thanked them as a group. This was all the more surprising in that at various times I have paid tribute to the men and women who served as ‘deacons’. So, for instance, the dedication of my book, Radical Leaders: A Guide for Elders and Deacons in Baptist Churches, reads: “In appreciation of all those deacons who have served with me in my churches in Altrincham and in Chelmsford. To a large degree I am what I am because of them.” Yet strangely I have never dedicated a book to my ‘colleagues in ministry’. To my shame I realise that I had almost taken for granted the privilege of working in a team with other ministers.
So to mark the beginning of Lent I wrote to all my past colleagues. In the letter (and for former colleagues working in the UK, it was a letter and not an email) I said:
“I realise I have never publicly thanked as a group those who served with me in one form of ministry or another. This has been a major oversight, which needs to be put right – perhaps initially in a blog, and then later as a dedication in a future book. For as I look back on my experience of two great churches, I have been incredibly blessed by all of you. It has been a wonderful privilege to have worked with a succession of gifted men and women, who proved to be great ‘yoke fellows’ (see Phil 4.3) – ‘team mates’ in modern jargon – in the service of Christ. It was because of your commitment – to God, the church, and to me – that we saw so much good happen. So I decided to mark the beginning of Lent 2017 by setting some time aside to write this letter of appreciation. Thank you for the many ways in which each of you enriched my ministry.”
Yes, as I look back I realise that I have been enormously privileged to have such a wonderful group of colleagues. So thank you Anne, Glen, Dave, Paul, Mike, Martin, David, Matt, David (the second), Emma, Nick, Leesa, and Matt (the second).
A timely essay…thank you. I am pleased that you mentioned in your titled book, “Elders”. I do not see enough emphasis today, as in the New Testament days, about the Elders. You did not mention them…?
Anyway, from across the sea…thank you for your words.