Real Ministry Centers on Relationship, Not Marketing


Thirty years. Easter Sunday was for my wife and me our 30th anniversary.

“Interesting,” someone might say, “since three of your four sons are older than 30. Glad you got around to tying the knot.”

Now did I say it was a wedding anniversary? No, I did not.

But, though I couldn’t have known it fully at the time, Easter Sunday 1985, my first Sunday in the pulpit of the church I still serve, bore witness to a covenant much more akin to a marriage than to a business contract or a casual employment arrangement between preacher and church, each looking for a good deal.

I remember that some of my pastoral colleagues in the city from whence I moved were worried about me. They didn’t like the look of the marriage. I was headed to a smaller town and a small church. These were pastors in “connectional systems” who, if they did a good job, could pretty much count on at least some “upward mobility.”

I tried in vain to explain that seriously prestigious churches (which probably should be a contradiction in terms anyway) in our little group were rare to non-existent. Any preacher in my anti-denomination denomination wanting to climb a career “ladder” had better jump the fence and look for ladders elsewhere. Our little group of churches had plenty of problems of its own, but an over-abundance of “ladders” was not one of them.

Maybe in a sense my colleagues were right. Thirty years in a small church “marriage” may indeed spell death to a “career.” And in that may lie great blessing as both church and pastor learn some precious truths, and together they grow in ways that matter.

Real ministry is more than marketing; the real thing centers on relationship. It starts, of course, with loving the Lord first of all and then building on that divine love in human relationship. Building anything worthwhile takes time.

Relationships can be messy, and the best and the worst in life in a local church centers on the fact that the church is as human as it is heavenly. On any given day or any given moment, it can and does veer wildly off in either direction. And pastors face choices. To be law people or grace people. To be organization people or relationship people. To be bean counters or to be shepherds. Somewhere along the way (and this is true in other professions, too, by the way), they find out if their lives are about “calling” or “career.”

Pastor and author Eugene Peterson warns that in our market-driven consumer society, the last folks the church needs as pastors are religious entrepreneurs with business models who cut and run whenever the present church “marriage” loses its glitz: “The vocation of pastor has to do with living out the implications of the word of God in community, not sailing off into the exotic seas of religion in search of fame or fortune.”

Thirty years of laughter, love, and precious tears. I’m still very thankful indeed for the “marriage.” But if this is just a “career,” boy, do I need a ladder!


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Copyright 2015 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.


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