Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Proverbs and ministry

The book of proverbs may have been composed to train young men in the court. Kings certainly need wisdom to rule well (Prov 8:15). I imagine the emerging leaders of Israel working through the sayings of Solomon and preparing for their future roles. That makes me think that one fruitful way to use the proverbs is to relate them to leadership in the people of God. In the past of toyed with a project which explored Proverbs as ministry wisdom and I thought I’d give it a try here and see how it works.

I read Proverbs 14 on the train this morning, so that I where I am going to start.

Three themes in the chapter strike me as connecting with ministry.

The first is the value of wisdom. The chapter opens with a vivid image. On one block of ground a wise woman carefully places brick on brick constructing a home (presumably an unusual task for a women in ancient Israel). Her next door neighbour already has a lovely house, which she is determinedly demolishing. (Prov 14:1 cf v11). Of course fools don’t realise what they are doing. You’ve seen it in lives and families and probably in churches. Pastors are to build for Christ, and there are terrible warnings for those who destroy his church (1 Cor 3:10-17). Pastors and elders need to take extra care that they gain wisdom and act wisely. Wisdom bring protection, folly brings a beating (14:3); folly is gullible, wisdom is discerning (14:15).

The rash action, the thoughtless word, the inability to see how our actions hurt others, fights for my preferences and my preferred styles; time wasted on the unimportant while a ministry runs to seed, these are some of the actions of the foolish pastor. Inevitably there is pain for the pastor, and worse the Lord’s church is torn apart, rather than built up. On the other hand it is a great joy to see a humble, godly, united ministry team building a church under the Lord.

How do we get ministry wisdom? It is a gift of the Spirit, so pray for it. It is the invitation of Proverbs (1:2-7), so go there. If this project extends beyond this post it might help you find wisdom in the Proverbs.

Ch 14 gives one key step to wisdom: stop and think about it. 14:8 says the wise and prudent “give thought to their ways”. That seems to be a result of being wise, that you understand what you are doing, but it is also a path to wisdom. Want to be a wise pastor? Stop and think! Turn over your situation and your plans in your mind, ponder them, and don’t just shoot from the hip. Be aware of what are the big decisions and prayerfully think them through. Even if you have the right to make them alone, don’t; take counsel. Strive to understand what you are doing. 14:16 says the fool is “hotheaded and reckless”. The art of counting to 10, of not sending the email straight away, of not keeping a count of wrongs but letting things go; all of this is at the heart of pastoral wisdom. Wise pastors are reflective.

The second theme that catches my eye is the need for hard work. I have Proverbs 14:4 on notice board of my office “where there are no oxen, the manger is empty, but from the strength of an ox comes an abundant harvest.” Though the version I’ve used translates empty as clean, and I think that is the point. If you want everything nice and neat don’t get any work done, but if you want a harvest that takes work and work makes mess. 14:23 reinforces the fact that results require effort. There is a time to sit around and reflect to plan and understand –then there needs to be effort. I can remember several meetings I’ve been in, in which resolutions were made but nothing was done. Any growth, any results, any harvest will come from God’s hand, but will also take effort. Do not bemoan how unresponsive people are to the gospel, unless you are making clear and realistic efforts to proclaim the gospel. So get to work, and remember that work will make mess.

The third theme is found in two achingly beautiful the proverbs about the hidden depths of the inner life. Ministry is about people. So ministry wisdom means knowing something about ourselves and others. Sometime the experience of ministry promotes a deception that we have direct access to other people’s experience. We don’t. A lot of what who we are is known only to us and God (or only to God). So remember that “each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy” (14:10). As you talk and share with people, you don’t really know what is going on for them; nor they for you. That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to understand, but remember that there will always be depths of the inner life which will not and cannot be shared.

14:13 reminds us of the enigma of human experience: “even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief”. Maybe the best thing to do with this proverb is simply to recognise how true it is. Until God wipes every tear from our eyes there will always be sorrow. That’s good to remember that when leading worship. Joy is not the only Christian experience, or even the main one. Lets have joy, but also allow for lament, because it will come. For more on this see Carl Trueman’s great piece “What can miserable Christian’s sing?” which you can find here.

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