Paul’s counsel to Timothy to atune ourselves to the mind and heart of Christ is a wake-up call for ministry formation, writes Sean Gilbert.
“Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way … ” (1 Timothy 4:7b-8a)
Paul’s encouragement to Timothy has nothing to do with sanctimonious practices of faith yet everything to do with a growing attunement to the mind and heart of Christ. “Godliness” in this particular context means a deepening of character in Christ, born and sustained by the Holy Spirit. In short, it is a life of reverencing—of seeing then doing in Christ’s name.
With ministry practice in mind, such forming processes are significantly free of pressures to perform, impress or leave an indelible holy mark! What is more important and arguably what is most pressing today, are ministers of forming character who can authentically reflect the salted character of Christ’s own ministry. And whilst not discounting the place of skills development and competencies, such a biblical (baptismal) understanding of formation—for ministry—might offer a needed corrective, if not an overdue wakeup call.
In typical acerbic voice, Thomas Merton wrote,
“The one who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening their own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love Christ, will not have anything to give others but the contagion of their own obsessions, their aggressiveness, their ego-centred ambitions, their delusions about ends and means, their doctrinaire prejudices and ideas … ”
Merton’s prophetic insight digs uncomfortably at what can ail the Christian church with regards to its leadership and an often unformed disposition, namely a presumption upon Christ and not a life lived humbly or securely in Christ by virtue of prayerful or contemplative practice.
In my own experience, this is no small matter or an exercise in mere semantics. It really counts so far as ministry delivery is concerned because in the end, to whom are we pointing as the source of saving grace and from what wells are we drawing in order to make that witness compelling? If it subtly or not-so-subtly be ourselves, in and for ourselves, such “ministry” will either blandly run out of steam or end in injurious ruin. We have seen too much of these extremes of late.
May it be then, in an anxious church climate seeking surefire solutions or overnight changes, that Paul’s “training” counsel to Timothy still be the basis of everything pertaining to ministry practice itself? Never just an add-on but the heart and soul of who we are called to be.
Sean is lecturer in ministry practice, Uniting College of Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. Sean is currently writing a doctoral thesis on, “Spiritual Affections and the Art of Christian Ministry.”