This summer my family and I visited Washington, D.C. We spent nine days there, seeing more museums, monuments, government buildings, historical documents, and gift shops than I could remember now without looking at the complex itinerary we made for ourselves (and mostly followed). It wasn’t really a vacation–it was more like an intense tourism project. We were determined to see as much of the area as we could, and to learn as much as we could in the process. Not everything we saw was deeply reverential or awe-inspiring–two of us took a quick jaunt through Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, and one of the highlights of our trip was the International Spy Museum. But some days were full of significance and heavy emotion. Among these weighty moments were our visits to war monuments in Arlington National Cemetery, on the National Mall, and elsewhere.
These monuments are powerful tributes to some of our nation’s darkest days and greatest acts of heroism and sacrifice, and I found myself inspired by all of them–inspired to reflect on the sacrifices and grief they represented, the terrible cost of war, and the benefits I enjoy at other generations’ expense. Among the monuments themselves, my favorite was the U.S. Marine Corp War Memorial, depicting U.S. Marines raising the American flag over Iwo Jima after a bloody battle during World War II. I was blown away by the massive size and artistic beauty of this sculpture, a fitting tribute to the tremendous strength, bravery, and determination it memorializes.
But while I found that monument most striking, it was not the one I found most powerful to visit. That honor belongs to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which moved my husband and me to weep. Part of what made this such an emotional experience was the design of the memorial itself, with its lists of names inscribed in black granite. Part of it was the fact that this was the only tribute to the sacrifices of a war that happened during our lifetime–my husband remembers the end and we both remember the immediate aftermath. But the greatest reason for our emotion was that this memorial was surrounded by people who had actually fought in that war.
The day we were there, an Honor Flight group of Vietnam Veterans was also visiting. Some enjoyed reunions with old friends, some quietly touched the granite-cold names of fallen buddies they had known in their youth, some posed for pictures in the hats and shirts they wore proudly to commemorate their service. My husband and I remember (with a child’s confusion) how those veterans were treated when they came home. It was beautiful to see them holding their heads high and being treated with respect. And walking along that wall with people who had been there and back made that painful part of our history so much more real.
There is application for the church here. I’m aware of many church leaders that would do more powerful ministry if they grew more comfortable with handing ministry leadership to people who have been there and back. The common corporate-style model of church ministry, with pastors at the helm and volunteers often engaged as minions to fulfill the vision of overworked professionals, has fed a sense that all important ministry must be done by ministry professionals. This has the effect of dampening vision among the people in the pews and simultaneously placing tremendous pressure on church staff–expectations that they implement far more than they can possibly handle. After all, in a church where everything important must be planned, initiated, and accomplished by a pastor, needs pile up at the pastor’s door. It means pastors are working long hours, sometimes neglecting their own families, often neglecting their own health, and feeling the oppressive potential of what could be done if only they had more resources. It also means a lot of good, important ministry doesn’t happen because church staff members don’t have time, energy, or interest available to cover it.
But ministry is not really a profession–or even a professional skill. I don’t mean to undervalue a pastor’s role or even a seminary education. Both are supremely important. But they are not all a good church needs. Anyone can be a minister (with varying degrees of responsibility and formality), and in many cases people who are not on the church staff are the most well-equipped for the ministries in question, with pastors playing the support roles.
Mental health ministry is a perfect example of ministry that is more real and more effective if its leaders–or at least informal influencers–have “been there.” In Troubled Minds, I wrote profiles of churches with intentional ministries to people with mental illness. All of them were led by people with mental illness or people who had close family members with serious illness. This can be a special calling for people who have journeyed through the hardship of mental health crisis and who are healthy enough to lead others. They have walked in the shoes of the people they’re ministering to.
Even Jesus’ ministry to us is richer because he’s been here. He “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin.” Because of his understanding and his status as a representative of humanity, we can approach God knowing that “we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (Hebrews 4:15-16). We who have walked with Jesus are also well equipped to offer grace to those who need it.
Pastors and other church leaders, don’t believe you have to do all the ministry yourself. Look for people who have been there, and equip them to make their experience count for someone else.
© 2014 Amy Simpson.