The Ministry of “I Don’t Know”

frustratedWhat could I possibly say to this mother? I didn’t know what it was like to be an addict, nor to be the parent of an addict. Granted we know many individuals who have been addicted to drugs. Our church ministers largely to the recovery community in our town.  But if I am honest, I don’t really know what to say to them either. That’s a common thing for me these days. I feel like the pastor of an “I don’t know” ministry. But the ministry of “I don’t know” has some real benefits to the church.

In many ways pastors and their congregations view the role of pastor as a “professional” position. That is to say we can sometimes view the pastor as an expert in Christianity and in church life. Of course the only real expert was Jesus. Even the disciples got it wrong from time to time and needed to be corrected. Pastors should be well-trained, well prepared, and should know generally what they are doing in the ministry. But that hardly makes them experts. Even the pastor with the degree can hardly be said to have “Mastered Divinity.” No, the truth is far more humbling and that’s a good thing.

For starters, a ministry of “I don’t know” helps to keep me from arrogance. Not perfectly, of course, but when I don’t know what I am doing I am less prone to talk like an “expert” pastor. And if I am honest, a lot of days I don’t know what I am doing. I struggle to say the right thing sometimes. I have bad ideas, bad plans, and bad strategies sometimes. I’ve watched faithful disciples walk away from the faith, guys in recovery relapse, and godly folks make bad decisions. And in those moments I think, what did I do wrong? Of course sometimes I didn’t do anything wrong. We are all responsible for our own choices. But there are times where I know, as a pastor, I just dropped the ball. That kind of failure is hard to accept and deal with. But it keeps me dependent on the God who never fails.

A ministry of “I don’t know” also reminds me of my desperate need for the help of the Holy Spirit. In my daily activities I am not relying simply on my own ingenuity, creativity, and knowledge. I feel like I am well-trained, and well-read. But there are some things that no amount of reading can prepare you for. What do you say to a guy who’s fiance has just been secretly taken out-of-town by her parents? What do you say to the guy who has prayed and prayed for God not to make him gay, but can’t change who he’s attracted to? What do you say to the mother whose son has just died in a freak accident? If I am relying on my book knowledge and seminary classes to help me in those moments I am not only going to find little to draw from, but I am also probably going to say the wrong thing or say it intensively. I need the Holy Spirit to help me. God said once to his prophet Jeremiah that he would give him the words to say, and I believe his Spirit continues to do that today with faithful and prayerful pastors. I want to be that kind of pastor and a ministry of “I don’t know” helps me.

It also helps me to focus on people above and beyond method and productivity. It’s easy for pastors to view people as a means to their own accomplishments. So instead of patiently working with difficult counseling cases we can dismiss the frustrating people, the ones who aren’t changing according to our schedule, in order to “accomplish the most good for the most people.” We can get frustrated with the lack of growth, lack of development, or lack of fruit, because ultimately we think of how that reflects on us as “professionals.” Sometimes a lack of baptisms can be evidence of failure on the pastors part, but sometimes it can just mean a lack of baptisms, nothing more. It’s easy to lose sight of people in the midst of doing ministry. But when I don’t know what I am doing it helps me to focus on the things that I do know: love, hurt, sorrow, frustration, struggle, i.e. the stuff common to all of us. I may not know what to say to someone going through rehab, but I understand feeling disappointed with my failures. I may not know what to say to the guy or gal who doesn’t want to have same-sex attractions, but I understand struggling with sexual temptation. I may not know what it’s like to lose a child, but I know loss and I know I love my children. A “ministry of I don’t know” turns me away from methods and productivity towards people, and that’s the place Jesus wants me to focus most anyways.

Lastly, this kind of frustrating ministry helps me to work for the long-haul and not the immediate result. Because so much written on the pastorate focuses on results and strategies, and because of our ludicrous obsession with “celebrity pastors” we often compare ministries and ministers. And this can mean that we live for quick results to validate our own productivity and our own status as ministers. That is a sad and disgusting sin that we as pastors must repent of. But in addition we must also consider that it drives us away from long-term commitments. If there’s no immediate evidence from our work then we are often less interested in putting in the time and energy. But real discipleship, and often evangelism, don’t happen quickly. Growth in godliness happens over a long period of time. It takes discipline, consistency, and long-term relationships to really help people change. That’s not easy, but it is worth it. A ministry of “I don’t know” is the kind of ministry that drives us towards long-term commitments.

All pastors go through these hard seasons, dry seasons, where we feel like we don’t know what we’re doing in the ministry. Maybe you’re there now, friends, or maybe you’ll be there tomorrow. But a time will come where you feel tired, frustrated, and uncertain. When it does, know that such a ministry can be a good thing if it drives you to submit to God and to love his people.

David Dunham is associate pastor at Revolution Church in Portsmouth, OH. He also serves as Executive Director for The Southern Ohio Pastor’s Coalition. David graduated from Ohio University (B.A.) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.).

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