Only Ministry Matters

Regardless of “profession,” serve God in all you do

By Phil Wagler

During my first pastoral call I was a tent-maker. Okay, that’s a bit of a misnomer; I didn’t make tents at all. More accurately, I was a lawn-mower, a weed-warrior, a rider of the green and yellow machine that runs like a deer. In clearer terms, I was a pastor paid part-time wages by a fellowship doing all they could, supplementing my income one lawn at a time (which, of course, was only a summer solace).

“Tent-maker,” the cloaked language for this form of ministry, finds its roots in the Apostle Paul’s ways and means as a preacher-man. Paul was trained as a tent-maker, a noble trade in ancient times, and this skill and craft allowed him to make a living wherever he went, not to mention keep a ship-shape roof over his head.

In New Testament times every Jewish boy learned a trade, a work of strong hands that could be joined to the work of loving God with the mind, heart, and soul. Such a skill kept the Hebrew man connected to the earth and marketplace, part of the daily grind of the every day and its joys, challenges, and hazards. This would prove enormously beneficial to Paul and instrumental in the gospel of the Kingdom making its way into the nooks and crannies of Roman society.

I remember many times buzzing along beneath the beating summer sun, chatting with interesting people, and wondering just when God would open up the door for me to do the “real” work of ministry. By that, of course, I meant the opportunity to pour myself full-time into the service of the Church and her mission in the world.

It’s a noble goal; a goal many Christ-following men feel an attraction to. The “real” work of the Kingdom surely belongs to those who are freed to devote their lives full time in this way, doesn’t it? It’s only ministry that matters, right?

Low and behold, a couple years into my pastoral career that door swung open and I parked the lawn-mower and slid my rear end full time into a pastor’s study chair— and a wobbly one at that (the John Deere was undoubtedly more comfortable). From that moment until today, apart from a few short spells, my life has been Christian ministry. It is my life call and I will serve in this capacity until God points me elsewhere. However, I now find myself on the opposite side of the “problem.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to commit my energies in this way, but I miss sweating in the hot, hot sun, chats with customers about everyday life, and facing problems that can actually be fixed. I increasingly get very frustrated when the work of ministry I believe I am called to gets reduced to the slick operation of a religious organization—sometimes by the very people who call you “pastor” when what they really mean is “CEO.”

Truth be told, one of the greatest dangers of “professional” ministry is its professionalization. Without a doubt, we should offer our best and serve with dignified respect the offices God has created for the leadership and service of God’s people. However, where ministry slips into a club you get into simply by the degrees you’ve earned, or who you know, how well you can play politics, or what you can list on a resumé, we risk both damaging the mission of the church and deceiving ourselves.

Any call to ministry in the Bible that is authentic and genuine is founded first and foremost on the quality of a person’s Christ-like character and demonstration of the fruit of the Kingdom of God. As of yet, there are no degrees available in that school, though you can undeniably identify those who are in process of graduating.

Here’s the thing: perhaps you believe your work is not really as valuable to God as the work of your pastor or that missionary you support and read tales of. If that’s the case, then the vast majority of biblical saints were only half-baked successes in the eyes of the LORD.

Abraham ran a family business and as far as we know never preached one sermon. Moses knew the palaces of Egypt and the smell of sheep. David was a shepherd, soldier, and politician. Elisha and Amos were farmers. Mordecai was a bureaucrat. Nehemiah was a wine-taster with a hidden engineering ingenuity.

When Jesus needed a team that could change the world He chose among the 12 a tax man and a few fishermen. Why was it that He seemed to completely ignore and even actively chastised the religious professionals of His day? Perhaps, He knew something crucial—religious work can actually neuter the work of the Kingdom. The professionals become managers of God rather than servants of His Kingdom and the Almighty…well, He’s not particularly in need of supervision.

God never seems all that interested in our accomplishments, but more by what He has accomplished in us. The only way His accomplishments are achieved in us is when we live a life of surrender and ministry regardless of our vocation.

In fact, for every believer, ministry— service to God—is our full-time vocation, regardless of who writes our paycheque. As a result, what matters most is not  whether you have a title like “pastor,” but that you do everything you do for the glory of God.

Paul the tent-maker instructs slaves in the first century, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23 – NIV). Paul is clear, only ministry matters, and that’s precisely what a slave is called to: serve the Lord at all times. For Paul, the model of ministry is not the religious professional, but the lowest of the low, for he repeatedly introduces himself as a servant or slave of Jesus Christ (c.f. Romans 1:1). The slave who gives his all for his Master is what ministry is all about.

It is true, only ministry matters. But, if we are right in this, it is all of life that is ministry.

If you have been thinking your work as a truck driver, nurse, high school teacher, paramedic, factory-worker, bureaucrat, financial advisor, farmer or even lawn-mower is somehow second class in God’s eyes, think again. Sure, God may open a door for you to invest some or even the majority of your time in the labour of the Church, but that will only come as the result of the quality of your character and ministry-life is revealed in the context of the call and vocation you are living right now in your fellowship, home, school and workplace. Only that will save you from professionalizing Christian ministry to the point where you end up protecting the “business” that God himself may be turning over the tables on.

So, what shall we conclude? That development of your Christ-like character matters. That the ministry you have right now matters and how you are doing there—even if it feels like abject slavery— reveals the true you.

We learn God calls people into leadership when He sees fit and sees them as fit and that is affirmed by the community of the saints who are pretty good at evaluating when they have found another one who actually understands that only a life of ministry matters.

Phil Wagler is a pastor in Surrey, BC and still loves the smell of a freshly cut lawn.


THE ARTICLE ABOVE WAS FEATURED IN THE MARCH 2014 ISSUE OF SEVEN MAGAZINE. GET SEVEN FREE