Martyrdom of the mundane

The “administrivia” that leaders face can seem divorced from the real work of ministry. But attending to small details pays off in ways that are hard to imagine, writes Louis Weeks.

When the Rev. Whitney Bayer was called as associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Salisbury, N.C., she became quickly immersed in the details of administration: Budget-tending, accounting for gifts, replying to e-mails, oceans of correspondence. At first it just seemed like “administrivia” -- mundane tasks divorced from the real work of ministry.

But soon, she says, she found both the daily routines making sense and (she winces at the expression) “paying off.” When she attended to the details, not only did things go more smoothly, she also found her own spiritual life grew, her sense of vocation was confirmed and she could proclaim the gospel more effectively. “The little things and the big things all make sense together,” she says. “I gain confidence and competence, and I can feel the improvement in my prayer life, too. I just know I can be of more help now.”

Pastors and congregational leaders grow in faith from hearing the heroic examples of Christian ministry. The Holy Spirit uses people such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mother Teresa of Calcutta to teach discipleship.

But in researching my book, “All for God's Glory: Redeeming Church Scutwork,” I found that church leaders also grow in faith from the more quotidian routines, from the everyday details and administration of programs and church groups.

I know from my own experience as a pastor and seminary president that most people do not engage those mundane jobs in order to deepen their own faith. In fact, giving away time and energy to this kind of work seems to be the opposite of trying to grow spiritually. Yet, remarkably, as you give of yourself in unremarkable ways to manage and lead, you receive God’s gifts of faith and hope mediated through the routines, acts and words that constitute ministry.

Bayer, for example, directs Teens With a Mission (TWAM), which takes 30-plus young people each year to work and learn. The annual mission trip, usually to assist efforts of Christian congregations in Mexico, is celebrated by the whole community, not just members of the church. Photos and articles in the local paper cover the trip and also elicit competitors for a 3K run. Churches and businesses sponsor runners. When the kids return, they speak in service organizations as well as youth groups in the area. It is a big deal, involving hundreds of people, scores of engagements and thousands of dollars.

Mounting such a project takes considerable effort, and Bayer realized immediately that, although a church secretary helped with some tasks, the burden of making sure income matched expenses fell to her, as did the acknowledgements of several hundred individual gifts. Those chores quickly became more than scutwork, however.

“I discovered from that first year that if I just did a few extra routines, more people would be drawn into our effort and see better results of their giving. I invited those not members of the church to our reports and celebrations. Some people even joined us for worship services. A little extra work goes a long way toward building relationships and helping people, ministering to them,” she said.

She has also found that seemingly minor interactions with youth have had an impact she could not have predicted. “They tell me about my helping them at times I never realized I did. One senior told me about a comment I made to her three years ago. She remembered it now as ‘an answer to prayer.’ I think I recall the incident, but I had no idea of the effect of my words until just recently. It was an everyday conversation we had,” Bayer said.

“God, you used me even when I didn’t realize it,” she concluded.

Other pastors speak of their faith growing from their extra attention to the menial parts of planning and assessment. One told of worshipping more easily because of having organized the board of deacons to lead pastoral prayers. “And that means they also pray for me in worship, something I could not very well do when I led the prayers.”

Maggie Lauterer at Burnsville Presbyterian in Burnsville, N.C., said planning for child-friendly worship had helped everyone become more playful in worship. “Even me!” she said.

A retired pastor testified that his own generosity grew when some elders responded positively to the consultant he arranged to be with them. “Initially, I took some flak for setting it up. But then a couple of the elders were transformed, and they took responsibility for asking everyone to give more. My wife and I had tithed mostly from a sense of duty, but now we enjoyed our giving -- gave more, too.”

I confess I am still surprised by the power of such small moments, 40 and more years into ministry, though perhaps I should not be. In that crucial center of Mark’s Gospel, Chapter 8, Jesus tells the disciples: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

True in martyrdom, but also in the mundane.