Sunday, December 06, 2009

Thinking through ministry and parents

[This is a bit more of a personal post]

The past month has been difficult. I've felt really disheartened at various points. I've had a few...battles (the word doesn't seem quite right. Disagreements? Skirmishes?) with my parents once they realised that ministry wasn't just some passing fancy I'm into at the moment. While I didn't start my church apprenticeship 15 months ago by announcing to my parents: "I'm going to be a pastor/church planter/missionary for the rest of my life!", I think just doing the apprenticeship signalled that I was definitely exploring the call to full-time paid gospel ministry (thereafter I will simply use "ministry" or "full-time ministry" interchangeably to refer to this). When I sought counsel about the way in which I should engage my parents, the advice I receive was to keep them informed and to gradually open up to them some of my plans, so that it wouldn't be a bolt out of nowhere. I still think that was sound advice. And I believe that for the most part I have. I was up-front, for example, with the fact that I went to talk to a pastor in KL with a view to future options nearly a year ago now.

An apprenticeship is meant to be a testing ground to explore the call into full-time ministry, and simultaneously a stepping stone should it seem as if that call is to be pursued further. And to be honest, everything seems to be pointing that way. The work is very hard, make no mistake, but I love what I do. I appear to have teaching and preaching gifts, even if they still need to be worked hard at. Character, that most important of traits, is harder for me to judge, but I haven't been pulled aside and told that I have such serious transgressions as to be disqualified, if that counts for anything! :) Which is why I'm thinking about this seriously.

But it's hard to communicate with my parents about all this. My parents don't fit neatly into any box - on some fronts, they seem like very traditional Asian parents; on others, they have proved to be more open-minded. I'll say, for instance, that they were more positive about me embarking on my apprenticeship than I expected. Still, they've got a very different worldview from mine. And to be fair, the only models they have to go on are those in Malaysia. I noticed, for example, that they just don't seem to understand, despite me trying to explain it as clearly as I can multiple times (and believe me I've tried!), that people do get paid for this stuff, as yes, they do get paid enough to cover their basic needs at the least! Now, to be honest, I don't know much about pay structure and things like that in Malaysia for those in full-time ministry, but I am realistic enough to know that it's pretty low. (If you know more, please enlighten me in the comments!) In some harder situations, for example, a pastor will have to go bivocational. But that's not going to happen with me with the current options I have. I do think it will be hard. I come from a middle-class background, as is obvious from being able to go to university in the UK. So nice holidays abroad, for example, might no longer be easy to come by on a salary of your average full-timer. But it's not the end of the world.

There's also the "you can still work a full-time job and do ministry on the side" argument: this seems to be a favourite of Asian parents everywhere, as some of my other friends in ministry testify. Well, I had to explain the "full-time" in "full-time ministry", and the value of ministry of the word, but how do you do that when their worldviews are so different? It's made even more complex when I naturally advocate every-member ministry, i.e full-time ministry does not make you more inherently spiritual; there is a sense in which every Christian is full-time. But then to say that there is also a sense in which some people are set apart for full-time ministry. Regular readers of the blog will remember that I preached from Ephesians 4:7-16 over a month ago, which touches on this very issue. Frustratingly for me, it seems as if every church member apart from my parents understood what I was going on about!

And then there's the "you should gain experience in the real world first" argument. This one I've thought about long and hard, because this argument has validity. After all, I am very young. And I think every young person thinking about full-time ministry must wrestle hard with this. In the end, though, I think this one has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. Why? There are quite a few reasons. Firstly, it isn't always the case that you must experience something to be able to minister effectively into that situation. After all, no one person will ever experience the full range of possible experiences. If you get married and have kids, then you have traded off the experience of being single into your old age, and vice versa. Would you say the married/single person has nothing to offer the person of different marital status simply because he or she has never had that experience? Now, that's not to say experience in the working world is not valuable, and it could definitely give you unique insights that are not available elsewhere. What is it like to work for a prickly non-Christian boss? When everyone is busy handing out duit kopi? But I'm trying to say that it's not the clinching argument. For some, they will benefit from time in the working world. For others, it's not necessary.

Also, I do sometimes bristle at the fact that Christian ministry isn't the "real world". I've met up with a non-Christian managing director of a publishing company at least 10 years, if not more, older than me to read the Bible together and to talk about life. I've sat with a homeless person and warmed up his sandwich. I laughed together with PhD students and discussed pressing academic matters. I work in a cross-cultural situation as the only non-Western staff member of my church. Granted, my experiences of the world look different, but is this less "real-world"? The other thing to consider is the difference in age and how that dynamic works in an Asian culture. I've thought about it. And I think this means that it's definitely true that I probably won't gain a hearing from them initially. But does that disqualify younger ones like me automatically from ministry? No, it means I have to work hard at every aspect of my godliness, to be a bit more tentative in some of the things I say, to be quick to listen and slow to speak to older heads.

You probably think from my above two paragraphs that I've already made up my mind to go full-time straight away. Believe it or not, I haven't. I spoke to our long-term mission partner, who is a British-born Chinese (Malaysian and HK parents), when I was on a mission to X Country in the summer. He has first-hand experience of parental opposition. And he offered really good advice. One reason in favour of working a "secular" job is simply to grow up a bit. Now I think sometimes I am in need of that! But he cautioned against taking a secular job simply to "earn credibility". That advice takes on renewed force now that I know some of my mum's friends have been whispering amongst themselves about the son who went to a highly esteemed university but is thinking about taking a job that doesn't command much respect! (These are professing Christians, btw, and I confess to dreaming up some rather unChristian retorts). But that has made me pause about completely rushing in. At the same time, since I've been back, one thing that has been hugely emphasised is the urgency of the task. Malaysia is really lacking in full-time Christian workers, and more than one person has independently expressed their concern to me about the next generation and whether we lose the ground that was so hard-won. So there is definitely a part of me that simply wants to press on and not dither.

Oh, and of course, there's the classic Ephesians 6:2 argument, a favourite of all Asian Christian parents. I always think, how about verse 4? But what has helped early on is recognising honouring your parents does not mean obeying them in everything. Of course, we have to be careful - that doesn't suddenly mean you can justify your every disobedient action! But v.4 does provide supporting context. It's not just that parents are not to exasperate their children, but that they are to do so by instructing their children in the ways of the Lord. And so to honour your parents is to walk in the way of the Lord, in line with the task God has set them, which can sometimes mean not going with their every whim! (The mission partner I mentioned earlier also had some interesting exegetical support from Exodus, but I'm not sure I can completely recall it now so don't want to put words in his mouth).

Wow, you're probably thinking I've been so calm and reasoned! Trust me, I'm not. I have been upset with myself that I have gotten argumentative and defensive with my parents so easily and quickly! And I don't want to paint my parents as the veritable bad guys. I have to understand how their worldview and life experiences has impacted them, and I am actually confident that in the long term, they will be supportive. But it's been very disappointing not to feel their support now, though it was expected. And it is quite hard when you're treated like a kid when others treat you like an adult! They seem to think I've been very gung-ho when really, my temperament (and more importantly, the fact that God surely doesn't like impetuous fools) militates against it. Instead, I've been torturing myself with "should I or shouldn't I?"

Well, I was going to write more on some of the more disheartening moments in the past month, but those are nothing to do with parents, so that will have to be for another post. Comments welcome.

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