Ministry Monday: Zack Eswine on Valuing Locality

This summer, I began Monday mornings at 6 AM on my porch, nursing coffee and reading Sensing Jesus, by Zack Eswine. A professor at Covenant Seminary, and fellow-sufferer in the travails of ministry, he warns about the temptation pastors sometimes (ehm, often) feel to focus their efforts “out there,” away from the relationships and banal chores of the local church. Whether escaping through writing projects and trips, or daydreaming of their next pastorate, ministers need to beware of neglecting the place God has presently given them to inhabit.

"A placeless ambition can likewise rob us of the kind of happiness that God intends. J. W. Alexander once noted this in his Thoughts on Preaching. A pastor without care for locality becomes what Alexander called a “ceremonious visitor” of the people he serves. His body is present but his mind is always looking elsewhere for meaning and success. But “the minister of the gospel,” is meant to find the “source of happiness in his parochial work and social communion” that God gave to him." (65)

He goes on to quote Alexander,

"What is it that really constitutes the happiness of a residence? Is it a fine house, furniture, equipage . . . large salary, wealthy pew holders? Nay, it is LOVE. It is the affectionate and mutual attachment. It is the daily flow of emotion, and commingling of interest in common sorrows and common joys; in the sick-room, and the house of bereavement, at the death-bed and the grave, at baptisms and communions. . . . The declaration of what one believes, and the praise of what one loves, always give delight: and what but this is the minister’s work?" (66)

I share Eswine's conviction that “happiness with the people and place we are in confounds many of us.” Satisfaction with unspectacular ministries requires ambitious men, as Chesterton says, to “exult in monotony.” Yet God is not wearied by the repetition of our labors. He values the same, day-in-day-out service as though it were the first ever. In fact, God probably values it more, because he understands our struggles:

"A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. And now it dawns on me. Restless discontent is a kind of fatigue. When a finite creature covets omnipresence he loses sight of sight itself. Imagination becomes placeless. Detail loses relevance. Routine becomes boring; arrogance and impatience bid a person to never look twice or long before moving onto somewhere or to something else. To exult in monotony is to deepen roots." (66)

We are prone to think that because something is commonplace, it is less important in God's sight. And so we long to be omnipresent, doing everything, everywhere, for everyone. But an unspectacular ministry may be exactly the kind God cherishes, simply because he hasn't grown tired of how it glorifies his unexpected strength.

Anyway, Sensing Jesus nails this aspect of ministerial life. It's a worthwhile book. Pick it up.