50 Lessons in Ministry
Paul Beasley-Murray discusses his new book, 50 Lessons in Ministry: Reflections after fifty years of ministry, and reflects on five decades of fruitful ministry experiences
October 10, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of your ordination. When did you first feel a sense of calling to ministry?
There never was a time when I did not believe that God had called me to be a minister. Like Isaiah’s Servant of the Lord (Isa 49:1), Jeremiah the prophet (Jer 1:5) and Paul the Apostle (Gal 1:15) I have been conscious of God’s hand upon my life. If there was one text which summed up my call to ministry, it would be some words of Jeremiah: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer 20:9)
In your new book, 50 Lessons in Ministry, you use the word privilege on several occasions in association with ministry. Which privileges have you been particularly aware of in your time as a minister?
I believe that being called to be a minister of a church is the most wonderful calling in the world. As I wrote in 50 Lessons in Ministry:
- What a privilege it is to be paid by God’s people to serve God in his church full-time! Some of those we have served would have given their right arm to do so. Many people in our churches have pretty mundane jobs, whereas we have been able to focus on things that really matter.
- What a privilege too it has been to enter into people’s homes and to share with them in some of the happiest and saddest times in their lives! Rightly understood pastoral visiting is not a chore, but a wonderful opportunity to represent the Lord Jesus to all and sundry.
- What a privilege it has been to be given time to study God’s Word day by day, and then on a Sunday to be able to share the fruits of that study with God’s people. True it is a demanding task coming up with something fresh Sunday by Sunday, but what a great calling is ours to share the good news of Jesus.
- What a privilege it has been to be surrounded by the many ‘ordinary’ people in our churches who loved us, encouraged us, prayed for us, and showed so many kindnesses to us! Add to that too the many people who gave so freely of their time to serve us as elders or deacons or church wardens or church stewards.
Which period of your ministry do you think was the most challenging and why? Which of the lessons in the book were learned during this time?
Ministry can be very tough. The first seven years of my ministry in Chelmsford, for instance, were seven difficult years. At one point I was leading the church into a redevelopment project. Most of my people agreed that we urgently needed to do something about our buildings, which were working against us rather than for us.
Unfortunately, there was small vocal group in the church who bitterly opposed the project. This bitterness became very personal and I became the focus of a huge amount of criticism. Not surprisingly younger people – and older people too - left the church, despairing of a church that apparently could not live at peace with itself. It was an extraordinarily difficult time.
Matters went from bad to worse when one of my deacons came to see me and told me he felt that God would have me leave the church; while another deacon threatened to move a vote of no confidence in me at the next church meeting. It was in this context of feeling a failure that I went on a week’s personally guided retreat in the wilds of Norfolk. There, every evening, I was given three Scriptures to pray over and report back the following evening on what I believed God was saying to me. It proved to be an extraordinarily painful experience, for the retreat director was effectively using Scripture to scourge my soul. But ultimately it was a wonderfully releasing experience, for as I came to realise, I was being encouraged to “look to Jesus” (Hebs 12:2,3), and to him alone.
One of the lessons I learnt and which I write about in my book is the need for ministers to persevere and never give up. With regard to the church building project, as a result of my ‘sticking at it’ not only was the church physically redeveloped, it was also spiritually renewed as a direct result of laying its life on the line financially in order to complete the project. My first seven ‘lean’ years were followed by a further fourteen very happy years of ministry.
If you could choose just five of the fifty lessons contained in your new book to relay to ministers in training or indeed ministers at any stage of their career, which five would you choose?
I find it difficult to select just five – but here are five for starters!
- A multi-cultural church is a sign of the kingdom. Difference and diversity in the church are not always easy to handle – it is easy to misunderstand one another. We need to affirm those who feel of less value than others, and where necessary practice positive discrimination.
- Names are important for people are important: for to greet people by name shows that they count. It is not enough to say on a Sunday morning, ‘Hi, how are you?’. Superficiality may be sufficient in the everyday world, but not amongst God’s people
- People need to be affirmed constantly. When ministers publicly praise members of their congregation for their achievement, rather than themselves take the credit for what has happened, there is always a large base of willing volunteers.
- Leadership demands passion. Passion gives leaders energy and attracts people to follow their lead. Passion is deeper than enthusiasm, for it is cruciform in shape. Vision gives direction to passion – passion motivates vision. The two are inseparably intertwined.
- Annual reviews are to be welcomed. First and foremost they are a time for affirmation, but also provide a safe environment for the sharing of pressures and for the discussing of problems; they give an opportunity to identify training needs and to rewrite job descriptions. The presence of an outside facilitator is vital.
One of the lessons you list in the book is that ‘church buildings matter’. How should one interpret this in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic which has seen many churches closed to congregations?
This time of coronavirus has been incredibly difficult for everybody – and not least for churches. I am full of admiration for the many ministers who have risen to the challenge and put on ‘virtual’ services Sunday by Sunday. Clearly churches can survive without buildings – but we cannot thrive without having buildings to meet in.
Although it may be another year away, I am hopeful that the day will come when vaccines have been developed and we can meet together again. However, my concern is not just for worship. As I make clear in my chapter on ‘church buildings matter’, my experience is that buildings can be a great investment in mission. Church buildings – rightly adapted – can become centres for seven-day-a-week holistic mission, serving the community and winning people for Jesus Christ.
Looking into the future, are you hopeful that the Church can continue to attract young people to ministry and, in turn, young people to congregations?
In his recent book British Gods: Religion in Modern Britain (Oxford University Press, 2020) Steve Bruce, professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen, concludes that the current stock of religious knowledge is so depleted, religion so unpopular, and committed believers so scarce that any significant reversal of religious decline in Britain is unlikely.
However, although Bruce is not a Christian, he does offer a glimmer of hope: “We want some evidence… that getting right with Jesus will indeed improve our lives. The best evidence is that it has worked for people who are sufficiently similar that we can see them as models for emulation”. Although he was not writing with young people in mind, I believe that young people fired up for Jesus can influence their peers.
But for this to happen, churches need to make young people a priority – and in particular they need to make the discipleship of young people a priority. As I look back upon my ministry, there was a stage when our work amongst young people ‘exploded’ – the group of five or six young people meeting for an after-church fellowship on a Sunday evening mushroomed into a group of over one hundred young people doing Bible study together every Sunday evening. Baptisms abounded – with the young people filling the church with their non-Christian school friends. In spite of the passing of time, most of those former young people are still committed to Christ and his church, with a number having entered into Christian ministry in one form or another. Where radical discipleship is at the heart of youth work, I believe that young people can still be won to Christ.
Paul Beasley-Murray was ordained in 1970. He was Minister of Altrincham Baptist Church (1973 to 1986), Principal of Spurgeon’s College (1986 to 1992) and Senior Minister of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford (1993 to 2014), overseeing periods of significant growth at all of these institutions.
He is Chairman of the College of Baptist Ministers, and writes Church Matters, a weekly blog of resources for churches and ministers which has an international readership.
Paul's latest book Fifty Lessons in Ministry: Reflections after Fifty Years in Ministry has recently been published by Darton, Longman and Todd
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