The Un-Interview

A couple of weeks ago I led a workshop at the LifeServe National Conference which I titled “The Un-Interview.” The topic was ministry conversations–those conversations we equipping leaders have with newcomers to our congregation or with folks who decide it’s time to “get more involved”–and how to get the most out of them. I recently read Henri Nouwen’s book, Spiritual Direction,  and it was playing through my mind as I prepared my presentation.

As ministry leaders, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to treat these conversations like marketplace interviews. Certainly there are similarities. We are trying to match people/skills to roles. But there’s so much more to ministry conversations than matching and placement! We would do well to see them as prime opportunities to discover what God is doing in a person’s life.

“I’m sorry, but I just don’t have time to serve right now.”

As ministry leaders, this is the excuse we most often hear from someone who is unwilling to serve in ministry. Rather than pull our hair in frustration, what if we view this as a clue to what God wants to do in that person’s life, and embrace it as an opportunity to engage in spiritual direction… that is, creating space for this person to grow in their understanding of God? That reluctant volunteer may not trust God to meet their need for the time and energy necessary for ministry. Their excuse is our clue that God wants to replace their wrong narrative of a demanding and stingy God with a right narrative of a God who invites us into ministry with him and graciously provides all we need to accomplish his purpose!

Another reason for reticence that I often encounter is the fear that God will call someone to a ministry for which they have no desire. This is often tied up in that person’s wrong narrative about “carrying their cross.” Why would the Spirit hand out gifts–something we associate as a pleasurable experience–and then call someone to use that gift in the place that is least desirable to them? What wrong assumption does this person hold about God? My colleague Peter says, “If God is the God who wants you to go to Africa, you probably won’t want to do anything else.” In other words, if God is going to call you to something, he will give you the desire for it!

Guiding people into ministry is more than filling out questionnaires, tallying scores, matching gifts to roles, and making placements (though these things are a necessary part of the process). Ministry conversations can–and should–go far beyond discovering what gifts have been given, what experiences have occurred, what abilities have been learned, which heart-strings have been pulled. Ministry conversations can hold clues to false narratives about God that, with a little spiritual direction, can be gently revealed and corrected, creating space for spiritual awakening to a God full of grace and wonder. Serving that God becomes, then, a joyful “get to” rather than a joyless “have to.”

The Shopkeeper and the Guide

Last week I received a phone call from a ministry leader halfway across the country. He came across my contact information on a website and called me for help. He had read a book about equipping and his question was simple, “Will this really work?” This man was looking for more than words on a page.

In his book, Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson has much to say about the importance of language, and what we are missing as our culture steadily increases its dependence upon the written word over the spoken word in education (and communication in general, I might add!).

Peterson employs the story of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch on  Gaza Road (Acts 8:26-39) to illustrate the difference between one who explains Scripture and one who guides another into an experiential understanding of the Word. Philip asks the Ethiopian, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Peterson writes:

The African invites Philip into the chariot to accompany him as his guide. This is going to take some time. Philip has to make a choice: will he stand alongside the chariot, providing information and answering questions about Scripture, exegetical work that comes easily for him, or will he involve himself in a spiritual quest with this stranger? Will I? It is the difference between the shopkeeper who sells maps of the wilderness and the person who goes with you into it, risking the dangers, helping to cook the meals, and sharing the weather. Philip decides [to guide]. He climbs into the chariot and shares the journey.¹

Philip doesn’t leave the Ethiopian to simply read the Scripture, but rather guides him into an experience of Christ through conversation–questions asked and answered–regarding the text, culminating in the baptism of this African. How much more effective is this man’s witness now than before Philip climbed into the chariot? Borrowing from Peterson, the Ethiopian has “read much Scripture,” and now he has “experienced much Christ,” creating congruity between the word and the Word.

I’ve been reflecting on that phone conversation in light of Peterson’s comments about the Gaza Road experience. If I am honest, I have to admit that I sometimes find it more comfortable to explain from the sidelines. But I have to ask, Does the pastor who called me understand what he is reading? In one sense, yes he does. But how much more effective would it be if he had a guide who could lead him into an experience of developing an equipping culture, rather than just reading words on a page?

Put another way: As an equipping leader, am I content with being the “shopkeeper who sells the map,” explaining the concepts of equipping from a theological perspective, hoping those listening will somehow figure out how to create congruity between what they learn and the reality of their ministry? Or would I rather be the guide who comes alongside other practitioners, engaging in conversation–questions asked and answered relative to their specific context–leading them into an experience of an equipping culture, and culminating in a leader whose ministry can tell the story much more effectively than words on a workbook page? For me, the answer is simple. Like Philip, I choose to be the guide.

So… who do you want to be? The shopkeeper or the guide?

1. Peterson, Eugene H., Working the Angles (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), p. 128