Doing Nothing But Following God
Jonathon Swift said, “I never saw, heard, nor read, that the clergy were beloved in any nation where Christianity was the religion of the country. Nothing can render them popular, but some degree of persecution.”1 I became a full-time pastor at the age of 27. Young, bold, naive, and scared to death, were definitely adjectives that could have described my first couple of years. I remember thinking that I that I was more than half some of my church members age and they were asking me for advice. I remember that I sat in my office and wondered how I had been given responsibility for both a church and an elementary school. When my daughter was born six moths prior to taking my first church I had very similar thoughts. How could the hospital trust me with the life of this baby. Couldn’t they see in my eyes I was totally over my head? Emma Percy2 has done a great job comparing pastoral ministry with parenting (motherhood). There were and still are so many time that I was walking someone through life, giving advice, and hoping to find the answers along with them. People love to make the joke that pastors only work one day a week. Ministry involves not only holding the hands of young sick children and the dying elderly, but also ongoing mentoring and support for those that God is calling out of a stagnant life and into the light of Christ.In the Chinese culture parents often give up their right to raise their child giving their parents (child’s grandparents) the right and authority to raise how they see fit. Between full time jobs for the parents as well mandatory retirement for males at 65 and females at 55 a system of grandparent raising seems to have been implemented. This has great frustration for those young families that would like to raise their own kids. Not only are there expectations made from grandparents but also expectations from culture. Young people are to work and the elderly will take on the job of modeling, shaping, and training the children. As you may imagine this creates so many problems and challenges, specifically with the relationship with parent and child; whether that is the young child or the adult parent and their relationship with the ones raising their child. The resolution of differences is often determined by the culture and not by who is correct. Confucius taught that love was expressed through filial piety. “Filial Piety is the ‘root of all virtues and the stem out of which grows all moral teachings’: I commences with he service to parents; It proceeds to the service to the Ruler; It culminates by the establishment of character.”3 Loosely understood in a western context as a deep love and appreciation for parents and grandparents. This concept layered with Confucian hierarchy as well as honor and shame has created not only a complicated family structure but church structure as well. From the canonical book of Li Chi we read:
It is not filial piety, if one does not rule well his own house;
It is not filial piety, if one does not serve his ruler loyally;
It is not filial piety, if one does not treat his friends faithfully;
It is not filial piety, if one does not fight as a good soldier4
The concepts of order, hierarchy, and respecting parents or parental roles are so at the foundation of any leadership structure that it influences the church and that of the pastors.
In the Chinese church young leaders are seen as not having enough life experience to lead. They are often not given mentors because old pastors or leaders are too busy doing all the work. Young pastors (or potential pastors) are often frustrated that they have not earned the right to lead nor earned the right to even engage in the conversation. They are often treated like children simply told what to do with the expectation that what is commanded will be done. I am currently in the States and sat down with a Chinese pastor that ministers in California. He is in his mid-forties and felt privileged to be asked to be on an LA area Chinese pastors leadership council. Once arrived he was asked to be the recording secretary for the meetings. He served that role but told me that since he was the youngest member he needed to not express his opinion during each of the meetings.
I believe this culture has led many that are called to be ministers of the Gospel to accept lesser roles and the freedom that comes with leading a small group rather than assuming the role of an official “pastor”. As the lay leader of a small group, one has the ability to “mother” and teach the group without the cultural politics that can frustrate many believers. The Biblical training schools we lead in the country of service are full of 20-40 year olds that claim to be too young to be ordained and too young to think about being a pastor. We train them in all the courses needed to be ordained but know that some will never officially allow themselves to go through the ordination process. We do commission them to be servants of God and help them find ministry where they are “pastoring” a group of people in a way that allows them to save face, respect their culture as well as fulfill their calling…even without titles that hinder.
I know that I have deviated from the original concepts found in Percy’s book but mothering in ministry has to take into account the cultural context we live in. As frustrated as we all get with the people God has sent us to work with, finding avenues to glorify God, in spite of our own cultural expectations, is what I need to be reminded of from time to time. Just like there is really no one perfect way to parent, there is no one perfect way to minister. When the persecution of life comes, whether from our ministerial children or political entities we are to find our comfort and support in the one that makes the nothing we do into something life changing.
1 https://ireland-calling.com/jonathan-swift-quotes-religion-and-belief/ accessed May 29, 2019
2Emma Percy, What Clergy Do: Especially When It Looks like Nothing (London: SPCK, 2014).
3 Lit-sen Chang, Asia’s Religions: Christianity’s Momentous Encounter with Paganism (San Gabriel, CA, CA: China Horizon, 1999).55
13 responses to “Doing Nothing But Following God”
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I would have like to have heard you preach when you first started. I am not surprised by the 65 male and 55 female forced retirement. I can see how the children, regulated in number, are being reared by their grandparents more than their biological parents. Wow! You get the honor and shame context much better than we do. It is a fascinating culture and very complex for a naïve Westerner to grasp until they have spent time in and around the culture for sure.
Good summary Greg. I think we will see a Westernized version of young people who do not want to lead very soon. Our recent books and study all indicate the iGen is hesitant to engage, take responsibility, and steers clear of accountably. I think the more seasoned ministry folks will need to “stay the course” a little while longer.
Mike, I am sure my early preaching was not as smooth and clear as I would have wanted it to be. I had a church full of loving people that let me dream and try new things. What a blessing to a young optimist :-).
I am hoping that what we think as lazy or slow leadership development is simply those that have a passion and understanding of church that is different than ours. I know…still an optimist.
We love hearing about your pastoring days! Keep the stories coming, please.
Interesting cultural paradigm where grandparents are raising grandchildren. I have seen this in America a little, but in each case the children were a little bitter and embarassed about it. I was wondering what the children’s response is in China?
Jay…those stories are usually of me learning the hard way;-) . I was privileged to be a place that desired change and wanted a young eager leader.
Chinese children don’t have a choice and are unfortunately usually closer (in relationship) to their grandparents. Especially the poor, this is extremely difficult to have traditional grandparents trying to raise a modern kid.
Your last sentence put a smile on my face: “we are to find our comfort and support in the one that makes the nothing we do into something life changing.” So true. So, so true.
And good points about mothering looking different in every culture. I always appreciate your perspective. France is similar with regards to young people not being empowered. French people don’t aspire to be leaders…historically, leaders here get their heads cut off!
I know there are moments when we look around a wonder what we are doing or what we have done. I am sure you feel the same way.
I know that I talk about culture a lot, it is the lens I see the world through. Keep your head down :-).
I always appreciate the interpretation you provide from your own context that is usually so different from the rest of us. The hierarchical structure of your context is not something that is going to change now or in the foreseeable future. That makes me wonder how the metaphor of ‘motherhood’ may or may not be useful in your context with some of your contemporaries. Would the idea of being ‘good enough’ make any sense in that world? Would it receive any stress or overzealous expectations? If so I wonder how you might communicate it in a manner that connected to them.
Dan. that is a tough question. Many do not feel good enough, old enough, knowledgeable enough, or talented enough. Not willing to stick their necks out to prove that they are good enough is not often part of the culture. If a leader calls of them to do a task then they do it or it shames them.
I really appreciate you bringing in the cultural conflicts with our readings, I cannot imagine the frustration the young pastors feel not being allowed to live out their calling. Thank you so much for the peak into your world,
It is funny that when I started the blog I was trying to show some similarities…but the more I wrote the more I realized that the context was totally different.
Greg, I loved this final comment of yours, “When the persecution of life comes, whether from our ministerial children or political entities we are to find our comfort and support in the one that makes the nothing we do into something life changing.” I was working the graveyard shift at 7-11 making $7 an hour while finishing my undergraduate degree with a wife and four very small kids at home. I was depressed, broken, and felt that I had let my family and God down. One night at 2am a man walked in to find me studying my Greek bible and said, “It’s all Greek to me.” Those words led to a two hour bible study in the middle of 7-11 in the middle of the night. That bible study also taught me that you just never know where God is going to place you to minister to someone.
I truly believe God knows when we need to be reminded of his presence and grace.
I’m blown away by those words of Confucius and how critical the idea of filial relationships are. from my american perspective, its very saddening to see a 43 year old pastor be treated like a kid. From what I read about my generation, and potentialy the upcoming Gen Z, if they arent going to be invited to the table, or mentoring opportunities made available… they’ll just leave.
and excellent tie in to the feeling of being overwhelmed with a new baby. very similiar to accepting a new pastorate, although the pastorate to a lesser degree.