During his second year in the M.Div program at Duke Divinity School, Zack Christy took a course taught by the Rev. Dr. Will Willimon, This essay is adapted from his reflections on how that class shaped his views on pastoral ministry.
I am currently a third-year student at Duke Divinity School. This past spring semester I had the opportunity to take a class taught by the Rev. Dr. Will Willimon called “Local Church in Mission.” I believe that God has called me to ministry in the rural church, and I believed that I had a good grasp on how to engage the church in missional activities, so naturally I believed that taking Professor Willimon’s class would just be a refresher in what I already knew. God has a funny way of putting us in situations that are uncomfortable, however, and he has a way of knocking us down a peg when we believe we have it all under control. That was my experience in Willimon’s mission class. I can tell you now that I have never been more frustrated, terrified, challenged, excited, and humbled before by one class or experience.
I had never heard Willimon speak before this class. I did know that he had previously been a bishop in Alabama, but that was about all I knew of him. I am the son of a United Methodist minister, and I don’t know why but I thought that gave me an understanding of how to lead a church in mission. Coming into the class I assumed that if I was really nice to my congregation, and if I took really good care of them first, the mission would follow. From my untrained observation of my father, this is how I saw mission beginning. As part of this class I was able to interview my father and was somewhat astonished to learn that this was not the case -- even though Willimon had been practically yelling it for the better part of a month.
This class frustrated me because it confronted me with this truth: if the church is not in mission then it is not the church. This was something I needed to hear. Somehow I had gotten in my mind that first and foremost my responsibility as pastor was to take care of my congregation. As Willimon stressed over and over again in class, this is not what it means to be the body of Christ. Mission is never something that is easy; it is mostly messy. Mission is not something that is at the periphery of Christian life; a missional life is Christian life. Mission is the result of well-trained Christians, and it is done out of recognition of baptismal vocation.
I was terrified by this class because it made me realize that God has called me to help train these Christians. This class stressed to me that God has called me to be one of the ones that reminds people of their baptismal vocation. I am still terrified, because ministry would be so much easier if we were not called to work for the kingdom of God. Ministry would be so much easier if we were called to maintain the status quo. Willimon reminded me that God will not let anyone off this easily. As Professor Willimon stated repeatedly, he didn’t know how most clergy don’t just die of boredom from being congregational caregivers.
As much as I was terrified by this class, I was excited by it as well. How amazing is it that we don’t worship a dead God? How amazing is it that through participating in the Christian life we are never allowed to be bored? Coming into this class, I fear that I was dangerously close to falling into a belief that I was entering the clergy profession. I believe that this is easy to do when we are within the walls of the academic kingdom that is Duke Divinity School. We begin to think that when we get out of school we will have some special tools to give congregations what we have and they need. But as was stressed to me over and over again in this class, we are not called to be professionals; we are people called and willed by God. We are people sent on a mission.
I am thankful for the ways this class challenged me. I am grateful for the ways I have been shaped and called through this class. More than anything, though, I am glad for the ways this class reoriented my view of the ministry. I was very close to being a congregational caregiver, and while that is a part of the ministry, it is not the only part. I hope that my colleagues felt the same call in their lives.