What is ministry? It may have been deceptively easier to define the intricacies of ministry during the many years I served as a full-time student pastor at a local church, but then again, maybe not.
As a youth pastor, my job description was simple: build relationships with students. The plumbing of that "simple" job description is often much more than anyone expects it to be. Building relationships meant that I was to create and organize meaningful worship and prayer services, retreats, camps and mission trips, all while engaging students in their everyday lives. The ministry included hours of work—many without a student in sight. This is often the business side of ministry. But is this real ministry? Or is ministry something more tangible? I struggle with this because, after almost a decade in student ministry, I now find myself a waiter at a restaurant.
A little over a year ago, my wife and I decided it was time to take another scary step with God. We chose to leave a marvelous church and student ministry to start my education in seminary. Within a month my job description went from nurturing high school students in their relationship with God to memorizing fresh fish and liquor items on a menu. Instead of my beloved blue jeans and T-shirt, I now don a starched shirt and apron—complete with bow tie and vest.
At the current venue, building and nurturing relationships are not so easy or so predictable. As a waiter, I now work with about 50 other people from all walks of life—people headed in different directions.
An atheist with a Baptist background and two fathers going through divorces are now my close friends. College students and college graduates, all over the spiritual and theological map, now constitute my immediate sphere of influence. Breakups with live-in boyfriends, separations from spouses, intense depression and extreme indifference are now the hurdles I watch friends struggle with every day. It’s not hard to find moments in between restaurant chores to ask probing or thoughtful questions, but how would I maintain some sort of meaningful presence in these new lives? Quite the opposite from formal ministry, how was I supposed to maintain some sense of kingdom purpose in this new place, apart from a paycheck?
I struggled with my new job. I felt useless. I often thought, What possible difference can I make in the lives of people who don’t really care? Am I just slowly becoming one of them, confused and searching?
As I began to present my doubts and questions to God, answers came, but very slowly. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve come home from a long shift and discussed with my wife how I could pay the bills and support our new son in some other way. It was a source of constant inner tension and uneasiness.
But in the end, as usual, God got my attention. He didn’t speak audible encouragement from the showerhead or awe me with blue-sky thunder. He simply brought to life His word through a very strange Greek New Testament textbook. As I was desperately looking up the meaning behind the words “ministry” and “minister,” I happened upon what I considered the very voice of God. This is what I found.
The verb and noun forms of the word for “ministry” all carry a connotation of mediation in service. The most fascinating translation was the response of Jesus to the inappropriately ambitious disciples in Luke 22:26. The question was asked, “Who will be the greatest?” Jesus said, “The one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the waiter.”
I almost jumped out of my seat when I read the tiny words of that textbook. Jesus told them to become like waiters, servers at a meal! That understanding brought immediate meaning to my struggle. It spoke directly to the heart of my feelings of inadequacy and uselessness in my restaurant job. Jesus follows up His initial statement with, “I am among you as the one who serves”—the same word for waiting tables.
I don’t know how I missed it—but these words helped me re-imagine the importance of my new job. Now the restaurant business is transforming me. How can I best serve the teenager who is searching for meaning in sex and relationships? How can I wait on the young girl experimenting with witchcraft and spells? How can I be a go-between for the newly divorced bartender who is running from the confusion his life has produced? Prompted by the love God gives me for them—it is easy. I serve; in a myriad of new ways, I serve.