Disciplining Ministry Metaphors

When we develop metaphors for ministry relationships, we must be careful to discipline our language by biblical frames of thought.

I think we need to be especially suspicious of metaphors and images that portray ministry relationships in terms of “leader-follower,” or “patron-client.”

Contemporary assumptions about discipleship (“I, the expert, show and tell you things.”) often leave the impression that ministry flows only in one direction—from the expert to the learner.

But this isn’t how Paul understands his apostleship nor how he arranges his ministry relationships.

In Romans 1:1-15, Paul takes pains to set himself alongside the Roman Christians in a relationship of mutual blessing:

I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith (vv. 11-12).

His greeting in 1 Corinthians 1:1-10 functions in much the same way.  In Ephesians, Paul reports on his praying for his readers (1:15-23; 3:14-19) and requests prayer from them on his behalf (6:19-20).

There may indeed be times when exhortation or some other ministry effort is flowing in one direction, but it seems that Paul configures ministry as relationships of mutuality.  In the Kingdom of God, siblings in the family of Jesus bless one another and take on postures of mutuality, giving and receiving gifts.

Ministry gets perverted and invites corrupted dynamics when the relationship becomes one of “patron-client” (“I have the knowledge / power / character, and I impart it to you.”).

I cringe when I hear metaphors and images that call to mind ministry relationships that have an imbalanced power differential.

I’ve heard in several different places the language of “pouring into,” which strikes me as bizarre and just plain weird.  I’ve also come to doubt the helpfulness of “mentoring” language.

I think the image of a mentor can be fruitful, so long as it’s explicit that the mentoring is mutual.  There is no one who doesn’t need others, their blessing, love, and service.

It’s instructive that “family” is the dominant image for church life in the New Testament.  It calls to mind vital connection, intimacy, belonging, permanence, mutual care, and the range of responsibilities and privileges that go with those relationships.

Another image we ought to exploit is “friendship.”  I think this is better than “mentor,” even when there’s a vast difference in age and experience.  It calls to mind the mutuality that Paul exhibits and joins people together in ways that resonate with Scripture’s portrayal of how God’s people enjoy God’s blessing along with one another.

5 thoughts on “Disciplining Ministry Metaphors

  1. Adam O

    Have you read Eugene Peterson’s The Wisdom of Each Other? He takes a similar tact, and I believe he prefers a term like “spiritual friends” or “Jesus-friends” or something before mentor or guide.

    1. timgombis

      Haven’t seen that, Adam, thanks! What a brilliant title! Didn’t think I was original with that, but it’s nice to know I’m tracking with Peterson.

      1. Adam Oliver

        Yes, one of my favorites. Only takes a couple of hours to read. I actually used it with a group of college guys that I “mentor.” It helped us to change up our vocabulary as well as the vision for what our relationship really is since neither I nor they have arrived. We’re certainly not doing it perfectly, but I think we have a pretty good dynamic where there is clear acknowledgement that God is using them in my life and in each others lives just as much as He is using me in their lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit

  2. Jerry Goodman

    I remember the terms “brother – sister”. Not too crazy about those . Seemed 50-ish if there such a word. In this day of texting and media hot-buttons I really like “friend”. The world doesn’t like that, though not necessarily as a word to use. Divisive language more than often. That word “friend” brings an atmosphere of developing relationship. Needed so.

  3. Jaime

    Great point. I know that when I have mentored in the past, I have usually tried to point out from the beginning, that a mentor is like someone who has walked through some woods that you would like to go exploring. They can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen on your journey, but they can tell you some things that you could expect. And since they’re going to be walking through some parts of the wood with you, they can help support you. But since you will probably walk through parts of the woods that they haven’t walked through, you will have something to give them, and possibly teach them.
    I always try to tell my students at the beginning of the year that I am learning from them. And I try to point out when that happens. I don’t want them to see me as superior to them, simply because I have more education and have lived longer. I might be making better choices in my life right now, but I make sure to tell stories about the mistakes I made when I was their age, so there is less of a superiority mentality.
    But I do think it is a constant struggle, because our church culture promotes the idea of superior people or superior ministries, instead of the idea of fellow pilgrims, urging and challenging each other on the same road.
    I know I definitely need to be more careful about my use of language.
    Thanks for the reminder.

    Grace and Peace,

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