November 2008
Spiritual Discernment

A Bible Study for Difficult Decisions

How can you tell when a ministry is no longer viable? Can a ministry come to an end without being seen as a failure? How can the generations of a parish support one another in their different ways of carrying out the ministry of Christ?

These are difficult questions, and they are often avoided by vestries as they seek to make everyone happy by supporting every old ministry and every new ministry about which someone is enthusiastic.

At St. Mark’s, we realized that we simply could not continue to ignore these questions, especially as they pertained to a particular long-standing ministry that had practically defined the parish in the eyes of the community. Yet this was also a ministry that required extensive human and other resources, just as fewer and fewer young adults had the time and energy to carry it out.

The move back into our Parish House after its extensive remodeling brought the issue to a head, and the question of the continuance of the ministry was set as the centerpiece of the vestry’s agenda for August, with an hour set aside purely for discussion of the results of interviews with “stake holders” in the ministry, both staff and parishioners.

This Bible study was used to initiate reflection on the interviews, and is presented here in the hopes that it may help another congregation do the hard work of discerning whether a ministry continues to be an energetic vehicle for the work of Christ.

Experiences of God’s power: 1 Corinthians 12:1
Now concerning spiritual things (pneumatika), brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed…Now there are varieties of experiences of God’s power (charismata), but the same Spirit...and there are varieties of services (diakonia), but the same Lord; and there are varieties of actions, but it is the same God who energizes all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit (pneumatos) for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another charismata of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of deeds of power (dynameis), to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who distributes to each one individually as the Spirit chooses.

A note on key Greek words:
Pneumatika refers to all sorts of things inspired by the “breath,” or spirit of God. Charismata, often translated as “gifts,” or “spiritual gifts,” are perhaps better understood as experiences of the power of God working through us when we make ourselves instruments of God for the well-being of those around us. Diakonia referred originally to table service, but gradually came to mean any form of Christian service or ministry. Dynameis are sometimes translated as miracles. When you see the Greek word, you can see that what is foremost in the word itself is its “dynamic,” or powerful quality. Thus, Jesus did many deeds of power, some of which were what we might call “miraculous.”

Questions for reflection on the passage:

  1. What do all of the inspired actions of the church have in common, according to Paul?
  2. What is the purpose of all of the actions inspired by God?
Note the wide variety of actions inspired by the Spirit:
  • the speaking of wisdom
  • the speaking of knowledge
  • faith (or “confidence”)
  • healing power
  • powerful deeds (Whose power is known through one’s powerful deeds?)
  • the courage to speak forth what God gives one to say (“prophecy”)
  • the discernment of spirits
  • tongues (“languages” not native to those present, but perhaps familiar to others),
  • interpretation of tongues
Questions for assessing the continuation of a ministry:
  1. What is the purpose of this ministry as a channel of the power of God for the common good?
  2. Does every aspect of the ministry currently contribute to the achievement of this purpose?
  3. Does this ministry look like the ministry of Jesus (the “one Lord”)?
  4. Does this ministry maximize the potential of those engaged in this ministry? In other words, do they correspond to the charismata that the Spirit is distributing in our community?
  5. Is there a dynamic balance between the resources required of the parish and the evidence of the Spirit’s power known through this ministry? Does it energize or deplete the community?
  6. Is this ministry the best way for the parish to achieve the core purposes outlined above?
  7. What is the most powerful way for a ministry to be initiated in the first place?
  8. What makes a tradition a living one, which continues to energize a community?
  9. What risks are taken when a ministry is passed down from one group to another?
This article is part of the November 2008 Vestry Papers issue on Spiritual Discernment