Ministry as a Stochastic Art
Dec 25, 2009 by Don Payne | 1 Comments
It will come as no surprise that as one involved in theological education, I think a lot about both the nature of ministry and the process(es) by which we are formed for ministry. Over the past two years my colleague, Prof. Laura Flanders, and I have embarked on a venture we call the "Vocation Project" with M.Div. students in the fourth semester of our Training and Mentoring curriculum. The objective of that semester's work is to help students develop a sustainable and working theology of vocation. Two assumptions shape that objective.
First, what we often designate as a "ministry vocation" is a subset of the broader category of of vocation that affects all people. Thus, we cannot really know what it means to be "called" to ministry unless we know what it means to be called to anything, whether that be business or farming or law or clerical work. A clear, robust, and portable sense of vocation/calling is often missing from deliberations and decisions about ministry vocations. So, we encourage students to develop a working theology of vocation that will help them place their ministries in a broader context while also equipping them to provide wise guidance to the many who struggle with their vocational direction.
Second, a great deal of attention has been devoted to the big "front end" vocational questions like "Should I pursue a ministry vocation?" and "What type of ministry has God equipped me to undertake?" and "Should I take this opportunity or this one?" These are important questions, yet they easily eclipse another whole set of important vocational questions that continue to trouble many of us. What makes a ministry vocation sustainable? Where does a person in a ministry vocation find legitimate "job satisfaction" when the work is often so open-ended and a sense of closure often proves elusive? How can deeply human needs for growth and creativity be met in ministry vocations? These are only a few of the questions that relate to long-term sustainability in ministry vocations. Actually, our vocations continue to unfold in sometimes thin layers over the course of our lives, in between those major and defining vocational decisions we make. So, this second assumption provides nuance to our objective; we hope to equip our students to navigate their vocational stewardship well for the long haul. Laura and I continue to find that this is both an energizing and ambitious undertaking!
Now to the point of this little essay! Today I came across a helpful resource in an unexpected place. My daughter gave me for Christmas a copy of Matthew B. Crawford's book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Crawford, a motorcycle mechanic who holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, unfolds an engaging, deeply human, and refreshingly realistic apologetic for the importance of trades, i.e. work that demands tactile engagement with the created order (though he does not use that sort of theological language). One of his observations I found fascinating in its applicability to ministry vocations, especially to one of the unique difficulties that we face in those vocations.
Crawford asserts that the trades (and he is NOT referring to mindless, dehumanizing work that often derives from the culture of assembly lines!) actually require more intellectual engagement than what are increasingly designated as "knowledge" jobs. They are deeply human, he argues, in that they are stochastic. Actually, he got that word from Aristotle, but allow me to quote Crawford at some length on this point.
"If [a] building falls down, one can say in retrospect that the builder didn't know what he was doing. But there is another class of arts that Aristotle calls 'stochastic.' An example is medicine. Mastery of a stochastic art is compatible with failure to achieve its end (health). As Aristotle writes, 'It does not belong to medicine to produce health, but only to promote it as much as is possible . . .' [Rhetoric, 1355b12]. Fixing things, whether cars or human bodies, is very different from building things from scratch. The mechanic and the doctor deal with failure every day, even if they are expert, whereas the builder does not. This is because the things they fix are not of their own making, and are therefore never known in a comprehensive or absolute way" (p. 81). He continues, "Because the stochastic arts diagnose and fix things that are variable, complex, and not of our own making, and therefore not fully knowable, they require a certain disposition toward the thing you are trying to fix. This disposition is at once cognitive and moral. Getting it right demands that you be attentive in the way of a conversation rather than assertive in the way of a demonstration" (82).
Now, there is a lot to unpack and discuss in that claim but the helpful piece is Crawford's emphasis that in some types of work (in our case, ministry) expertise does not imply precision of technique or predictability of results; this because the reality or objectivity (see Michael Polanyi on this view of objectivity) of what we deal with cannot be reduced to the dimensions of our understanding nor made pliable to our ingenuity. Still, we can work meaningfully and have impact (by God's grace, I believe, though this goes beyond what Crawford affirms). For the many in ministry vocations who struggle, often silently, with feelings of uselessness, incompetence, inferiority, and ambiguity, this should be refreshing! For those of us in ministry vocations who sometimes rather sheepishly or jokingly long for the tangibility of work with immediate and simple results, this should inject new life where it has been slowly suffocated.
And then, of course, we must revisit the importance of people in ministry vocations having something in our lives that keeps us grounded, sane, and engaged with the created order (like gardening or fixing stuff!). But that's for another post . . .