Summary: If Christ brought you to this congregation, then Christ has given you a special grace to serve in a way that is needed within this congregation.
Early on in my seminary career, I was asked by a committee charged with my nurture as a fledgling pastor-wannabe about my role models for ministry. “Who,” the committee asked, “did I consider to be an example to follow?” “Who was my role model for ministry?”
I guess it was a reasonable question, but I stumbled over my answer. I tried to get away with simply pointing to Jesus. Hey—what better role model could there be? The committee wanted an answer with flesh and bone, though, and pressed me for another response. I finally stammered out three names: Pastor Rusty at my home church, because he was a good preacher—he really knew how to tell a story; Pastor Deborah at my home church, because she was a great listener who radiated compassion; and Rev. Ed at the homeless ministry downtown, because he cared and he wasn’t afraid to challenge people in the churches to remember people on the edge. Each of these people had a gift for doing ministry that I admired.
I still admire their gifts, but I’ve had a few years to think about it, and I’ve become more familiar with Ephesians 4:11-12. “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” Now I would give a different answer. My role model for ministry (aside from Jesus, of course) is a woman named Yela (not “yellow”, “Y-E-L-A, Yela”).
I knew Yela when I was in college. She was a 5’ 5” powerhouse, full of explosive energy. She always had a twinkle in her eye and an infectious smile on her face. She was smart, she was funny, she was kind. Yela was my volleyball coach my freshman and sophomore years.
I’m going to use volleyball as a metaphor quite a bit, so let me say a few words for those of you who may not be familiar with the game. You don’t need to know a lot about volleyball to follow the metaphor, but a little knowledge may help.
In volleyball, two teams of six players each face each other on opposite sides of a tall net. Like tennis, the idea is to keep the ball in play on your side of the net and force the other team to fail to keep the ball in play on their side. Unlike tennis, each team can use up to three touches to return the ball. Each of the six players has a specialized role, but they also cover for each other as need arises. It is nearly impossible for one player, no matter how spectacular, to take over a volleyball game the way a point guard or a center can take over a basketball game.
To be honest with you, we were not a very good volleyball team by conventional standards. We didn’t win many matches. Our school, in general, was not exactly known for its athletic prowess. (Ours was the only football team ever to be included in the Guiness Book of World Records because the players’ average IQ exceeded their average weight.) My freshman year, only two people on the whole team had even played volleyball in high school. Most of my teammates had never played any sport competitively.
Yela, by contrast, was a gifted volleyball player with years of high-level competitive experience. Her gifts for playing volleyball are not the reason she is my role model for ministry, though. Her gifts for coaching volleyball are.
Yela could have taken one look at this rag-tag bunch of young women—backpacks heavy with math and science books, clueless that there even was such a thing as shoes specially designed for volleyball—and thrown up her arms in defeat. She could have gathered us for a few hours every afternoon and let us bat the ball around a bit. She could have sat back at matches and just watched us get creamed. But she didn’t.
Yela didn’t look at us and see what we could not do. Yela looked at us and saw what someday we might be able to do.
My high school coach gave me an opportunity to play the setter position one day in practice, quickly concluded that I had no talent whatsoever, and encouraged me to stick with underhand passing. The first week of practice my freshman year, Yela observed my stiff fingers, poor hand position, awkward use of my knees, and named me starting setter. It was not my latent potential that guided that decision. It was the team’s desperate need for a second setter. I loved the idea and I was willing to learn, so it was a good match.
Ann was an accomplished athlete, but new to volleyball. Ann probably could have been taught any position, but she was our best bet for a decent middle blocker, so that’s what Yela taught her. Yela recognized the talent and experience Ann brought and taught her how to transfer them to this game. Ann took to the instruction with confidence and gained proficiency quickly. Ann also put the needs of the team ahead of her own desires. She would have seen more offensive action as an outside blocker and hitter, but she focused her energy on excelling in the middle because that was where she was most needed.