The Limitations of Ministry Metaphors

by FCS on

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“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” ~ Desmond Tutu

When I first ran into this quote, I laughed out loud. I didn’t laugh because the quote is funny, but rather because it is yet another beautiful metaphor about mercy and justice that involves people and water. And it’s one that I hadn’t heard before.

It’s hard to conceptualize the complexity of pursuing justice ethically; metaphors help us to grasp the nuance of it. Too often, when we try to make a statement about poverty or ministry, we’re tempted to turn it into a rule or a formula. When working with real people in real communities, though, another famous quote comes to mind: “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.” ~Mike Tyson

Unfortunately, sometimes we fall into the same habit with our tried-and-true metaphors. I notice that when they start to get stale, people usually add to them. Take the classic fish one. First it was, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Then, as we began to think more about systems and access to resources, we added “give him ownership of the pond, and his community will eat.”

As I look at our oath for compassionate helpers, I’m tempted to add to it some more. The oath reminds us to put the interests of the community above our own, even if it means sidelining our organization’s agenda. So perhaps the update would go like this: “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Give him ownership of the pond, and his community will eat. But if the man says he hates fish, abandon the fishing program and see what his community gets excited about.

I’m mostly joking about the update, of course, but pointing to the reality that without continual evaluation, we can fall into bad habits. The original metaphor evokes a kernel of truth. People do need to learn skills. But sometimes that adage let’s us forget that we need to learn skills, too, especially those of us in ministry.

Unlike pithy quotes, stories - and particularly stories about relationships - continually evolve. They contain worlds. Perhaps that’s why Jesus taught in parables so much. Part of what makes stories powerful is that they never quite fit, they can always evolve in our minds, our imaginations. Here at the Lupton Center, we want to make sure we’re continually chewing on stories that have to do with people, with relationships. Only as we wrestle with them do they begin to give us guidance, and that guidance changes as organically as people do if we listen.

So instead of a fishing metaphor, let me offer this story about neighboring.

A man in a neighborhood got attacked while walking on a street near his home. A pastor saw him lying on the ground, disheveled, and passed on the other side of the street. A local politician came upon him, paused, and walked by. Finally, a man who had just been released from prison saw the man laying on the ground. He looked at him, and was moved with compassion. He picked him up and took him to his own house, where he and his family tended to the man’s wounds. When he left the house the next day, he left $20 at home with a note to take care of him. “Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return,” it said.

You’ll recognize this tale; Jesus offered it when, after he told those in earshot to love their neighbor as themselves, someone challenged him to define who their neighbor was. Here at the Lupton Center, we receive the same tale as a gift and a charge to continue to expand our vision of neighbor, and what it means to love them well.

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