Where to, Lord? An interview with Mark Charleston

Mark Charleston trains and encourages ministers as part of his work with the Sydney Anglican Department of Ministry Training and Development. He regularly talks to ministers at turning points in their ministry. Paul Grimmond spoke to him recently about his reflections on the issues involved in choosing to move from one ministry to another.

Paul Grimmond: Mark, as part of your job, you speak to a number of ministers at various stages of life about where they’re at and where they might go next in ministry. What are some of the reasons people have for deciding to move from one ministry to another?

Mark Charleston: Most of my time is spent talking to ministers in the early years of their ministry—when developing their skills and their overall confidence in ministry is a big factor. In the early years, moves are usually associated with various prescribed training requirements in an organization or denomination. Here in the Anglican Church in Sydney, we encourage younger ministers to experience both breadth and depth to demonstrate to themselves and others that they can minister in different contexts with sustained effectiveness.

But the longer a person spends in full-time ministry, the more one question emerges: “How can I best use my accrued competencies and experiences to best serve others in God’s kingdom?” Reasons for moving are associated with how a minister answers this question. Furthermore, the longer one serves in full-time ministry, the more ambiguous the choices can become.

PG: What do you mean by “more ambiguous”?

MC: Well, in the early years of ministry, there are usually structures put in place to encourage ongoing training. There are certain steps that most people go through. However, over the course of years, these steps give way to a variety of options. And people find themselves faced with questions like “How long should I serve in this location?”, “How long should I serve this group of God’s people?” and “Are there other places where I can serve more effectively?”

PG: So as you talk people through that decision-making process, what are some of the good reasons people have for moving on? What reasons indicate that someone needs to think more about their decision?

MC: That’s a great question, Paul. I’d like to say up-front that God is more concerned about our personal godliness than our personal ministry options. We’re all sinners, and the heart is deceitful above all things, as we’re told in the Scriptures (Jer 17:9). And so we need to be very careful about our own holiness and godliness. A person who is considering changing their ministry context needs to ask questions like “Have I placed my motivations under sufficient scrutiny?” That is, “Have I prayed sufficiently about various opportunities that come my way? Have I had conversations and discussions with mature Christian people who will both encourage and challenge my think­ing concerning these opportunities? Have I developed sufficient self-awareness about my motivations? Am I over-inflating my competencies? Am I underestimating my competencies?” Talking with God, talking with others and, in a healthy way, talking to oneself is very important. After all, decisions can be made in haste and repented of at leisure.

PG: So in terms of talking to other people and understanding yourself, what kinds of people would you encourage people to talk to as they think about moving from one ministry to another?

MC: In the work we do at Ministry Training and Development, we have put in place certain structures and processes to help younger ministers have those sorts of conversations. We encourage them to talk to their supervising minister, to suitably qualified lay people, and, most of all, we encourage them to talk to their spouse, if they’re married. We really want married ministry couples to communicate with each other about this very important issue in their married life. Those sorts of things are encouraged at a structural and procedural level with the hope that, as a minister continues to serve throughout their years of ministry, they will keep having these sorts of conversations about key decisions in regards to their future.

A very wise and experienced rector recently shared with me three key questions that are integral to thinking about moving on in ministry: “If you move, will the people you leave behind grow in Christ?”, “Will the people you go to grow in Christ?” and “Will you, as a gospel worker, grow in Christ?” I think they’re very good questions because, firstly, they cause you to think hard. Secondly, they’re also the sort of questions that need to be answered in the context of fellowship with other believers. Thirdly and finally, they are pastorally oriented questions reflecting the degree to which you care for your people now, the degree to which you can discern opportunities for mission in the future, and your ability to discern the need for your ongoing growth as a minister.

PG: As you assess each question, is there a particular weight to each one? Or does it depend on the circumstances you find yourself in?

MC: Well, I think their weight really depends upon the circumstances you find yourself in. Sometimes issues that are very personal can play a major role in deciding to move in ministry. So, for example, the health of one’s marriage and family life can be a good reason for changing. Indeed, it may be best for a minister to leave one ministry and go to another if those things are at stake.

Other times, however, there are other questions that require deep thought—such as “Are you convinced that you are going to be more effective in ministry by moving to this new location?” and “Is the new location attractive to you because of novelty and freshness, or are you moving there because opportunities for the kingdom have emerged that really fit “hand in glove” with the way God has prepared you and shaped you over the years?”

PG: In relation to these kinds of questions, you’ve been toying with a model that we might call the Uluru Model of Individual Ministry Growth. Can you talk a little about where this model has come from and how you think it might apply to ministers?

MC: The Uluru Model has been used to analyze parish growth here in Sydney. It’s a bell curve-shaped model that reflects the natural course of church growth, plateauing and declining over a period of time. It is drawn from church growth research and literature, but has been made well known in recent years by my dear brother and boss Phillip Jensen.

My work has led me to wonder whether the Uluru Model may also reflect the life cycle of an individual Christian minister: one starts out being trained in ministry, and then continues through ministry, perhaps plateauing in effectiveness and even declining if steps are not taken under God to renew effectiveness at different points in time.

PG: So if you’re a pastor, as you think about your ministry effectiveness and reflect on possible changes in your ministry, how many questions do you ask and how long do you ask for? Are there any rules of thumb?

MC: I think the critical thing is to respond theologically in the first instance. As Bible-believing Christians, we can take great comfort in the sovereignty of God—the fact that he is in control of all things, even the choices we make. We can take great comfort in the exhortations of Scripture to walk a life of faith and trust. So in 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul exhorts us to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). So often we wish to see the future. But seeing the future is something that God alone can do. We are called upon to make godly choices and to trust in the wisdom that God has given us and our like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ. So theology needs to drive our reflections at every point.

However, as I mentioned before, there is a place for sustained conversation and discussion about ministry with Christian brothers and sisters, and with our spouse (if we’re married). This is because God often uses fellow Christians to help us see issues more clearly—to help us see that certain options can be opportunities. Sometimes they can also help us see that staying in our current ministry position is also a valid opportunity for growth—growth as an individual and for the growth of the kingdom of God.

However, I’d want to add that there comes a point where over-analysis can cause paralysis. We need to be self-aware, at this point; some of us have personalities that are wired to over-analyze situations. All the more reason to pray and to talk to brothers and sisters in Christ about balanced and considered decisions.

PG: Mark, so far you’ve talked a little bit about involving your family—particularly your spouse—in the decision-making process. Can you reflect a little more on that for us?

MC: Australian men are terrific. I’m one of them! But we can have major blind spots. One of our major blind spots is our inability or unwillingness to talk to our wives (if we’re married). Part of that stems from forgetfulness, but a big part of it stems from the fact that we are encouraged in our culture to be self-sufficient and self-determining. Australian men in ministry are sometimes no different to that—myself included.

One of the wonderful models of couple ministry and couples’ preparation for ministry is that found in the Church Missionary Society of Australia (CMS). CMS has a long history of encouraging conversations about ministry options between husbands and wives. In fact, before sending couples onto the mission field, most (if not all) of the interviews are conducted with couples as a couple. As a diocese, we need to think that way in order to affirm the partnership that married couples have in all areas of life. We want to encourage husbands and wives to talk together, to build their ministry as they build their marriage, and to build their marriage as they build their ministry.

That’s why we’re involving wives more in our conversations and discussions about ministry options. That’s not always an easy thing, because when you do this, you can unearth issues for the couple—or, more accurately, the couple themselves unearth issues they perhaps haven’t considered before. But then that gives you the privilege and opportunity to help the couple work through those matters for the sake of their marriage and ministry.

PG: In terms of reading and thinking a little bit more about this topic, can you suggest some things that would be helpful?

MC: I can’t think of a better place to turn to than Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Paul didn’t write it as a ministry manual, but it really does serve as such for those of us in gospel work. His letter emphasizes the fact that ministry is all about integrity. If you lose your integrity, you lose your ministry, and when it comes to making choices in ministry, integrity is foundational. Now, the Apostle Paul, as we see in 2 Corinthians, had to make some difficult decisions—difficult decisions about itineraries, about rebuking and correcting, about how best to pastorally exhort and encourage the Christians in Corinth, and so on. Paul demonstrates that authentic gospel ministry starts with integrity—integrity in terms of what you believe and how you live out those beliefs in the complexity of mission.

In recent times, when I was exploring how to better train people in the area of preaching, I read a very helpful tract by Christopher Ash entitled ‘How do I know if preaching is for me?’ Now, the tract or brochure is about preaching, but it’s worth reading because it deals with guidance and ministry issues. Let me just quote to you a couple of sections. Ash says, “The gifts of Christ are discerned by the body of Christ as they are used by the servants of Christ”. Now that’s quite a pithy summary of how we discern gifts. But he goes on to say,

… let us beware of replacing ‘gifts’ with ‘strategy’ in our thinking. We love to plan our lives, to ask and answer the question, “Where will I be of most use to Christ?” It is a fine question. But only the Lord knows the answer. And it is probably not the answer of our strategising, in which we are in control. We like to plan a life of maximal ‘effectiveness’; but this is not in our power.1


1 Christopher Ash, ‘How do I know if preaching is for me?’, p. 4, revised from Christopher Ash, ‘Guidance’ in Workers for the Harvest Field, edited by Vaughan Roberts and Tim Thornborough, The Good Book Company, New Malden, 2006, pp. 137-148, http://www.cornhillbelfast.org/docs/ash-preaching.pdf.

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