Diary of a ministry apprentice (Part 3): March to May-ish 2008

Here is the third part of this six-part series written by Guan who, in his spare time, likes to think about things. He is married to the remarkable M,1 and by this instalment, has been doing ministry training (MTS) at the University of New South Wales (hereafter referred to as the ‘Uni’) for about four months. So far, he’s mostly learned that starting out in ministry and meeting people is exciting and inspiring when you begin to notice the way the gospel carves through people’s lives. This far in, the work starts to get easier.

In summary, I think I kind of sort of vaguely a little bit know one iota of what I’m supposed to be maybe doing now.



There’s a special meeting at 8 pm on Monday night. This is, as you might guess, an odd time to have a staff meeting.

On the way up the stairs to the Chaplaincy, the lights have gone out on one of the landings, making it a bit eerie and all horror movie-ish. I comment as such to Tara2 who catches up to me on the stairwell.

The team assembles, and it is good to have everyone together. Sam arrives a little late after having some problems lock­ing the door at the church office.3 The ministry trainees who work with the Fellow­ship of Overseas Christian University Students tell us about recent follow-up, with many coming to churches, even more coming to newcomers’ dinners and a regular who has become a Christian. God is kind and good.

So we thank him for it.

Then Paul ‘Grimmo’ Grimmond, our faithful leader, begins to explain why we’re here, and our hearts drop like a bowling ball through a bag of eggs. He says that he’s leaving the job halfway through the year, which is in just a few months’ time. Quitting doesn’t seem to be the right word for it. Ministry—specifically his ministry—wears him down spiritually, mentally and physically, and he can’t rightly continue any further without the certainty that he will sustain it. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. He won’t know with any certainty for a week or two.

It hits us hard. There are tears. Some­one looks down at their feet and doesn’t meet anyone’s eyes for the next hour.

There are more explanations, but the rest of the night is as lost as we feel.

The team


One of the great parts of MTS is getting to know other people who are doing it as well. For example, I lead church with Nic,4 who is several different ice-cream flavours of awesome. She’s now a ministry apprentice, but used to be an accountant by trade (and, thankfully, not at all by personality5). It’s easy to see again and again that she is someone who is brave—not lion tamer or skydiver brave, but a deeper, greater, truer kind of brave—brave like someone who is convicted of the king­dom and who then takes decisive steps—a change of home here, a change of vocation there—to put her life in line with those convictions. All this despite the costs that, inevitably, come.


I hear Grimmo’s leaving speech three times over the next 24 hours. It doesn’t get better. The ending doesn’t change either.

When I get to Core (that’s what we call the student training and thinking hour) on Tuesday lunchtime, I see Grimmo and instinctively smile in greeting. The second my eyebrow rises, I realize again what he has to do, and it’s mirrored in the smile he returns. Bittersweet is not an expression that comes easily to Grimmo. It is the first time I realize that announcing this each time is hard—much harder for him than it might be for us to hear—and I feel selfish.

Grimmo openly cries when he announces it at the Unichurch (University church) training time and the meeting of the Grads (i.e. those who are a bit older, who have graduated and who have stuck around to serve at Unichurch), because these are the people he’s closest to, and thus, are closest to him. When he cries, he mumbles a “Sorry”, and each time I want to say, “Don’t apologize”, but we can only watch and feel helpless.

When he announced it in staff meet­ing, I found it a bit discomfiting when he laughed and made small jokes after the details became clear. Now I just realize that partly he needed to laugh himself, and partly this is Grimmo, who has some of the deepest laugh lines I’ve ever seen. A sense of humour is such a wonder­­ful thing; it’s a massive part of Grimmo’s likeability and character. Sometimes I wonder if they should teach it in theological college; it’s the quickest way for two people to connect.

It’s hard to know how to treat Grimmo, though. Obviously we want to err away from acting as if he’s dead or already gone. “Don’t bury me yet!” he urges with a smile when he does the announcements. But equally, we don’t want to treat him as if nothing has changed. Because it changes just about everything.


Another example of getting to know the apprentices beside you: Daniel counts steps. Specifically, Daniel, who is in his second year of MTS, knows the number of steps for every flight of stairs he regularly walks on.

He knows which foot he needs to start on in order to step off the stairs with his right foot. For example, if there was a short flight of stairs with five steps, he’d need to step on the bottom step with his left foot. Left, right, left, right, left, then off with his right foot.

“Yes, it is a little bit OCD”, he admits.

I tell you this story6 because there’s this category of things that we know are good and glorious—so good that they will be in heaven with us. Singing, for example, and relationship. We’re told that some things—sex, marriage—will not be. But then there’s this whole category in between. Lord, are these things good? Or are they quirks of the way we broke when we fell?

A friend wrote a poem called ‘Will God keep gumtrees?’. It’s a good question: when we imagine the heavenlies, we think of blue water, clouds and winged choirs. So it’s jarring to transpose peculiarly Australian fauna into that beatific scene.

Similarly, will Daniel still count the stairs when he walks up to the room that our Lord has prepared?


A few weeks go by, and I’m singing in a lecture theatre, accompanied by trombone and keyboard. The brassy melody thumps up off the purple seats and the overhead projector, off the bricks and wooden panelling, and floats, fading, through to the lecture theatre next door where they look quizzically at each other, the physics lecturer just shrugs and they all laugh it off.

If this were a film, the caption would read “Easter Service, the Wednesday before Easter break”.

The meeting is run with a bustling air of joy. A local minister speaks, and his sermon is pointed and concise, and points to Jesus. It’s a great reminder.

Of course it is.

Somehow it’s Easter already.

The Easter weekend is a good one. We see movies, friends and family. We go kayaking. Kayaking is a welcome activity because, for once, on a still river, the kayak and I are the least calm objects in a calm environment. At the moment, the world mostly feels the other way around.


After we get back from Easter break, we start to get people ready for Mid-Year Conference (MYC). MYC is a beast that can be described in a variety of ways. In terms of definition, it’s a five-day conference for our Christian group, with Bible studies, talks and seminars revolving around a central topic (e.g. resurrection). In terms of numbers, there are usually something around the order of 500 attendees. In terms of chronology, it’s in the middle of the year, but advertising has to start early and rather frantically. Getting Uni students to commit to something ahead of time is like trying to chain up a snake.

In terms of theology, I guess the constant in MYCs through the years is that we’re trying to sell the students something. It’s not a product; it’s this big idea—that because of the death of Jesus on the cross, our focus—our mission—will be different to how it might have been. It’s now about a kingdom that is coming and a kingdom that is here. It’s about looking up to a reality that is somehow both barely imaginable because it is so good and yet is more real than anything we’ve touched. It’s about looking up and continuing to look up, even as this present world drags us down like quicksand.

In terms of chronology again, it’ll be Grimmo’s last official event.



At the moment, MTS feels like this: it feels like more should be happening somehow. You turn up to Bible study, and sometimes other people turn up too. You turn up to one-to-one meetings, and someone you could have sworn was passionate last week doesn’t show. Then you call to ask them about it, and unfortunately Uni students are like peacocks learning to strut for the first time: you ask them something and the barrier tail feathers come up in various garish colours: “BUSYNESS!” “PART-TIME JOB!” “FULL-TIME STUDY!” “LACK OF COMMITMENT!” (Well, obviously they don’t say that last one.7)

The overwhelming feeling is that this is the point when some bigwig clears his throat loudly, points at me, and then some large men in dark suits escort me from the MTS Club. “Don’t even think about coming back until you’ve got 50 conversions”, they growl before throwing me in the trash.8


“When I did MTS, I always had a sense of guilt, because whenever anyone asked me about [a part of my ministry], I could always think of a way that I wasn’t doing that thing.”

Grimmo says this a few weeks later during a staff training session about self-care and sustainability in ministry. When he says it, Ken chuckles from up the back. Grimmo sighs. “Yes, I realize this is the pot calling the kettle black.”

One of our problems, Grimmo says, is our theological framework. Is the Apostle Paul a good example for us to follow? He seems to keep driving himself to destruction. It’s also our eschatology:9 if the end is near, does it matter if we drive our bodies as hard as possible? Isn’t this making the best use of the time? Ultimately there’s truth in that because the gospel is about our whole lives and nothing less. Just as Jesus laid down his life, we should also be prepared to lay down ours.

So what theological justification would you give to someone to stop? That they’re doing too much and they’re going to burn out? Well, the first point is the sovereignty of God: if he is in control, then he will do what he wills—despite us and sometimes through us. Secondly, Cynthia offers this: “The other reason is godliness. It’s just harder to be godly when you’re tired.”

I think about this for weeks afterwards. It’s not the first or last time Cynth provokes that kind of reaction.10 It’s such a startling shift of paradigm—from “How much can I do while not going over this line of legalism?” to “How can I best live a holy life before the living God and fit some work within that?”

Or, to put it another way, the thing we have to do is not the stuff—not the activity, not the ticking of the things on ‘To do’ lists; the thing we have to be is in the life and character that better fits our relationship with our sovereign Lord. The activity will fit into that.

There’s this refrain we hear in staff training: “Ministry is about working out who God had made you to be.” (If this year was a song, this would be the chorus.) But the response from the backing singers in my brain is “What if someone who does ministry isn’t who God has made me to be?”

Faithfulness is the criterion for success in ministry, and that’s not something that can ever be marked off on a job performance evaluation sheet. If your identity isn’t rooted in Christ firmly and truly, you’ll just keep on running the race harder for the praise of the wrong people—without realizing that, all along, you’ve been running in the wrong direction.


MTS also feels like this: imagine you’re a swimmer, and you do pretty well at your laps at the seaside pool every week or so. Then someone takes you aside and says, “Why don’t you Swim?” And you say, “Swim?” And they say, “No, with a capital S—like this: Swim”. And instead of the pool, they put their arm around your shoulders and point you towards the ocean. And so you start to Swim, and you go out a little ways until there’s nothing much familiar around anymore.

But when there’s nothing to orient yourself by, it’s hard to tell if you’ve really made any progress. There are swimmers who set out at the same time as or right after you—swimmers who have gone further or faster or both. There’s nothing to give you the right idea of context except—yes, you still seem to be immersed in liquid, even as your limbs turn into something entirely too solid and heavy. Well done.

And so, even though you’re doing more of it and you’re getting practice at it, you’re not necessarily doing any better, and you’re not necessarily producing any visible result.

Isn’t that all our hearts—our mortally, eternally short-sighted hearts—isn’t that all they want at the end of the day?

  1. ‘M’ stands for Mary, here abbreviated to M in an effort to bring the world of Sesame Street just that little bit closer to our own.
  2. I haven’t said much about Tara, who works training and encouraging the Christian women on campus. My only excuse is writing about her example and wisdom would fill its own book.
  3. But he’s from Tasmania, and I take it that locks are fairly recent technology down there. (I know this joke may not make much sense to our worldwide audience, but please feel free to adjust the details of the joke to what your local Tasmania may be.)
  4. Short for Nicole.
  5. No offence to accountants. After all, I’m practically an accountant: my favourite character on Sesame Street is totally The Count.
  6. Not simply for the purpose of embarrassment (although I do actually highly approve of that purpose).
  7. For one thing, they don’t want to commit their vocal cords in case something more exciting comes along at the last minute.
  8. Which, strangely, is full of red-letter Bibles.
  9. Pro tip: if you have a theological problem, just blame it on eschatology! The best thing about this is that it’s fairly difficult for someone to call you on it after the fact.
  10. She has the kind of deep, keen insights that leave you mentally squinting to keep up.

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