Father James Martin: 7 lessons for ministry I’ve learned as a Jesuit

  Monica Phillips, a 25-year-old registered nurse from Albuquerque, N.M., sits in a hammock while talking with a patient March 16 outside a clinic in Wakapoa, Guyana. (CNS photo/Bob Roller) 

What does it take to be a good minister? Whatever your field—whether you are a lay person, sister, brother or priest—effective ministry is characterized by three things: careful preparation, diligent work and compassion for the people you are serving. To help illustrate these points, I would like to share seven lessons I’ve learned from my own ministry as a Jesuit.

1. You can’t know everything.

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Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., was an esteemed professor of New Testament at Boston College and, before that, at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology. He was also, as far as I could tell, a saint: kind, hardworking, prayerful. Dan probably knew more about the New Testament than perhaps anyone in the English-speaking world. When he died in 2014, the admiring joke that went around the Jesuits was that Jesus had called Dan to heaven because he needed an explanation of the Book of Revelation.

But in our Introduction to the New Testament class, a student once asked a memorable question about one of Jesus’ miracles, which we had just covered. He said, “Father Harrington, with what we know about Jesus’ identity as the Second Person of the Trinity, and his relationship to the Father and the Spirit, and the hypostatic union of his human and divine natures, when he is performing this particular miracle, what is going through his mind in terms of his self-conception as the Son of God?”

And Dan said, “We have no idea.”

When it comes to ministry, you can’t know everything.

When it comes to ministry, you can’t know everything. Of course, you prepare as best you can. You study hard, take your work seriously and give yourself fully to your ministry. But you’re not going to be able to answer every question, solve every problem, meet every ministerial challenge—or for scholars, know everything about your field. In pastoral ministries, you may not know what to say to someone who has lost a job, contracted an illness or had a death in the family.

This is when you are also called to remember who called you to your ministry: God. More to the point, God put you there in front of the person in need—not Pope Francis, not Mother Teresa, not Jean Vanier, not Helen Prejean. God put you in this place at this time before this person, which means God wants you there, with all your strengths and weaknesses.

2. You can’t do everything.

Between 1992 and 1994, I worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Kenya. My ministry was helping refugees from across East Africa who had settled in Nairobi to start small businesses to support themselves and their families. In time, we opened a small shop in a slum in Nairobi, which marketed the refugee-made handicrafts to expats, tourists and wealthy Kenyans. It was the most enjoyable and fulfilling ministry I have ever done.

But after a while, I started to burn out. At the time, I was helping to both run the shop and oversee the refugees’ small businesses, which meant meeting the refugees at the shop every day, visiting their homes in the slums and helping them with not only their business problems but also the many concerns typical to refugees—health problems, landlord problems and legal problems.

In his public ministry, Jesus dealt with the people in front of him, as we are called to do.

One day I said to my spiritual director, “I don’t know how I can do all of this!”

And he said, “Who says you have to do it all?”

“It’s what Jesus would do! He’d help all these people.”

“Well, maybe,” he said. “But I have news for you: You’re not Jesus!”

Speaking of Jesus, we need to remember something about his own ministry: When Jesus left Galilee and Judea, there were still some sick people left. In other words, Jesus didn’t cure everyone. Even he didn’t do everything. In his public ministry, Jesus dealt with the people in front of him, as we are called to do.

3. You can do some things.

One of the more unusual ministries I have ever done was working at what came to be known as Ground Zero in the weeks following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City. The first day I arrived at the site I saw the scene familiar to most Americans at the time from the news: the ruined towers, the smoldering buildings, the ash, the paper, the debris. It was overwhelming.

Upon seeing me, a police officer at the site said, “The morgue is over there.” Thanks to my Jesuit formation, I knew myself and my own limitations well enough to know that I probably could not work in the morgue. So I stood on top of all the papers and ash and tried to think of what I could do. And I realized, well, I could minister to the firefighters and E.M.T.s and policemen. That was something I could do.

You can’t do everything, but you can do something.

So that is what I did: Listened to them. Let them grieve. Accompanied them. That was an important lesson from my Jesuit formation and theological education: You can’t do everything, but you can do something. I would have been overwhelmed or paralyzed if I thought I had to do everything at Ground Zero. Instead, I did what I could: the ministry of presence.

4. You can always learn something new.

Recently, I’m learning a great deal about what I consider a new ministry for me, outreach to L.G.B.T. Catholics. Last year I wrote a book called Building a Bridge about how the church can more compassionately reach out to L.G.B.T. people. A few months after the book was published, I was invited to speak at an annual gathering of student-representatives from the L.G.B.T. groups from all the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities.

At my talk, I started off by saying that I didn’t know everything about L.G.B.T. ministry, something that was made clear to me over the course of the weekend. I found myself having to learn a new language, a new tone and a new appreciation for the lives of the L.G.B.T. students. My experience can be summed up as my telling them, “God loves you,” and them saying “Yeah, we know!”

My confession that I was still learning seemed to make the students more open to teaching me.

My confession that I was still learning seemed to make the students more open to teaching me. At one point in my talk, I mentioned “transgenderism,” and a hand shot up. “Father, I’m not an ‘ism,’” said one student. “O.K.,” I said, “What should I say, ‘transgender experience’?” They snapped their fingers appreciatively. You can always learn something new.

5. You can’t be liked by everyone.

While the vast majority of Catholics, both the hierarchy and people in the pews welcomed Building a Bridge, a small but vocal minority did not. A few days after the book was published, I started to get attacked by a group of far-right websites and commentators who called me a “heretic,” “apostate,” “sodomite,” “homosexualist,” “fairy,” “pansy,” “false priest,” “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and “heresiarch.” Following that, several talks I had been invited to give were canceled because of online petitions and phone-call campaigns that whipped up hatred and homophobia.

What does all of that have to do with ministry? Just this: Not everyone is going to like you. In the Gospel accounts of the “Rejection at Nazareth” it important to notice how Jesus is treated after he proclaims his identity at the Messiah. Initially, the people of his hometown, praise him, but then they turn on him, drive him from their midst and make ready to throw him off a cliff. But he “passes through their midst.” Once, on retreat, I asked Jesus: “How were you able to do this? I couldn’t stand up before people who I would think would reject me.”

In ministry, it is essential to let go of the need for everyone to approve of you, love you or even like you.

And the answer I heard in prayer was, “Must everyone like you?”

In ministry, it is essential to let go of the need for everyone to approve of you, love you or even like you. Of course, simply because you face opposition does not mean you are doing the right thing. As my novice director used to say, “If people disagree with you, it may not mean that you’re a prophet; it may just mean that you’re wrong!” But it does mean that if you are ministering in Jesus’ name, you will inevitably face opposition and perhaps even persecution.

6. You can be like Jesus.

Very occasionally, when I meet people who minister in the church—Jesuits and religious, clergy and lay, single and married—I notice something. A few of them are cruel. Not often but enough that it registers. They are short-tempered with their staff, denigrate others with their tongue and can be, to use a word that needs to be recovered in our theological vocabulary, mean.

The key to ministry is not a series of points but a person: Jesus.

Meanness in the setting of Christian ministry is both surprising and scandalous. A few supposedly Christian ministers treat people with utter contempt, shout at their colleagues and say the cruelest things masked by sarcasm. There are always excuses of course. Every mean person has an excuse: they’re tired, they’re stressed, they’re in the midst of a difficult work environment. But even in the midst of hardships in ministry, personal difficulties in your life, sickness and pain, opposition either public or private, you can always be kind.

In fact, lately I have started to think of Christian ministry in terms of an “asceticism of kindness”: always being compassionate, always being kind and always being helpful. I don’t always achieve that goal—ask anyone who works or lives with me—but it is a good goal nonetheless.

7. Finally, you were called by God into this ministry.

These are difficult times in the church. And it can be hard to be a Catholic, let alone minister as one. But remember: At your baptism, God called you into the church by name. And in your ministry, God made a further call. It’s important to remember that.

When things get tough for me, I think of Peter and Andrew, James and John, Mary Magdalene and all those disciples Jesus called at the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. After the Resurrection and the Ascension, when Jesus’ time on earth was completed, these people faced tremendous difficulties, even martyrdom. And I am sure that at the worst times they thought back to the original call, by the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and remembered who called him.

In the end, then, the key to ministry is not a series of points but a person: Jesus.

Kester Ratcliff
4 days 23 hours ago

I love the idea of an asceticism of kindness.

I may be wrong, but I've been looking at my struggle to make sense of Catholic ethics on sexuality and relationships versus my own sensible experience as a form of mortification - I am changing for the better, still don't even try to keep the official rules because I don't believe they even make sense, but I had a couple of inspirations in my struggle with being bi and too hurt by my ex wife to be attracted to women again yet and Catholic: first, that I should try to regard every person I meet with at least as much practical respect and kindness as in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, because every person is as much an Image of God as the Host is. And I was describing to my boss who was surprised when I mentioned I'm a Very Naughty Catholic, that what that means to me is I take loving people very seriously, but I don't take all the rules literally. And then she laughed about some of the funny inconsistencies in Catholic tradition, and I laughed with her and said yes there are plenty of ridiculous bits in religious practice, like in romantic love. She started to look apologetic so I said no don't worry, if my faith couldn't take a friendly joke then it'd be me should be embarrassed not you. 😊

Oliver Low
3 days 3 hours ago

I will borrow the phrase "asceticism of kindness". :-)
Prioritising keeping the commandment to love one another, as interpreted by St. Peter ("deeply, from the heart"), has transformed my life, and all my relationships, with friends, family, and passers-by. :-)

Jill Caldwell
13 hours 49 min ago

Beautiful reminders of what it is to be a follower of Jesus. I particularly struggle with trying to do everything for everyone. I also plan to borrow the "asceticism of kindness" term. Thank you for keeping us on track.

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