Metaphors for Ministry

More than a dozen years ago I was shadowing Anglican school chaplains as part of my preparation for ordination. They asked a common question: “What is your biblical metaphor for chaplaincy?”  A conference at the time had possibly explored this area.  They inferred that I would benefit from exercising careful theological reflection upon the nature and purpose of my intended school ministry.  It would be wise to count the cost and gird my loins.

Chaplaincy is different to parish ministry.  Chaplains generally do not preach to the converted.  Their ‘congregations’ may be gathered under sufferance, and move on with rapidity.  The institutions in which they serve may be Anglican in name only. Chaplains can be seen as an anachronist annoyance – relics of a time long passed – resulting in their relegation to the margins.  Happily, this has never been my experience.

A chaplain’s chosen metaphor for ministry will largely depend upon the context in which they find themselves.  School chaplaincy takes many forms.  At one end of the spectrum a chaplain may  act purely as a teacher of religion and ethics; at the other end they may be conducting chapel services with no teaching allocation.

The Sower of Seeds

During my period of ministry formation, I encountered several chaplaincy metaphors. Quite a few senior chaplains spoke of their role as being primarily a ‘Sower of Seeds’, drawing upon Jesus’ Parable of the Sower.  It appears in all three synoptic gospels, albeit with minor differences (for example, Matthew quotes Isaiah at greater length; Luke does not go into detail about the abundance of the successful crop). The parable provides a pastoral corrective for enthusiastic novices who hope to single-handedly and immediately change school cultures and bring many to Christ.  It does happen, but rarely. Disillusionment and burnout is sadly more common.

Christian schools are mixed places, and the response to the gospel being sowed is mixed. The metaphorical paths, thorns, weeds, rocky places and good soil are all in close proximity to one another. In reality, the receptiveness of hearts and minds of both students and staff to the good news is hidden and indistinguishable – we have no idea who will respond favourably.  It means that the bearers of the message must toss seed in all directions with creative abandon: we are largely ignorant of where the good soil lies.  Chaplains are often playing a ‘long game’ when seed-sowing.  The method of sowing takes many forms – chapel sermons; classroom teaching; and seemingly innocuous discussions in the staffroom or playground.  Organic processes take time, and many partners in the gospel act as God’s agents as he draws people to Christ.  Paul refers to the related proverb, ‘A person reaps what he sows’, in Galatians 6:6-10.  If we sow to please the Spirit (rather than our sinful nature) we will reap from the Spirit eternal life. Accordingly, we should not give up, for there will be a harvest to be gathered at the proper time.

The Parable of the Sower sets realistic expectations, because it appreciates the nature of the world and the human condition. Sowers are still expected to toss seed liberally, but we should not be despondent or admit defeat if much of it fails to germinate. Even Jesus experienced rejection. The irony of the parable is that it quickly became a self-fulfilling prophecy: the disciples failed to understand the point Jesus was making and the metaphor required a literal unpacking by their Master.

The ’God-person’, Shepherd, Pedagogue

Some chaplains saw their role as being an almost incarnational ‘God-person’; a special presence that had entered a foreign land; a light that shone in the darkness. They served as a counter-narrative and a reminder that while much of our culture has turned away from God, he has not abandoned us. I personally have some reticence in appropriating a unique event such as the incarnation of Jesus and applying it metaphorically to how I understand and conduct my ministry.  It sets a rather high bar.  

I much prefer the metaphor of Shepherd, with which many chaplains identify.  The phrase ‘pastoral care’ is so deeply embedded in the educational lexicon that we often overlook its biblical origins. The relationship between shepherd and sheep contains an ontological difference/vertical hierarchy: this is consistent with power imbalances in schools.  Chaplains must be mindful not to exercise their authority or learning so as to impose their beliefs upon students.  Chaplaincy has its challenges, as did the role of a shepherd: droughts and dry winds; wild animals, thieves and the practical difficulty of remaining ritually clean.

God the Father, Jesus and church leaders have all been likened to shepherds.  They exercise to varying degrees pastoral care, providing guidance, protection and support.  Shepherds (and chaplains) are accountable for their actions. If a sheep was taken by a wild beast, the shepherd had to produce evidence of its demise (Amos 3:12). Rather than driving their sheep from behind, the shepherd would lead the way, having established a strong relationship with his flock whereby they would recognise and respond to his voice (John 10:3-4).  Establishing good relationships with staff and students is vital to the effective exercise of the chaplain’s role. A chaplain may be the only Christian that a student knows personally, so they must lead by example, to give honour to Christ and his message. There is nothing worse than a hypocritical mismatch between words and deeds.

Another metaphor which has links to shepherding is the role of a Pedagogue, derived from a classical Greek word, paidagogos, (παιδαγωγος). It literally means ‘boy-leader’. Paul in Galatians likens the purpose of the Jewish Law (preparing and leading us to Christ) to a paidagogos. The paidagogos was a servant in a Greek household. He had a minor teaching function (table manners and general deportment), but his true role, in a patriarchal society, was to safely conduct the sons of his master to and from school. In effect, a pedagogue was a ‘moral bodyguard’ and a guide to a place of learning.  Interestingly, the paidagogos was not considered a teacher as such. The classical Greek word for teacher is didaskalos (διδασκαλος).  Similarly, there is a  distinction between the responsibilities of a chaplain and a teacher. They are not performing the same function, although there will be some overlap in their pastoral duties and teaching roles. As the sons of his master grew older, the paidagogos’ role diminished. He became redundant once they reached adulthood (about sixteen years).  There comes a time when our students leave school forever.  Hopefully, they will feel prepared for life’s challenges.

Chaplains will need to journey side by side with students as they grapple with new ideas, or seek to make sense of tragedy.  Chaplains provide a steadying hand when students stumble, and aid the redemptive process when wrongs occur.  Guiding rather than indoctrinating, they equip young people to make informed decisions and the direction they will take in life. Pastorally,  chaplains have the privilege of simply listening – to joys and sorrows and hopes for the future – and, when necessary, proffer advice.  Sometimes, simple silence and a gentle smile and nod is the wisest response.

The Sentinel or Prophet

My musings on metaphors for ministry were rekindled when the Most Reverend and Right Honourable Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, spoke at a conference via Zoom in 2022 concerning the metaphor of the Sentinel – Watchman. The metaphor is a rich one, as sentinels performed various functions. Some were stationed on hills to observe the phases of the moon, in order to determine the dates for festivals (Jeremiah 31:6). In a similar sense, chaplains need to have a sense of the rhythms and seasons of a school, knowing when it is propitious to speak out or remain silent – a prophetic role. The prophets of the Old Testament would describe themselves as spiritual sentinels, an early warning system to the people of Israel concerning God’s impending judgement (Isaiah 21:6-12). Many chaplains identify with the prophet metaphor, especially when they feel the need to gently rebuke colleagues or school leaders for missteps and failures.  I would recommend that it is always wise to remove the plank from one’s own eye before embarking on such a brave course of action!

Sentinels were positioned on high sections of the city wall, to warn of an approaching enemy.  They could perceive what was happening before anyone else, with a responsibility to warn of danger. In a time of encroaching secularism and the corresponding dilution of Christian influence, this is a timely application of the metaphor, as chaplains often regard themselves as guardians of the faith at the coal face. It can also be understood in a positive sense – what are the approaching opportunities that might be to our advantage?  This is consistent with the role of a sentinel who gave notice of approaching messengers, possibly bringing good news (2 Samuel 18: 24-28).

There were also watchmen who guarded the sheep pen (John 10:3).  Jesus portrays them in a figure of speech as acting rightly when they recognise the shepherd and allow him to enter through the gate, followed by his sheep.  Chaplains can inhibit or foster the relationship between Jesus and his flock.

An Ambassador for Christ

If I had to choose only one metaphor to apply to my school ministry, it would be one that is often overlooked:  an Ambassador for Christ. In my role as a chaplain, it has immediate resonance; it holds for me a richness and pertinence unlike any other biblical metaphor.  It encapsulates many of the characteristics which appear in the metaphors considered above. Paul uses the metaphor more than once, and describes himself while imprisoned as ‘an ambassador in chain’.  I have a sense of those chains during marking and report-writing season.

To appreciate this Pauline metaphor, we need to understand how ambassadors were understood in the classical world. When I think of the word ‘ambassador’ it conjures images of a cushy posting in Paris, London or New York, with endless cocktail parties, hobnobbing with the influential and powerful.  Ambassadors have not always had it so easy, or been regarded so highly. We must dispel notions of ambassadors in foreign lands being in regular communication with those they represented and confine ourselves to the semantic range of the words describing the image at the time when the metaphor was coined. In Paul’s day, with the tyranny of distance, there was by necessity a greater level of delegation, empowerment and trust experienced by an ambassador than we observe in a modern setting.

While an apostle communicated broadly, an ambassador had a specialised role, ordinarily conveying his message only to a specified community or leader, from one in authority. Paul may not be describing himself in an entirely metaphorical fashion when he speaks of being an ambassador.  Note Jesus’ words to Ananias in Acts 9:15 – Paul is a chosen instrument, to bring the name of Jesus before Gentiles and kings [my emphasis] and before the people of Israel. No other apostle is given such a specified mandate (contrast the commissioning of the disciples in Matthew 28:19-20, where Jesus’ disciples are extolled to make disciples of all nations).  Note that Jesus does speak in general terms of believers appearing before those in authority, prophesying that they will be dragged before governors and kings. (Matthew 10:18).  However, the distinction is that ambassadors are not ordinarily hauled before authority figures. In terms of demeanour, verse 16 of that chapter recommends that they are to be as ‘wise as servants and innocent as doves’ – not bad advice for secular ambassadors.  When they do appear before those in authority, the words they speak will be given to them at that time by ‘the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.’  Unlike a remote, earthly ruler who has no direct contact with an active ambassador, God through his Spirit has the capacity to direct the discourse of his representatives at any time.

Just like a literal ambassador, Paul of Tarsus travels to foreign places, and regularly engages with those in authority.  They include the priest of Zeus at Lystra (Acts 14:13); the Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15:12); magistrates in Philippi (Acts 16:22, 35, 38); Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (Acts 17:16-34); officials in Ephesus (Acts 19:31, 35); a commander of Roman troops in Jerusalem (Acts 21:31-40; 22:26-29); the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:1-11); Governor Felix (Acts 24); Governor Festus and King Agrippa (Acts 25 and 26); and Publius, the chief official of Malta (Acts 28:7).  Although not mentioned in the Bible, Paul may have had the opportunity to appear before Caesar, having made his appeal. 

Like any ambassador, Paul has a message that has been entrusted to him for proclamation (see Acts 9:15; 27:24; Galatians 1:11-12) and has been appointed to this role by one in authority; he makes reports of his efforts and outcomes (Acts 14:27; 15:12; 21:19). Paul is cognisant and respectful of other cultures, but is not captivated or subsumed by them (Acts 17:22-34).  His allegiance remains with the sending authority.  Due to these commonalities, it is arguable that Paul never intended his self-description to be taken metaphorically. The dissonance in the ambassadorship metaphor occurs for those who do not share Paul’s worldview or accept his calling: Paul has not been appointed by an earthly ruler, and so his authority is not recognised in the world. Further, he does not have the exalted background which was ordinarily a prerequisite for the position. His claims are difficult to verify objectively and tangibly.

An ambassador (and a chaplain) is a conduit between two cultures, engaging in dialogue, with the intention of creating good relations and understanding. It requires an appreciation in equal measure of one’s own world and the world that has been entered.  It is a delicate balancing act: we respect the views of others, but we do not want to be subsumed by a non-Christian worldview to the extent we are no longer true representatives of God and his message.  It is important to make connections with the world our students inhabit and the issues they find worrisome.  We need to meet students ‘where they are at’ and ‘speak their language’.  At the same time, chaplains share their own language and beliefs, articulating how the gospel might speak into the student’s situation – it is a two-way street.

Effective ambassadors in the ancient world prepared themselves for their posting, including prayers before embarking on their mission.  Likewise, chaplains need to be prayerful and confident apologists for the faith, armed with answers for questions such as: Who made God? Was the world really made in seven days?  How do you know God exists? If God is powerful and loving, why do we have suffering? Hasn’t Science disproven God?

There are also Christian students who share the chaplain’s understanding of the world – they too reside in a foreign land.  They are akin to a group of immigrants or travellers who rely heavily upon the consular or embassy support of their native country. There are many biblical metaphors.  Which one resonates with you and your ministry?

Malcolm Woolrich Written by:

Rev. Malcolm Woolrich is an ordained Anglican Chaplain at Wadhurst, the Middle School of Melbourne Grammar. He teaches Philosophy and Religious Studies and has been a lawyer for over thirty years.

One Comment

  1. May 31, 2023

    Nice thoughts, Malcolm. I actually mentioned the word “incarnational” as being a key word for my ministry in an article about me when I started at BGS, so perhaps I need to rethink it!

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