Some of what I have done in life would be explicitly called ministry. But most of the things I have done would not have been called ministry, but in fact were a form of ministry. In this country the term, ministry, usually has religious overtones. People think ministers are special people within the church who often have designated roles. Clearly, priests and pastors are doing ministry. In fact, they are often called “ministers.” And there are other folks within the church structure who also minister.
This is not a bad use of the idea of ministry. Truly there are people who are doing amazing ministers in their church context. But the problem is to limit the word, minister, to a church context. It is a much broader word. The word comes from the Latin word, minister, which means to serve. Therefore, it means servant. It can be noted that the term, minister, is widely used in the British system to designate a political role. There is the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense, etc. There is nothing inherently religious in the Latin word, minister.
Given the nature of much of my work teaching Religion, folks might assume that my ministry is religious. Some of it doubtless is. Of course, what is tricky in trying to assess this is deciding what counts as “religion?” But I have no interest to go in this direction. Actually, I would prefer to talk about spiritual instead of religious. But again, I don’t want to get into detail about the difference between spiritual and religious. I am interested in thinking about the nature of service (ministry) as part of what being spiritual means.
In effect, I want to suggest that to be spiritual is to be willing to serve---to be a servant. Think about it: I don’t see how you can talk about spiritual and selfishness in the same breath! To be spiritual means a willingness to serve. You may not have to serve, but you need to be willing to serve. It is with this simple distinction---willingness to serve, even if you don’t actually have to serve---that I want to introduce the idea of “availability.”
The idea of availability intrigues me because the willingness to serve is an issue of availability. There are two key facets of availability. In the first place availability contains the notion of present or presence. If we are available, we are present. There are at least two levels of presence. One level is the literal level of being present. It means I am literally there. I remember elementary school when the teacher would take attendance. She would call a name and we would individually answer, “present.” Of course, if you are absent, you can’t answer and you obviously are missing. The other level of presence is the conditional. This means I am not literally in the place, but if desired, I can come to be there. This could be called “the promise of presence.”
Availability is the willingness to be present and as helpful as possible. If I have this kind of availability, then it means I am willing to serve. This has characterized much of my life. I have a willingness to serve and, hence, make myself available. One way to be available is to tell people you are available. The other way is to be around. We can literally spend some more time in situations where our availability is evident. Yet I remind us that availability means a willingness to serve. I might or might not actually have to serve.
The second key facet of availability is to see availability as a readiness to serve. Although this may sound like the first aspect, i.e. willingness to serve, I think it is different. To be ready is to be prepared to jump into service whenever and wherever it is needed. Indeed, I think we could be willing to serve, but not ready. Readiness presupposes a readiness for action when it is immediately needed. Additionally, it is a special kind of readiness to serve.
Service asks for us to be present in a non-egocentric, but non-invasive, way. Service has nothing to do with my will---what I want to wish to see happen. Service serves the will of the other. It cannot be egocentric. It cannot be invasive. This can be difficult for some of us, because we tend to be driven by our ego.
Thinking more deeply about service in this fashion helps me understand why so much of my work is, indeed, ministry. I am not sure where it came from, but I have always had a service mentality. But I also knew if you were authentically a servant, you could not always choose the venue of service. The best we could do is to be willing to serve. Of course, I could volunteer for service duties---soup kitchens and the like.
But ministry opportunities come in various ways. All we can do is be available. We are willing to serve and are ready to serve.