One of the things that I have reinforced when working with churches is the need to think about mission as being “with” rather than “for.” Grammatically, it is the simplest of changes—moving from one preposition to another. In terms of church of ministry, however, it is a monumental shift.

privilegeThe difference is this. When we are doing ministry “for” the community we assume a place of privilege (i.e. the privileged serving the underprivileged). We assume that we are the helpers reaching out to those who need help. When we do ministry “with” the community we assume that those we are helping have as much to offer us as we do them. It is shared need and shared privilege.

Some of our most successful ministries in this presbytery are ministries that done in partnership with other community agencies, neighborhood associations, government entities, and social service non-profits. I see it in our missions to address affordable housing, hunger issues, and world poverty.

But I want to take this simple prepositional shift a little further.

I spent the last two days in a two-day retreat with Common Table, the Oregon-wide initiative that our presbytery is involved with. Common Table is committed to presenting a unified voice among our broadly diverse religious community. Around our table are voices from mainline and evangelical Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islam, Sikh, Buddhist and Native American traditions.

women rightsThis the third intensive retreat I have participated in. I am appreciating how deeply we have been able to engage with each other acknowledging our common humanity even as we wrestle with troubling differences. (Remember, while we in the PCUSA are forging our way into deeper inclusiveness other traditions don’t recognize women leaders or same sex relationships.) This does take work–lots of love, lots of honesty, and lots of trust.

But one thing that did emerge from this most recent gathering was an acknowledgement that, no matter what our religious tradition, all of us were contending with the increasing irrelevance of our religious voices in our communities and culture. As we digested this reality one of our wiser members, representing the Native American voice, told us that he felt that all of us would have to learn, in working with the culture around us, to become “Junior Partners.”

The description immediately resonated with me. Randy was describing how we not only need to move from doing ministry “for” the community to doing ministry “with” the community, but that we also needed to learn how to take a back seat and play the support role in many cases. “Yes,” he said, “we do need to learn to partner with our community and we need to limit our roles to that of Junior Partners.”

tattoo manThis immediately resonated with me because no longer can we simply assume that we in the dominant culture have something that those in minority communities want. That is the underlying assumption of ministry “for” people. “We have privilege and we are going to share some of that privilege with you,” is how we have thought.

But more and more we are hearing people say, “We aren’t interested in your privilege. We don’t want what you have. We don’t think your lives and lifestyles are sustainable. We want something new.” The younger the generations the more we are seeing that the issue is not how to find ways to reach these people, but more how to support them and then get out of the way so they can create and build communities and a spiritual infrastructure on their own terms.

Ministry that is done “for” assumes a place of privilege.

Ministry that is done “with” assumes a shared privilege.

The ministry of “Junior Partners” assumes that privilege has shifted and needs to shift.

The ministry of “Junior Partners” assumes God is doing a new thing and we are only supporting actors.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

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