“Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.” (2 Corinthians 13:5)
In many ways, this seems a strange verse of scripture, and I suspect that there is more than one way in which it could be understood. A recent visit to a niece and her family revealed that her daughter had fallen out of bed. It had made her a little anxious about how secure she was in bed. This reminded me that the verse quoted above was a favourite text of the Rev. Edward Relf. Mr Relf’s father had been the minister many years before me at Herstmonceux. His three youngest children were also my friends at one time. I remember his quoting this verse several times and telling a story about a child who had fallen out of bed. She told her father, who had gone to her aid, that it was her own fault for not going further into bed, and remaining too near the edge.
His exhortation to us (then teenage Christians) was to ensure our salvation by getting as close to Jesus as possible. It was well meant advice, and it was good advice (though some might question the theology), but I’m not sure that this was what Paul meant. So, what might he have meant?
No doubt you will have heard the saying, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”. Interestingly, in the original text, the word translated her “Examine”, is commonly used in scripture to mean test and implies trial by fire. But Paul also uses another word, translated here for “test”. This might be used to speak about a trial of metal to prove its reliability. Both words have similar meanings. Clearly, he is encouraging a rigorous self-examination or self-scrutiny of their faith. But we still need to ask the question, “Why?”
It seems to me that the context of this verse gives the clue. Paul is proposing a third visit to this church and intends to put some things in order. The previous chapter refers to discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance, immorality and debauchery. Clearly, there is much to put right. But some in the church are questioning Paul’s authority. They want proof of his ministry. It is in that context that Paul says, “Examine yourselves, whether you are in the faith”, for they were the proof. Their faith in Christ was the fruit of his ministry. If their faith was real, then so was his ministry.
However, the principle of periodically examining our faith is a good one. For example, we could ask ourselves how much our faith has grown over the past 12 months, or whether we cope better with trials and temptations, or feel closer to God, or are confident that we are living in God’s will for our lives. Sadly, some Christians do not seem to change much over time. God expects our faith to deepen, our lives to be godlier, and our dynamic relationship to his word to develop. For that reason alone, a periodic check-up has value. You could undertake your own today.
As part of a study course I was undertaking some years ago I was required to set up a small team that would help me reflect on my ministry. I had never done so before during my 25 years’ experience in pastoral leadership. The team had to include both male and female, young and old. They critiqued every aspect of my ministry in the church. They did so honestly and lovingly. But they knew that their role was both to encourage me in what I did well and point out where things could be better. At times it was painful, but it was both for my good and the good of the church. I thank God for that wonderful team.
In secular employment, it is now common for there to be an annual performance appraisal. Done correctly, this is not an occasion to harshly criticise. It is an opportunity to encourage and improve. The person undergoing the appraisal should be able to express her or his concerns as well. Since there will be few occupations as important as Christian ministry, should we not be encouraging annual appraisals for clergy and people in various ministries. Since the early 1990s The Church of England has reviewed its appraisal processes. If you are interested in reading initial report from the Working Party click here. There are excellent recommendations in this. A recent article in the Church Times raises some interesting points under the heading Redeeming the Priest’s Appraisal. No doubt, some other denominations will have similar processes.
Congregational and Baptist churches are non-hierarchical, so an appraisal by Bishop or other senior clergypersons is an alien concept. But the idea that church leaders are somehow exempt from appraisals would be very unhealthy. Peer reviews might be possible, but in a congregationally ordered church I see no reason why putting together a small team from within the church members should be something to be avoided. No doubt, they should be carefully chosen, should understand their role, and be competent. Training is available. I suggest that letting the matter default to the diaconate is not the best idea. The content of the appraisal should be confidential, though a written summary would be helpful, and would provide a helpful point of reference for the future.
I have found pastoral ministry a rewarding experience when I have truly been in tune with my congregations. However, one less happy situation developed because of a conflict of expectations. This was largely my fault. When invited to the position I had an impression of what was expected but did not take time to double check this. What the members of the church had expected was different, though defined by the same name. For the next 15 months, it was occasionally uncomfortable until the cause of the problem was discovered. This was not a happy outcome. Part of the relevance of an annual or biannual appraisal or review would be the opportunity to ensure that both the minister and congregation are living with the same expectations concerning the role of the minister, as well as performance.
The alternative to this kind of periodic check-up is the risk of growing disappointment and possibly discontent within the congregation. Typically, this leads to the kind of relationship where there is a happy “honeymoon” period but afterwards things go downhill.
This kind of review is not restricted to those with pastoral leadership responsibilities; it should apply to anyone entrusted with a role that has more than a short tenure.
If you are a minister of a church, or a member of a church with a minister, I encourage establishing a review. I would be happy to provide some guidance as to who should take part and how it should be conducted, if necessary. If you are a minister of a church in a hierarchical situation where your performance is appraised by someone senior to you, you might consider creating a congregational reflection to sit alongside this. Of course, you can ignore this advice if you are confident that you have reached perfection already!
From the Diary
Please give thanks with me for God’s blessing on various aspects of ministry over the past few weeks. It has been very fruitful and I have been blessed by the testimonies received.
I would be grateful for your prayers for my wife, Doreen, who has recently been diagnosed with a condition that is likely to lead to a decline in her abilities. Your prayers for me will be appreciated as she may become more dependent upon me, as carer. At present, she is still able to function fairly well.
Sunday 23rd July, I will be taking the service at Market Harborough Congregational Church, which is now our home church.
Sunday 30th I will be taking the Sunday morning service at HMP Gartree. We are still waiting for my security clearance to be updated. This has been complicated by the failure of a computer system. In the meanwhile, it means that another member of the chaplaincy team has to be present with me at some services and activities when previously I would have been on my own. Please pray that the update comes through very soon.
Please pray for Gordon Banks and me as we prepare the webinar for 5th August. This will focus on ideas and suggestions for missional activities through the autumn. This is a period of the year when there are a number of significant opportunities and we want to encourage churches to grasp the opportunities. Please encourage people in your church to sign up for this helpful online seminar they can attend at home. See below for further details.
In addition to other regular ministry through August, I help to lead Holiday at Home, in Market Harborough. This is a programme through which the local churches seek to be a blessing to older people in the community as we try to show God’s love and share something of the gospel.
Please pray as we make a number of changes in the rural organisations which I serve. This is potentially exciting. Please pray for God to raise up younger women and men who have a heart for rural ministry and who love Jesus and want others to love him too. We feel that this is a critical time for several aspects of our outreach ministry, and ask you to focus prayer. Pray also for the financial challenges that this brings.
Fresh challenges are always exciting, though sometimes also daunting. We are excited while we wait to see how God is going to answer prayer.