The famous 18th century economist, Adam Smith, uses the illustration of a common woolen coat, owned by many of his contemporaries in the cities of Great Britain. In considering the hands that went into making and marketing the coat, he mustered an impressive list of contributors. Such a list would include the sheep farmer, the sheep shearers, the spinners of wool, those who dye wool, the dye makers, the merchants who purchased the dyes from abroad, the sailors and ship-builders who sailed and built the merchant vessels, the merchants who made the dyes available, the cloth-cutters, tailors, and shopkeepers who sold the coat, etc., etc.
The late economist Milton Friedman made a similar illustration using a pencil as the centerpiece. The lowly pencil’s availability at market is dependent upon hundreds of hands – the woodcutter, lead miners, rubber manufacturers, transporters, middlemen who purchase all of these goods, the factory assembly-line workers and machinists who combine the raw materials, the merchants who sell, the outlets who market this simple, yet ubiquitous tool. You get the idea.
The simplest production is often the product of countless persons’ effort and concern. Yet we seldom consider the time and effort which goes into making a final product. Have you ever noticed the multitude of names scrolling down the credits screen at the end of a movie? We see hundreds of names documenting every task under the sun. What do all those people do? Who knows, but someone recognized they were all integral to the tasks of production. Only a tiny percentage will receive the recognition of an Oscar nomination. We often fail to look at the “finished product’ of ministry in as insightful a fashion.
The Apostle Paul was one who continually needed – and recognized his need – for a supporting cast. In nearly every epistle he cites the valuable contributions of his co-workers and lists them by name. People like Epaphras, Luke, Timothy, Titus, Sosipater, Gaius, Justus, Priscilla and Aquila are just a few of the names in the credits list of his ministry epistles. He not only acknowledges his co-workers and supporters but prays for them often. I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:3-5) Such statements are a common theme of his letters.
Many times those in ministry allow themselves to be placed on pedestals (a precariously dangerous place). Because the gifts of the Holy Spirit are so extraordinary, we who exercise public ministry are often deceived into believing that we are extraordinary in a similar way. The truth is the treasure of God’s grace is contained in very ordinary vessels. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us (II Cor. 4:7).
When I consider a simple Sunday morning service (if there is such a thing) in our own context, a cast of dozens comes to mind. We consider those in visible places of service to be “in the ministry.” In a sense, of course, this is true. Public ministry is demanding, challenging, and sometimes draining. But public ministry is only the tip of an iceberg which extends deep under the surface – at least if anything significant is taking place. There are those who give financially to support the ministry, those who pray faithfully for spiritual breakthroughs, those who reach out to and care for others, those who greet, usher and guide visitors, those who steward the finances, those who care for children in the nursery (the true heroes), those who serve in sound, music, audio-visual, those who teach children, who prepare the building and grounds, who do the clerical work to prepare bulletins, websites and other media, etc., etc, etc. You see what I mean.
It would do well for anyone in “public ministry” or who holds a staff position in a ministry or church to consider how many hands are holding them up, and whose shoulders — past and present– we stand on. When considering such things, hubris and arrogant pride are simply out of place. Thankfulness and appreciation are the only proper response. I would suggest taking a moment to consider your “credits screen.” Then offer thanks to God and perhaps a tangible expression of appreciation for each one who appears there.