Ministry. It is a word that is certainly familiar to public discourse and yet remains largely absent from secular jargon. There is still, nonetheless, a vague acquaintance with ministry even in the midst of our increasingly post-Christian context. Most would probably surmise that ministry has to do with some kind of service or assistance provided to others. This intuition would be correct. In fact, it captures the heart of the meaning behind ministry (both linguistically and theologically). However, there is much more about the principle of ministry that is worth unpacking.
Ministry is closely related to other English words like administration or “ministration.” The most fundamental sense is that ministry is the “provision of assistance.” Historically speaking, “ministry” evolved out of the Latin words, “minister” or “ministerium.” The religious and theological overtones should be readily apparent. Scripturally speaking, the word “ministry” and its related terminology, is drawn primarily from two Greek words. In most cases, “ministry” comes from the word “diakonia” or related inflections. Diakonia refers to ministry, or service – with the idea that it is done in a voluntary spirit (or of one’s own accord). For the Early Christians, this ministry or service was deeply connected with worshipping God. In some instances, “ministry” is also the English translation used for another Greek word which appears in the New Testament and that is “leitourgia.” This explains why the word “liturgy” is also closely associated with ministry, worship and service in the New Testament. Leitourgia is a compound of “people” and “service/public work” and so it is often understood as referencing the “work of the people,” “public services,” or “one who performs a public work.” In fact, outside of its biblical usage in the secular Greek world, leitourgia represented the expensive offerings that the rich were required to make to the city or state as part of their civic duty. In the biblical context, liturgy was understood as the active ministering of God’s people to each other and to the unbaptized.
Both of these words are important to Damascus Way’s understanding of ministry and what it means for us as individual Christians and as the collective Church. What our ministry, Damascus Way, does is to a great extent a “public work or service.” It is “the work of the people,” specifically God’s people. Our work impacts the public sphere and to some extent, it is witnessed by the secular and civic world. When we are ministering, we are also witnessing to the men we serve and to the rest of the world, who see the impact of our ministry. While many of the concrete aspects of ministering happen in contexts that are unknown and unseen to the public, the impact and the lasting effect of those ministerial practices ripple outwards into our communities.
In Christian theology, we distinguish between the two primary subjects who minister; the Trinity and humanity. In Scripture, Christ’s ministry of reconciliation is typically the first that comes to mind. However, each person of the Trinity ministers to humanity. God the Father ministers to humanity by ‘fathering us,’ modeling what spiritual fatherhood is, in adopting us into the divine family as His children. The Father eternally begets the Son, Jesus, who in turn inaugurated a ministry of reconciliation, through his life, death and resurrection. Ultimately, this restored us to relationship with the Triune God. Finally, the Holy Spirit also has its own ministry, in which humans are drawn to God, regenerated and sanctified. The Spirit guides us into all truth and comforts us. The Church and each believer by extension, imitates the Godhead by continuing the ministry of Christ down through the ages to the rest of humanity. In the next section, we’ll examine the areas in which individuals can minister. Before examining the practical sphere of ministry, let us conclude this initial section with Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 9:
“You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. Through the testing of this ministry, you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others” (2 Corinthians 9:11-13 NRSVA).
The New Testament teaches us that all believers are called to minister. More specifically, we know that “all believers have gifts of ministry” (Kruse, 603). To be a believer or a Christian, is to be a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and each of us is often called to a unique spiritual vocation (Colossians 1:25, Ephesians 4:11-12). The purview of ministry is that of every faithful Christian. As one writer has described it, “Service to God and others in the name of Christ is a non-negotiable.” As recipients and benefactors of Christ’s ministry, we are each tethered to the spiritual vocations of the Gospel. From what we see in Paul’s epistles, there are a number of primary components of ministry (or ministering) and they include (but are not limited to) the following practices:
- ) Preaching the Gospel (1 Corinthians 1:17).
- ) Signs and Wonders: Such as healing and prophecy (2 Corinthians 12:12).
- ) Teaching, Exhorting and Encouraging (Ephesians 4:11-12).
- ) Prayer (Romans 1:8-10).
- ) Moral Example: Imitating Christ (1 Corinthians 4:16-17).
In the New Testament, ministry is both the proclamation of the Gospel and the embodiment of it. Like the faculties of ministry within the Trinity, there are also ecclesial (or church related) divisions of ministry. These ministerial roles can be distinct and interrelated. The Apostle Paul is described, for example, as simultaneously an apostle, a preacher and a teacher (2 Timothy 1:11). Consider Paul’s words to the Church at Ephesus:
“And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:11-13, ESV).
Some have labeled these ministerial roles, the “Five-Fold” ministry of the Church. While these roles are not necessarily exhaustive, one could make the case that together, these five roles cover the spectrum of ministerial practices. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, each “office” of ministry plays an important role in expanding and enriching the work of God’s people. For the sake of brevity, this article will not delineate the specifics of each ecclesial function. To conclude this section, however, we’ll consider another angle on the nature of ministry.
An initial reading of passages like Ephesians 4 leave the reader with the optimistic idea that the work of ministry will ‘perfect’ (prepare or equip) the saints, ‘until we all come in the unity of faith.’ One may reasonably conclude that through the proper exercise of ministry, the Church, a particular community of believers or an individual, may achieve a great degree of harmony and unity. While this is no doubt the ideal, it does not capture the entire reality of ministry. The truth is that ministry is both demanding and challenging. Ministering to others requires the virtues of long-suffering endurance, humility, patience and sacrificial love. Cultivating these values is fundamentally a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit and our cooperation and collaboration. On our own, we are rather incapable and disinterested in such pursuits. It is through the indwelling of the Spirit that our priorities are reoriented. Nonetheless, our assumptions about the results and the process of ministry should always be tempered by realism. Jesus foreshadows the difficulty of our ministerial calling in Luke’s Gospel, when he states, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, ESV). Christ’s words here are just one of many admonitions regarding the ‘cost of discipleship.”
This brings us to the juxtaposition of ministry as a principle and ministry as a practice. Earlier this year, Damascus Way Reentry Center began to focus attention on bringing greater clarity and renewed thought to the articulation of our “ministry philosophy.” Fundamentally, Damascus Way defines our ministry as a “Gospel-centered vision for transformational programming” implemented through Christ-centered staffing ethics which underpin our service model. Working in the field of reentry and with the expressed goal of reducing rates of recidivism and stimulating holistic transformation, Damascus Way is becoming increasingly cognizant of the essential need to be trauma-informed. In this month’s Theological Trail section, we’d like to orient our philosophy around a ministry that is moving towards trauma-informed care.
The tagline of our organization is “The Road to Freedom.” This road is symbolic of a journey towards individual autonomy, healing and freedom. When we speak of this freedom at Damascus Way, we refer to the spiritual freedom and healing that we believe every individual needs and can find in Jesus. At the same time, we also include the physical and mental healing that individuals are equally in need of. The month of May is “Mental Health Awareness” month and in the field of corrections and reentry, we know that the effects of mental health have a strong correlation with rates of incarceration and the wellbeing of family units. Time spent in prison or some other form of a correctional institution generally aggravates latent and manifest mental health conditions. For other individuals, incarceration spawns first-time experiences with mental health symptoms or disorders. In short, according to research groups like Prison Policy Initiative, “Incarceration can trigger and worsen symptoms of mental illness – and those effects can last long after someone leaves the prison gates.” Isolation, loss of autonomy, solitary confinement and exposure to violence are just a few of the factors that clearly affect the well-being of the incarcerated.
There are indicators that individuals experiencing moderate to severe mental health comprise about half of America’s prison population. In a study done by the National Research Council, it was determined that this figure encapsulated the broad swathe of correctional institutions with, “64 percent of jail inmates, 54 percent of state prisoners and 45 percent of federal prisoners reporting mental health concerns.” The surprisingly high rate of correlation between mental illness and incarceration is no doubt complex and multifaceted. In a moment, we will touch on “ACES,” otherwise known as “Adverse Childhood Experiences” and their contribution to trauma and mental health. What we also know is that historically speaking, we can see that this demographic of the prison population, which decades ago, was funneled into government run treatment institutions correctional facilities now ends up in correctional facilities, which are simply incapable of stewarding and housing such individuals well. The American Psychological Association has noted a report which found that:
…the deinstitutionalized movement of the 1960’s – which shut down larger treatment facilities for the mentally ill – coupled with the lack of community resources to treat them, resulted in some people going to prisons and jails instead. One study found this trend accounts for about 7 percent of prison population growth from 1980 to 2000 – representing 40,000 to 72,000 people in prisons who would likely have been in mental hospitals in the past.
This finding is rather astounding. It highlights the failure of our institutions to address the pressing matter of mental illness. This isn’t a case for a return to institutionalizing the mentally ill, but it should underscore the value of advocating for treatment programs in the instances where appropriate. The truth is that far too many individuals struggling with mental health, fall through cracks in the system and do not receive the proper, trauma-informed and clinically informed care they require and this failure puts undue burden on the correctional system to do what it is not designed to do. In fact, it is estimated that an average of between 15-20% of inmates have severe psychiatric illness. With this information the Treatment Advocacy Center, has purported that “this means [that] approximately 383,000 individuals with severe psychiatric disease were behind bars in the United States in 2014 or nearly 10 times the number of patients remaining in the nation’s state hospitals.” The spectrum of mental health conditions ranges from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder to psychotic disorder or clinical and major depression. Certainly, this list is not exhaustive. The inclusion of this information is primarily informative. Furthermore, Damascus Way’s work in the field of reentry requires us to be attentive to the monumental influence that mental health plays in an individual’s personal history, their past criminality and their future potentiality, which includes recidivistic tendencies.
This leads us to the final point: the necessity of “trauma-informed care.” At the interpersonal level, this disposition requires the subtle shift in how we speak to others, how we use our physical presence and how we frame them as human beings with unique personal backgrounds and experiences. In reentry and as a Gospel-centered ministry, it is critical that we view each individual as a child of God, deserving of respect, dignity and capable of pursuing a redemptive and transformative destiny. In order to best serve and support men who we hope will break out of cycles of recidivism, we need to understand that they are simultaneously a victim and someone who has victimized others. In one survey, over half of American adults described having been through one form of trauma before adulthood. Such adverse experiences include exposure to domestic violence or proximity to suicide, neglect, substance abuse, mental illness or parental separation or incarceration. When we examine the instantiation and rates of ACES among those incarcerated these numbers skyrocket. The occurrence of traumatic experiences among those in prison is nearly universal and oftentimes, those who have been incarcerated have a past experience with more than one of these traumas.
In brief, a trauma-informed ministry grasps the validity of generational trauma and seeks to mitigate and minimize potential triggers. This model of service acknowledges the complex influence of trauma and environment on personhood and autonomy. Lastly, trauma-informed care abides by integrated principles that guide an organization’s interaction with those who have been traumatized. For more on this read the following article. As we have seen earlier, “ministry” is a work or a service. An essential kernel of ministry is attending to the needs and concerns of others. 1 John 3:17 and many other passages challenge us to be alert and responsive to these needs. Believers should see the shared ground between trauma-informed care and the values of the Gospel exhibited in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. These shared principles (love, forgiveness, empathy, trust love and reconciliation) are universally applicable and constitute the penultimate expression of proper and Godly ministry. Damascus Way Reentry Center is committed to growing and ministering to the needs and demands of the whole person.
Jones, Alexi and Katie Rose Quandt. “Research Roundup: Incarceration Can Cause Lasting Damage to Mental Health.” Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2021/05/13/mentalhealthimpacts/
C.G. Kruse. “Ministry.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
“The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences,” The National Research Council, 2014.