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Inadvertent Ministry

by Belden C. Lane

Belden C. Lane is professor of theological studies and American studies at Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri. This article appeared in the Christian Century November 7, 1984, p.1030. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Every minister is a Calvinist come Monday morning. Shuddering to think how little of one’s carefully aimed ministry has hit the mark the day before, one feels the truth come thundering home that often the most effective ministry is altogether unplanned, unintentional, even accidental. Were it not for the hope of such inadvertent ministry, many of us would despair altogether.

In 1737 Jonathan Edwards spoke of “the Surprising Work of God at Northampton” and, in the process, penned a classic in the annals of inadvertent ministry. By contrast, I’m exhausted by my own efforts at carefully programmed effectiveness and long to stumble into the serendipitous grace of which he spoke. In those rare moments of unpremeditated ministry when I do happen upon the holy, there is a Zenlike freedom and ease which characterize my best work. It flows without the constant interruption of my ego’s trying to imprint itself on all that is accomplished. How to get out of the way of what would exercise itself through me if I let it?

Something of an answer presented itself this past spring at the Fifth Annual St. Louis Storytelling Festival at the Arch. I had been invited to be one of the tellers. Though I use story a great deal in teaching, I’d seldom worked in a performance setting. So while I was excited, I was also terrified. But Laura Simms, a superbly gifted story-teller from New York City, was also at the festival. I told her how frightened I was, saying that I didn’t feel like a “real story-teller.” She then said something that I’ll never forget: “You know, I don’t think there are any story-tellers. There are only stories and each of us gets to carry one of them for a little while.” In that one stroke, she not only greatly eased my fears, but also summarized the whole mystery of ministry. In the final analysis, there aren’t any polished and professional manipulators of the Word, there are only stories that seek out their own hearers and tellers, in their own time. One never knows, then, who might be a bearer of the Word. Laura Simms had thus opened for me a way of being a vehicle for the gift without having to pretend mastery over it. She also had given me the perfect conclusion to a story I was to tell the next day.

The story was one whose skeleton I had found in a collection of Legends of the Hasidim, by Jerome Mintz (University of Chicago Press, 1968). It’s strange how the bones of a story will sometimes leap off the page, demanding to be put into flesh. This story was like that. It was set in Eastern Europe at the end of the 18th century. There in the village of Bobov, in the region of the rich, black earth of Galicia north of the Carpathian Mountains, a rebbe lived and prayed among his small community of poor, Hasidic Jews. One day a couple came to the rebbe to ask him to pray for them, explaining that they had never had a child, though they had waited in patient silence for years. They knew the prayers of the rebbe were able to shake the very gates of heaven itself. So they were jubilant when he said that not only would he pray for them, but he would tell them a story as well. That was better yet!

He spoke of three Hasidim who one year had longed to spend the High Holy Days with the great Lubliner rebbe, Reb Yaakov-Yitzhak of Lublin, also known as the Holy Seer. This fascinating rebbe, blind in one eye but steeped in the wisdom of Talmud and Kabbala, could see, it was said, “from one end of the world to the other.” People came to Lublin to study, to meditate, to sit in the shadow of the great seer. Anxious to join this company, the three Jews set out early one fall morning. Without food, without money, they determined to walk all the way to the Polish border and beyond. But after several days without eating, they grew weak with hunger. “Listen,” one of the three finally said, “it’s no great mitzvah that Jews should die of starvation on their way to see the Holy Seer of Lublin! We’ve got to do something! According to Torah, anything may be done to save a life.” Another suggested that one of them disguise himself as a rebbe. Then whenever they came to a village, people would welcome them warmly, thinking it an honor they should be visited by a rebbe. In this way, at least they’d be fed. None of them wanted to practice deceit, but reluctantly they drew straws and the unfortunate one became the pretending rebbe A second one dressed up like his gabbai, an assistant working in the house of study; and the third would simply be a Hasid from the community.

On they walked until they came to the next village. There they were greeted with cries of delight: “A rebbe is coming! A rebbe is coming!” They were taken to the inn, and the innkeeper, after seeing to their needs, spoke with great anguish. “Rebbe,” he said, “you must pray for my son. He lies dying on his bed at this moment: the doctors say there’s no hope. But the Holy One, blessed be His name, may at last respond to your prayers, now that you’ve come. The “rebbe” looked at his companions to ask what he should do. They motioned him to go with the father. “Don’t talk,” they said. “Just go with him.” There was nothing else to do. Having begun pretending, one had to finish.

That night the three slept restlessly. The next morning the grateful father, hoping the prayer might yet be heard, sent away the rebbe and his retinue, having loaned them a carriage and a matched pair of sable horses for the remainder of their trip. On they went to Lublin, where they spent the days following Rosh Hashana in glorious study and prayer, under the spell of the Lubliner rebbe. With his words the spiced wine of Talmud flowed through their minds and veins. But then came the end of Yom Kippur and the time to return home -- back the way they had come, back through the same village once more, back to return the carriage and matched sable pair they had borrowed. The rebbe pretender was especially fearful. His heart was in his throat as he approached the village and saw the innkeeper running toward them, furiously waving his arms in the air. But, to the “rebbe’s” joy and relief, the father embraced him, crying, “Rebbe, thank you for your prayers! One hour after you left, my son got out of bed and has been perfectly well ever since! The doctors say it is impossible, but he lives!” The other two Jews looked strangely at the pretending rebbe. Had he really been a rebbe all along, without telling them?

Later he explained that he had gone to the bedside of the child and stood there in silence, as they had told him to do. Then he started to think, “Master of the Universe, this man and his child ought not to be punished because they think I’m a rebbe. What am I? I’m nothing! Just a pretender! After I leave, the child will probably die and the father will be tempted to think that a rebbe can do nothing. So, Ribbono Shel Oloim Master of the Universe, not because of me, but because of the man and his faith, can it hurt that the child be healed?” He had done nothing more than that, he said. Strange that such an artless and inadvertent prayer should be heard and answered.

Having finished his story, the rebbe who had been speaking to the couple then said he would pray for them as he had promised. With tired eyes he looked to heaven and, taking upon himself the anguish of every childless couple in the world, he prayed, “Master of the Universe, this man and his wife ought not to be punished because they think I’m a rebbe. What am I? I’m nothing! Just a pretender. We all are pretenders! So, not because of anything that I am, but because of the couple and their patient faith, can it hurt that they be given a child?” The people of the village of Bobov swear that a year later the man and his wife brought their eight-day-old son to the rebbe for bris, for circumcision -- the son who had been born in answer to a story that was told and an even stranger prayer that was said.

I told this story under the Arch that Sunday morning, moved by the uncalculated ministry of both pretending rebbes. I added a postscript: I suggested that there’s a sense in which every story-teller -- everyone who ministers, in whatever medium -- can and must pray: “Master of the Universe, these people ought not to be punished because they think I’m a story-teller. What am I? I’m nothing, Just a pretender. We all are pretenders. So, not because of what I am, but because of the power of the story itself and their faith in it and in You, let them be healed.” Such a prayer, I suspect, is one God simply can’t resist.

A friend who is both student and teacher to me told me that he does very well at serving as host; it’s learning to be a guest that comes harder for him. He can direct and lead; he can make people feel at home and manage others quite readily. But it’s receiving and accepting, the gracious and humble posture of not being in control, that he finds more difficult. That’s precisely the dilemma of planned as opposed to inadvertent ministry. Perhaps the problem with most training for ministry today is that it teaches us to be effective hosts, while offering very little about learning to be joyous guests.

Yet being a guest at one’s own inadvertent ministry is a graced event, one of the most exultant we may discover. Maybe it happens most often on a Monday, when conscious ministry has been exhausted and we find ourselves seeking once again the back-road villages on the way to Lublin.


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