Shepherd’s Care: The Necessity of Virtue

We’ve been looking at some of the key “ingredients” in a ministry based upon a vocational paradigm rather than a professional one.  Our location, values, humanity, and giftedness combine to give us a sense of mission.

But “ingredients” are not enough.  They require “integrity.”  If we pour the ingredients for a good cake into a dirty bowl, the product will be contaminated, and no one will want to eat it.  Similarly, if we try to pour good ministry into bad people, the result will be something counterfeit and offensive.  There is no vocational ministry apart from the integrity of the person performing it.

In classic literature, this is called “the virtuous life.”  It’s a life which even the pagan philosophers said could only occur in relation to the supernatural.  The Greek word for virtue is arate, and it’s a word that describes a capacity that’s made possible by interaction with the divine.

In our day, we have separated the idea of goodness from the concept of virtue.  We have made goodness a functional word, so that someone may be called a “good” leader if he or she performs well, accomplishes tasks, meets goals, raises money, etc.

But in classic philosophy and theology, someone can only be called “good” if they are good in their personhood, not just their performance—in their being, not just in their doing.  In fact, if performance is all people have, they are not “good.”

Christianity moves in the same waters, by emphasizing “the virtues” (Galatians 5:22-23), which we usually call the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.  These are the arates (capacities)—the fruit—given to us through the Spirit.   They are the bowls into which the ingredients of ministry are poured.

If we want people to eat the cake of ministry we are preparing for them, we must be sure the bowl is clean.  Otherwise, we become 21st-century Pharisees who clean the outside of the dish and cup, but leave the inside dirty and spoiled.


About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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1 Response to Shepherd’s Care: The Necessity of Virtue

  1. Todd Bardin says:

    Dr. Harper, when you write, “…if we try to pour good ministry into bad people, the result will be something counterfeit and offensive,” I was reminded of the genius of Wesley’s societies, classes and bands. This ever-smaller grouping that required progressively higher levels of committment and accountability insured that good ministry was poured into good people. I think it is possible to reclaim this method in our modern context and by doing so, I believe that revival awaits.

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