Ministry By Menu

Recently, I received an email from a new attender at my church asking for a “spiritual counselor.” I don’t know what that is. Spiritual Counseling is not a service we offer at my church, and we don’t talk about it from the pulpit. We do offer counseling and we are a place where people can deal with spiritual issues, but “spiritual counseling” is not a handle we use.  

This isn’t the first time someone has called or emailed a pastor at my church with a very specific but uninformed ask. Many times, parishioners have approached me with a string of life stressors — their marriage is in trouble, they have an addiction, they’re losing their job — and say, “So I really need to join a small group.” In fact, what they need is our Recovery Ministry, or marriage counseling, or the Job Transitions Workshop we offer on Wednesday nights. But they come to me having already made their menu selection. 

I think what’s happening here is a bit of cultural confusion. People step into our church out of a culture where no one wants to hear their problems, no one wants to make a personal connection. When they need groceries, they go to Kroger, make their selections, and only interact with an employee at the most minimal level. They don’t go to Kroger, find someone who works there, and say, “I’m hungry. Can you help?” 

This is, in fact, the model they use to meet all of their basic needs — food, clothing, shelter — they make their selection from a menu of goods and services. Even in industries whose purpose is caring for the needy, they have to advocate for themselves. They have to make sure they aren’t overcharged or underprescribed. They use menus and vendors and customer reviews to get what they want. So is it any wonder that they come to church and expect the same dynamic?  

Of course, we pastors sometimes perpetuate this false perception when we talk about programs more than people, when we create actual menus of ministries, or when we treat attenders more like customers from whom we want a transaction than brothers with whom we want to worship.  

But that is not how things work in a healthy church. We don’t have self-checkout lanes. We aren’t interested in maximizing sales volume. We are interested in transforming hearts. We are interested in the sticky business of forgiveness and healing and all the things you can’t order off a menu.  

What interests us most, what really gets our hearts pumping, is a parishioner who says, “Do you have 15 minutes to talk? My life is headed in the wrong direction, and I need someone to walk with me out of this mess." 

That’s the equivalent to asking your Kroger checker, “Do you have 15 minutes to talk? I haven’t been eating healthy and I really need to change my habits. I need someone to help me establish new patterns." 

You can’t get away with that at Kroger, but you can at church. The Kroger checker doesn’t want to hear about your problems, but your pastor does. Because he knows that spiritual growth is something that is found in hardship, not on an end cap.