Where’s the Water?

A few years ago my wife and I decided to buy a house, and we began looking at all of our options, from buying an existing home to building one to our specifications. One afternoon we walked into this model home and instantly fell in love with the wrought iron banisters, 12-foot ceilings, abundant storage, and perfect flow from room to room. Even the landscaping was perfect. In the course of looking at the plants, however, my hands became covered in dirt, so I decided to wash my hands in the restroom. Let me just describe the bathroom for you. The fixtures were crafted with elegant simplicity, and they gleamed in the light. The tile was a mix of classical and contemporary, and the paint matched it perfectly. The lighting was masterful, and only enhanced the beauty of the room. It had a magnificent shower with multiple settings, and a separate bathtub for relaxation. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. But, I was there to wash my hands, so I walked over, put soap on my hands, and turned the hot water handle… and no water came out. The water was turned off. The bathroom was so perfect it could have graced the cover of any architectural magazine, but it couldn’t fulfill its primary task.

In many ways that bathroom could describe numerous ministers around the globe. At times we look like we have it all together. We have the right degrees hanging on the wall, the right books on the shelves, and the right combination of theological expertise and practical training in our heads. We wear immaculate suits, deliver inspiring messages, and pursue integral agendas. We talk about God intimately, sharing deep theological truth with passionate oratory. We lead Bible studies, teach classes, and provide pastoral care. Those are the tasks of ministry, and we can perform them all without ever having a connection to God.

Eventually, however, the truth begins to show. At least, those are things I have felt in my own life and ministry. In my twelve years of ministry I have been blessed to work with churches in Tennessee, Kansas, Argentina, and Texas … and I have almost walked away from ministry twice. I could blame it on working so hard but feeling so ineffective. I could chalk it up to conflict with others in ministry, or ineffective congregational leadership, or feeling like I lived in a glass house while parishioners stood outside with rocks “just in case.” But when I look back on those times, I have come to realize that the moments when I felt the most overwhelmed were the times I was neglecting my time with God. It was a problem of priorities: my spiritual life mattered less than my ministerial tasks. That worked for a while, but ultimately my spirit paid the price.

Gregory of Nyssa wrote a letter to the church in Nicomedia in which he described qualities he looked for in bishops. Too many bishops, he contended, were like aqueducts: the stones were beautifully arranged and soared towards the heavens, but the channel was dry and parched. The word aqueduct comes from two Latin terms meaning “to lead water,” and so the aqueduct in Gregory’s illustration has missed its whole purpose. So, Gregory writes, what we need are ministers who are filled with water:

Which would the thirsty prefer to supply his need: to see bare stones beautifully laid out, or to find a spring, even if it flowed from a wooden pipe, provided only that the stream it pours forth is clear and drinkable? [1]

We can perform the tasks of ministry on our own, but we cannot minister fully without being connected to the source of living water. In ministry we are professional speakers or clinical counselors or knowledgeable teachers; we are simply conduits for the grace of God to enter into people’s lives. But in order to act as conduits, we have to be connected to living water. As Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37b-38). The Spirit serves as the presence of living water welling up within us, nourishing our spirits and our ministry.

About a year and a half ago I was feeling dry and parched in my ministry. I like to seem like I have it all together, and the word vulnerability often raises my hackles a bit. I realized, however, that I needed someone to walk alongside of me in this journey, so I found a spiritual director. In our first meeting I wanted to know what I could do to fix this problem. He challenged me to something different, however: “Stop trying to fix it. Just spend ten minutes with God each day.” That’s it. Just be in God’s presence. Use a picture if it would help me focus. Pray the Jesus prayer if the repetition would be meaningful. Take a walk or sit still. Talk out loud or sit in silence. But, he confronted me, stop doing and just be with God. That is what I am still working on 18 months later.

In each of my posts I want to focus on spiritual formation for ministers. It is the part of ministry we often overlook in our haste to get things done. We can perform the tasks of ministry on our own, but we cannot minister fully without God’s presence in our lives. My hope is that through this post and our interactions we can be challenged to simply be wooden pipes connected to a source of living water.

[1] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/291113.htm


Daniel McGraw is the senior minister of the West University Church of Christ in Houston, Texas. He is married to Megan and has two daughters, Hannah and Lydia, who teach him more about the love of God than any of his theology degrees ever has. He is a passionate, but wholly average, runner.

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Author:  Publish Date: November 18, 2016

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The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @ acu.edu.

2017-18 CHARIS Editorial Board:
Dr. Carisse Berryhill
Dr. Jason Fikes
Karissa Herchenroeder
Mac Ice
Chai Green
Tammy Marcelain
Molly Scherer
Dr. John Weaver

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