Why Urban Ministry Stinks: A Love/Hate Relationship

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Author Rosario “Roz” Picardo

The work of urban ministry is a love/hate relationship for me. You have to hate it enough to love it so that your heart breaks for it. I’ve seen urban ministry glamorized a lot recently; it appears to be the “trendy” type of ministry to engage in these days. In light of that, I want to be clear: This work is not sexy, and it is not cool. Of course, it bears saying that, all ministry is difficult, but I want to argue that urban ministry, in particular, stinks! And it’s not the fact that I’ve had my car stolen, my tires slashed, my house robbed, my wife threatened, or people in my face wanting fight before a worship service; it’s the fact that this work is slow and has fewer “success” stories than I care to admit.

The following are some of the reasons why urban ministry stinks, but they are the exact same reasons are why I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

It stinks…

It stinks when a friend and member of our community has to rent from a slumlord and has no choice. “Joe” prepays his rent every month, so when it came time for him to leave his apartment that was infested with bed bugs, no heat, and a leaky roof, he was running low on money and didn’t have many options of where to go.

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To really love this work is to really hate the injustice, hurt, and pain that I see on a daily basis.
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It stinks…

It stinks when a man who attended our theatre service downtown (and was, unbeknownst to us, off his medicine) leaves the service abruptly one day and is later arrested for attempting to set fire to several buildings.

It stinks…

It stinks when a man member of our community who has regularly attended Bible study and worship and has shown nothing but love to us leaves us stunned when he is arrested for homicide.

It stinks…

Unknown-3It stinks when a friend who suffered a stroke is discharged from the hospital earlier then he should be because he doesn’t have insurance, only to end up back in the hospital in worse condition.

It stinks…

It stinks when, on the night of our church’s community Christmas party, we have to call 911 twice in the span of an hour and half because of different incidences involving a suicide threat, a fight, and someone having chest pains.

It stinks…

It stinks to see people outcast from society because of circumstances that may be beyond their control – whether it’s not having a pillow to lay their head on or having a physical/mental ailment. There are plenty of social services in our city, but the greatest needs that our brothers and sisters who find themselves in tough positions name are those of friendship and hospitality. Jesus did this as he talked with people, touched them, looked in their eyes, and listened to their stories and heart-felt needs. There are people who walk the streets of our city who have no one who knows their name, no one who looks at them or speaks to them. Many haven’t experienced a touch in years. A handshake, fist bump, high five, pat on the back, or hug can go a long way.

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However, at the same time, this and the other reasons why urban ministry “stinks” are blessings because they keep us humbly dependent on God.
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It stinks…

It stinks to see people continue to make bad decisions that do nothing but harm to themselves and others. Don’t get me wrong, I make plenty of bad decisions and so do people in the ‘burbs. However, the decisions I see some of my friends make on an overwhelmingly regular basis involve choosing addictions and other self-destructive patterns over family, friends, and community. They don’t weigh the cost, and often it means they end up hitting rock bottom.

It stinks…

Unknown-5It stinks to see that “success” stories are few and far between. Transformation is not something that can be manufactured by a pastor or even the best faith community. Transformation comes through the power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, the Christian life is two steps forward and three steps back. The process is slow, but I’m often reminded the work of God is slow as well. The French Jesuit priest and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) said, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.”

Christ doesn’t give up on us, and we can’t give up on others – whether we plant the seed, water it, or witness the harvest. Like anybody else, I’d rather see the harvest because that is the rewarding part. However, every step is important, and none can be taken for granted. God often times works slowly and there can’t be a “microwave approach” to speed up results in an individual, community, or local church.

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In the end, letting my heart break for what I hate is the motivating factor that gets me out of bed every morning to do the work I love.
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It stinks…

It stinks when others talk about urban ministry as “cool” and “diverse,” but when push comes to shove, they won’t get their hands dirty. They won’t sit next to someone different than them, talk with a stranger, or get involved in their lives outside of that one hour on Sunday morning. Urban ministry, like any ministry, cannot be a spectator sport. People aren’t called to sit on the sidelines while they watch others on the field. Ministry should and needs to involve the entire community. There are plenty of comfortable places to sit and relax; our urban setting is not one of them. This work is difficult and draining, and there is a high turnover rate. When we jump with a fly-by-night mentality, we unintentionally end up doing more harm than good with the relationships we leave behind.

It stinks…

Unknown-4It stinks to be continually in need because of lack of finances, lack of leaders, and the ongoing maintenance needs of the archaic church building where our ministry is housed.

However, at the same time, this and the other reasons why urban ministry “stinks” are blessings because they keep us humbly dependent on God. In my ministry, we have only 2 full-time staff, several quarter-time staff, and even more unpaid leaders and urban missionaries who make Embrace Church what it is. Honestly, I’m proud to say that. Yes, we do things on a shoestring budget, but will continue our ministry debt-free. We hold our church building in stewardship as a ministry center for the community. People know that if they are in trouble, they can come to the church for help.

Ministry is difficult and complex, urban ministry especially. Perhaps this may not be the experience of others, but it certainly is mine. To really love this work is to really hate the injustice, hurt, and pain that I see on a daily basis. In the end, letting my heart break for what I hate is the motivating factor that gets me out of bed every morning to do the work I love.

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Unknown-11AUTHOR BIO: Roz was appointed by the Kentucky Annual Conference as a church planter in 2008. He then launched Embrace Church at the Kentucky Theater, and he was ordained as an elder in the United Methodist Church. Since the launch of Embrace Roz has had his car stolen and sold for 20 bucks, his tires slashed, his house vandalized, and his life threatened because of his dedication to carrying out his call. Since Embrace Church’s launch it has expanded to 4 diverse communities.  In 2012 Roz started Picardo Coaching LLC, a consulting group that helps church leaders plant faith communities and revitalize existing congregations. A new edition of Roz’s book Embrace: A Church Plant That Broke All the Rules will be from Pickwick Publications and Get To Work: Recovery A Theology of Bivocational Ministry will soon be available from Wipf and Stock Publishers.

To read other articles from Week 2: The Sin of your Sister Sodom, click here.

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