As I wrote about a couple weeks back, I had the awesome opportunity this past weekend to hang out with the “Who’s Who” of leaders to the Austin homeless community this past weekend. It struck me, as this unusual braintrust gathered together, that many people, even pastors don’t often get a behind-the-curtain look into what makes someone abandon “normal” ministry for this type of thankless, low-pay, dirty, smelly, unsatisfactory work. So I thought I’d take a stab at describing the commonalities that held this particular group together – common traits I’ve seen in homeless ministry leaders in other places, as well. Here’s my best description of what makes them tick:
- Homeless Ministry Leaders Tend to Have a Love-Hate Relationship the Local Church: Most of these leaders receive the majority of their support from local churches, but almost none of them have a solid “home” church. Years of perceived empty words and no place for their people to join up leave them jaded towards the local church (something like if your church wouldn’t accept your children). They also tend to see many “regular” pastors as wimpy. Plus, I think many Homeless Ministry Leaders are in a constant state of spiritual sojourning because all black/white lines have seemed to fade (morality/practice/what’s-acceptable/who-can-lead) – and those still exist in most churches.
- Homeless Ministry Leaders Tend to Have a Broken Past that Informs their Ministry to the Broken: I don’t know that I’ve ever met a Homeless Ministry Leader with a boring story. Almost all of them are second-career, formerly mixed up in some sort of addiction or broken past. Increasingly, I find folks who simply became disillusioned with the “safe” faith they were living out and stepped out to this life. It also makes sense because it’s hard to do ministry if you can’t identify with any of the troubles your people have.
- Homeless Ministry Leaders Tend to Take Very Non-Traditional Routes to Ministry: Again, lots of 2nd-career folks. But, I’m also the only one in the group usually that has a formal seminary education, or even a graduate degree. These folks tend to have stumbled into their positions rather than working their way into them. And that makes sense in the context, I think. That reality, plus their disconnection spiritually with local churches, also makes most of them non-ordainable in most denominational settings.
- Homeless Ministry Leaders Tend to Struggle with Balancing Word/Deed Ministry: One of the realities of ministry with people who are constantly at a life-subsistence level, is that there is precious little time or energy for the “finer” things of life – philosophy, the arts and theology. Maybe even spirituality, as most would define it. As a result, even when people enter into it with grandiose ideas of marrying together “normal” spiritual goals with ministries of subsistence – the spiritual goals usually are the ones to bite the dust. So, though it’s unintentional, most of these leaders tend to become less spiritual/theological and more practical over time – often to the point of cold pragmatism. It’s sad, too – because that’s a hard place for compassion and evangelism to survive.
- Homeless Ministry Leaders Tend to Be Unbelievably Patient: Maybe a better word for this is the King James’ “long-suffering”. No matter how ideological their mindsets when they enter this ministry, most Homeless Ministry Leaders learn quickly and well that the vast majority of the people they help will never “get better” – and that is a harrowing realization for most people – putting homeless ministry more in the realm of hospice/mental-health rather than that of the “regular” church, which people tend to unwittingly assume. It’s a bit like being a baseball player – even the best leaders only “succeed” about 30% of the time. At this point, leaders either get disillusioned, depressed or resigned. Resigned is the good one 🙂 I don’t know any Homeless Leaders I would define as “fun” people. It’s not fun work, honestly – else more people would do it.
- Homeless Ministry Leaders Tend to Be Lone Rangers: While there are other lonely outposts for ministry in the Kingdom, this might be one of the loneliest. Having a staff with people you’d like to hang out with on your off day is pretty much unheard of, you put in 80-90 hours of thankless, dirty work for virtually no return (as return in ministry is us normally defined), you gradually become farther out-of-touch with the finer parts of culture and you’re often a go-between for the Church and a population the Church doesn’t really want to invite into the full life of their community – so you learn to tell convenient lies to make each side feel better about themselves.
- Homeless Ministry Leaders Tend to Be Invested to the Hilt: When I hang out with other pastors, they’re always commenting about how much I work or how I should take more time off or how I should protect myself from burnout (not bad things, mind you). When I hang out with Homeless Ministry Leaders, I’m the slacker. These guys are invest to the point where the lines between who they are and what their ministry is are blurred.
It seems to me that, given all of the different job positions available today in the Church, Homeless Ministry Leader might be the one you could most closely correlate to Jesus’ ministry when he was on earth. The longer I dip my toe in this lake of unbelievably-overwhelming ministry, the more I am convinced of that fact.
I lament that so few of the things we’re doing as the Church in today’s North American context matter to the group that I think would have been Jesus’ core target demographic.
But also, as I meet more and more leaders who engage in that type of work, I feel like I learn more about Jesus’ perspective on life, the religious establishment and culture.