All I Need To Know About Ministry I Learned From Fly Fishing
Judson Press (www.judsonpress.com)
By Myrlene L. J.Hamilton
I have read that one sign of insanity is when you do the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like the perfect description of fishing.
On an evening in late May, my husband, Ed, and I were fly fishing on the West Branch of the Delaware River in New York. Along with several diehards, we were flailing the water repeatedly, with no results. We kept doing it anyway. Late in the evening, an older gentleman came along with his fly rod and just sat down on the bank, watching the river. I wondered why he wasn’t flailing the water along with the rest of us. Bored with my own lack of action, I went over to speak to him. He told me about the big one he had caught the night before, right in that same spot. Then he pointed to the river. He said, “See that big rock out there? There’s a big trout lying right beside it. And there’s another one over there and another one over there. When it’s just about dark, I’ll have about a ten-minute window when they start to rise.”
Meekly I asked him, “And when they start to rise, what will they be taking?”
“Rusty spinners,” he said.
I went back to my fishing, but kept the old man within eyesight. For luck, I tied on a rusty spinner and resumed my flailing. A few minutes later, I saw a splash in the vicinity of one of his big fish. He was talking with someone else at the moment, so I kindly pointed out to him that maybe it was time to start fishing.
He took his rod, stepped out in the river, and cast a couple of times. Then he came back in and said, “No point killing myself before it’s time.” And he sat back down. I went upriver, keeping him in view. The sun went down, and the sky darkened. Finally, the old man unfolded himself, stretched and stepped into the river. He made one cast, and a fish rose, grabbed that rusty spinner, and snapped off the leader. I don’t know what the old man did then because I, along with the other flailers, reeled in and went back to the cabin.
In fishing, it seems that there is always someone who knows the magic–the magic spot, the magic fly, the magic time of day. And it’s always someone else.
In ministry, there are often similar frustrations. We keep doing what we do (sometimes ad nauseum) with marginal success, while our colleague down the street, or in the next town, reels in the big ones with seemingly little or no effort. Our neighbor’s creel is full, while ours remains pitifully empty.
But magic has little if anything to do with catching fish, or with being successful in ministry. In fly fishing, you have to learn the ways of the river and the ways the fish interact with their environment, especially the insects. You need to spend time, not just in books, but out on the river, watching, learning, flailing. In time, what seems like magic becomes almost second nature. In ministry, too, it’s not just book learning but education on the river that yields maturity and success. One whose calling is to fish for people must find the answers to some pertinent questions. What are people hungry for? What are their great desires? Where do they spend their time? How do they respond to various kinds of “bait”? More than that, the one who is called to fish for people must spend time out on the river with the One who created the fish and the bugs and the river itself.
Fishing or Not
Let’s begin at the beginning. If the fisher of persons wants to find success in ministry, the first question to ask is, “Am I fishing or not?” Because we are preaching every week, visiting people in the hospital, and teaching Bible studies, we tend to think we are fishing. But we may just be dangling our toes in the water and getting a tan. Ed and I choose our fishing spots not just for the quality of the fishing but also for the quality of the environment. If we find a place we like, we tend to go back again and again. It becomes like a mini-home away from home where we go to get away from it all. On the first evening, we unpack and unwind. We may not get our fishing gear out until the next day. Sometimes we will go through a whole week without fishing very hard. We just like being there–being quiet, watching the river go by, letting down. And that’s okay, until someone asks us how the fishing is going. “Oh, it’s a little slow,” we might say vaguely. Truth is, it’s not going at all. We’re just coasting. Oh, we’ll get around to fishing, once we’re done with our loafing.
That’s okay for vacationers, but such coasting should not be confused with fishing.
What’s true for many ministers (both clergy and laity) is that we’re vacationing instead of fishing. We are very busy doing many things, and we are enjoying each other, enjoying the river going by. At the same time, our community is growing, the population burgeoning. The schools are overcrowded. “Why aren’t some of those people coming to our church?” we ask. Well, it just could be that we aren’t fishing. We’re just sitting on the porch, sipping sarsaparilla with our friends, having a great time.
When Jesus said to Peter, “From now on you will be catching people,” he wasn’t joking. That’s our job.
I don’t say that to spark guilt in those who live in declining communities or rural areas, where there are few unchurched people to reach. Not every church is meant to be a megachurch. But churches are meant to grow, both in spiritual maturity and in numbers. Something should be happening out there.
Fishing or Catching
There are lots of styles of fishing. You can fish with a bobber and a worm on the end of a long string; you can walk along a stream with a fly rod; you can troll your spinner behind a boat; out in the ocean you can let your line go way down deep with heavy weights and bait; you can use a dip net or a spear. You can fish with worms, or squid, or spinners, or flies.
While there is an endless array of fishing styles, there are only two types of fishing. One is where you go fishing and don’t catch anything. The other is fishing and catching.
Fishing and not catching is something I know a lot about. In fact, this kind of fishing is very popular with many people. And it’s easy to master. You don’t have to bother learning a whole lot about the environment or the equipment or the fish. Just go fishing and see what happens. Good luck.
In some ways, this is the best kind of fishing because you can have a nice day outdoors, and when you come in, there are no stinking, slimy fish to clean. At the heart, it’s a whole lot like not fishing–though you are out there making a good show of it. There are hazards, though. Just when you think you are going to make it through the day and not catch anything, there’s a tug on the line. Then what do you do?
A lot of churches are like that. They’re out there fishing, all right, but not much is happening, and when they do get a strike, they don’t know what to do. And more often than not they spook the fish. A church that we served a few years ago said that they wanted to get more young families in the church, and that was one thing that drew us there to serve as their pastors. The problem was that whenever a young family would come, they would get “the stare.” Sometimes, if they had a restless young child, they would even get “the boot.” “The cry room is upstairs,” one couple was told rather gruffly by an older member of the church. The young couple never came back.
Catch and Release
For those who are committed to fishing and catching, there is one more critical decision: catch and kill or catch and release?
Catching and killing is no doubt the more popular of the two because most of us want to bring home a trophy–and lots of us like to eat fish. If we were to translate this into our church work, we may think that we are gathering up all those fish for our own benefit, our own use. We want to catch more people because we need more money in the offering plate, or we need more teachers, or more whatever. I suspect that we have all seen churches that are really good at the catch-and-kill kind of fishing. They reel everybody in, sit them down, and then squeeze all the enthusiasm and creativity and life out of them–or else bore them to death. Someone once said that the only real heresy is to make the gospel boring. Amen to that! God is anything but boring.
Sometimes when we hear about fishing for people, we are afraid it’s the catch-and-kill type. I think this is one reason why evangelism is something that people tend to avoid. It has a predatory feel to it. But this is not the kind of fishing that Jesus invites us to participate in.
The kind of fishing that Jesus wants to teach us is catch and release. I started to learn about catch and release at about the same time I was learning fly fishing. A favorite fishing stream in Oregon, the Metolius, has beautiful native rainbow trout cohabitating with hatchery-raised planters. If you catch one of the natives, you are required by law to respect that fish’s right to life and let it go back into the stream. (Hatchery-raised fish have the adipose fin clipped off.) To make it easier on the fish, you have to use flies only and barbless hooks.
When Jesus spoke to Simon about catching people (Luke 5:10), the word translated as “catching” literally means to take them alive. Catch and release. Reel them in for Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God, and then set them loose to become what God has called them to become. In our church’s vision statement, we say that we want to help people “meet Jesus Christ and grow spiritually.” That’s the fishing and catching part. Then we say that we want to “enable each person to discover and enter into the unique ministry God has given him or her.” That’s the release part. Each person is unique and is valued by God. Each person has a special calling from God. We don’t want to force people into molds because when we do that, we just get (excuse the old joke) moldy Christians.
This kind of fishing is risky business because people may not become what we want them to become, and we may not fill all the “slots” on our nominating slate. These folks may even create new ministries that we had never even dreamed of. God forbid, they may even take what they learn from us and go and join a different church!
Even so, I have come to believe that the chief end of fishing is catch and release. Our “fish” may not turn out the way we thought, but they’ll become what God wants them to be, and so will we.
Excerpted From All I Need to Know About Ministry I Learned from Fly Fishing by Myrlene L. J. Hamilton. ©2001 by Judson Press, Valley Forge, Pa. Reprinted with permission. To order call (800) 458-3766 or visit www.judsonpress.com. ($12.00)
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