No one prepares you for how strange ministry is. How could they? To be strange is to be unexpected, odd, out of the norm. And personal ministry in particular traffics in the unknowns. It occurs at the heart of strange.

This insight came to me one afternoon as I sat in my church office, listening to a man walk me through his interpretation of a billboard for All State Insurance as a sign from God instructing him to marry a woman who was already married to another man. This was not exactly seminary course material. Strange.

When you’re personally ministering the Word to real people, you get their real problems. A leader in the college ministry suddenly starts promoting furries’ rights online.

(If you don’t know what that means, the Lord bless and keep you.) Or, you catch wind that a professional in his fifties is letting people know at church that he’ll be marrying a woman in her early twenties that no one has ever met. Or, a husband and wife inform you that she is pregnant but they haven’t slept together in over a year, and you have to untangle that story before you even know what action to take. Strange.

Let me get to the point I’m driving at. PERSONAL MINISTRY MEANS FACING THE UNKNOWNS OF YOUR PEOPLE’S TROUBLE WHILE ATTENDING TO WHAT YOU DO KNOW FROM THE WORD. Sometimes this will make you cry. Sometimes laugh. Sometimes throw your hands up. But all the time pray.

Being with Your People in the Unknowns

What makes personal ministry so much stranger than public ministry are the variables. In public ministry, you study your text of Scripture and the history of interpretation. You create your sermon or lesson outline, thinking about general applications to folks in your church and community. But most things in public ministry are planned and delivered.

Personal ministry to individuals is full of unknown variables. That’s what makes it so unpredictable and often strange. We don’t like the idea of entering into situations we’re not familiar with, of placing ourselves in conversations we don’t know the way out of. If you feel lost in a sermon or lesson you’re giving to a group, that’s a simple mistake in preparation. But in a personal conversation, there is no preparation that can entirely prevent you from feeling a bit lost at times. In personal ministry, unknown variables are the norm.

But let me relieve some of the burden of this for you. Knowing the route through those

unknowns is less important than being present with your people in the unknowns. In other words, you enter into the confusion with them, not as the one responsible to have pre-supplied answers but as one who sits with them to wait on the Lord.

Presence. This is one of the greatest tools for ministry we have. Presence is facing unknowns together. I’m talking about something more than just being in the room. It’s not just passively receiving information. I’m talking active presence, where we voluntarily shoulder their questions and concerns with them, in all their majestic strangeness, and go before the Lord.

This is why I made Romans 12:15-16 the epigraph to this article. To weep with those who weep or rejoice with those who rejoice means you’re affected by what affects them, you’re an active participant in the variables that affect them. The instruction of these verses presumes the ability to recognize the state people are in and respond appropriately.

It also presumes a willingness to take on troubles (and joys) that are not your own.

This takes time and effort. And it takes a certain degree of fortitude. Honestly, you have to be strong for this kind of ministry. You have to be strong in a way that public ministry doesn’t require as much. It’s a strength characterized both by contentment that God knows what you don’t know and by confidence that God will reveal what needs to be known for proper response at each stage. To put it simply, you have to get comfortable with waiting on God for answers.

Attending to What You Do Know from the Word

Sometimes, there’s incredible clarity in a simple declarative sentence, like the one in James 4:14: “You do not know what tomorrow will bring.” The whole point James is driving at is that it is the Lord’s will that brings the variables of each day. God wants the humility of our recognizing that he alone knows all the variables involved in our success and our suffering. As we minister to people, we model for them what confidence in the unknowns looks like by attending to God’s Word. This is the same letter that starts out, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (1:5). Incredible clarity.

How does God grant this wisdom? I use the word “attending” deliberately. Attending means waiting. Attending is not a passive waiting; it is active attention to the means by which God grants wisdom to face the unexpected. We attend to the Word as an act of submission to God. We ask the Holy Spirit to prepare our hearts to receive this wisdom to see the specific troubles people face with greater clarity.

This desire is expressed beautifully in Psalm 130:5: “I wait for the Lord, my souls waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.”

What your people need from you is not an immediate answer to all the specifics of their troubles but a confident attendance to God’s Word with them regarding their troubles.

This avoids two opposing temptations: either to get lost in trying to figure out all the specifics or to ignore the specifics because they’re so confusing. Instead, attendance to the Word means that you’re willing to wait on the Lord regarding the unknowns while you trust and obey the knowns.

Figuring out what furries are and to what degree your college ministry leader is associating with them will take time. Discovering why this guy in his fifties is drawn toward this particular young lady, how they have conducted themselves in the relationship, and what accountability looks like in this situation will take effort. Sorting through the obvious sin that occurred when a wife is impregnated by another man with the less obvious relational history and motivations that led to that sin will be complex. Those unknowns are daunting. But Scripture is full of knowns. And they provide the grace of clarity for each step.

To know which knowns are most relevant, you have to know your Bible. And that will be my parting encouragement. I’ve already made it clear you can’t entirely prepare for the unexpected. That’s what makes personal ministry strange. But you can be prepared to respond wisely to the strange and unexpected by stockpiling wisdom from the Word over the course of your ministry. Know the God of Scripture, and you will know his heart in each situation.

Strange, I know. But look at all the strange situations Paul wrote to in the early church or Jesus walked into when he entered a town. The world of ministry has always been strange. But we can confidently wade into the unknowns precisely because God has made known everything we need to wait on him.