by Ryan O'Hara
At the 1996 summer Olympic games I had a life-altering exchange with a man from Atlanta trying to survive homelessness. I’ll never forget the date. It was July 26th, just hours before a bomb went off across town at Centennial Olympic Park.
As I walked home from work that evening a man approached me and asked me for some money to buy a meal. After previously ignoring many similar encounters with others who were hungry and homeless in Atlanta, my heart was opened to suspend fear and judgment and respond to his request. I quickly reached for my wallet and handed him a $10 bill. He responded by saying something that I’ll never forget. He said “Thanks, I could tell that you gave to me from your heart.”
It was true, that’s exactly what was going on inside of me. Until that moment I was giving (or not giving) from some other place - out of guilt or obligation or fear.
As I continued walking home that night, I heard God say to me: “your life will be ministry.”
Hearing this, (not audibly, but quite convincingly) has since given rise to most of my life’s major decisions (what I would do professionally, where I would live, who I would marry, deciding to be foster/adoptive parents, the list goes on).
Anyway you slice it - that word has come true as I have spent the last sixteen years of my life, crisscrossing the country from Missouri to Arizona to Minnesota, in full-time ministry with college students and young adults.
What Jesus didn’t say was “ministry will be your life.”
A Profound Difference
Even though it’s subtle, the difference between these two statements is profound, especially when multiplied over many years. Too often since then I have behaved as though Jesus spoke the second word to me, rather than the first.
On the good days there is no separation between who I am in ministry and the rest of my life. On the bad days I am simply a professional Christian - one whose commitment to Christ is centered around a ‘ministry job’ and extends not much further. When ‘life is ministry’ everything that I am doing is for the glory of God. When ministry is life, God gets the glory on the clock (I think) while the rest of life is centered around me, myself, and I.
I am sure I am not the only one who struggles with the real challenges of remaining fully committed to Christ 40+ hours a week in service to the Church only to come home to an even more important mission among their family.
There have been many pitfalls I’ve discovered trying to have integrity as a disciple on mission in and out of work. I’d like to share three of them that I fall into most often.
1. Outside of work I don’t have energy or time to build relationships with anyone who isn’t already a serious Catholic.
This has been true since I first began in ministry, but especially since I left the front lines of work with college students a few years back (and landed in roles more ‘behind the scenes’) I have often lamented that I am not in relationship with anyone, day to day, who isn’t a committed Catholic. It gets harder to preach something to others that I so rarely practice myself. My wife and I have had to come up with creative ways to close this gap. It may sound too simplistic but we make an effort to pray for everyone on our street - because they happen to be the only people I see on a regular basis who aren’t serious Catholics.
2. God only gets my attention at work.
When life is ministry my spiritual life is aimed at succeeding in ministry. When it comes to praying I’m all over it on the job, but less so at home. I intercede more for the next big event than what my wife and kids are going through. I would be more likely to fast for a special need for one of my ministry efforts, than make a similar spiritual sacrifice for my family. Sounds messed up, huh? It is. I’ve never been able to completely overcome this imbalance.
3. My family gets whatever is leftover.
It has taken me a long time to realize this third pitfall was happening to me. For about half of the last sixteen years Jill and I were serving together. Yet as soon as Jill and I become foster/adoptive parents and she stayed at home with the boys, this unhelpful dynamic began to surface. I could be super-creative, energetic, and passionate about what was going on with my work with college students, but not have any vision or energy for family prayer, celebrating our sons’ feast days, or preparing them well for first communion. What gives?
Even though these three pitfalls are still a part of my life in some way or another, I guess it’s better to see them than not. If this describes you, I’d love to hear what practical habits you have put into place to sidestep these pitfalls in your own life. I’m still very much a work in progress.