I gave the following talk to the faculty, administration, and board of directors at Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, where I was a theology teacher and spiritual director for over twenty years. The talk was published in Conversations among Jesuit Secondary Schools.
When I was asked to speak about teaching as ministry, I thought of what I know about the needs of the 114 students I come into contact with each day. I thought of the violence that worries so many of them. I thought of the deaths and divorces that touch their lives. I thought of the real and imagined pressures that crowd their days and sometimes cause restless nights. I thought about the many students who risk sharing their troubles openly and about the ones who don’t. Life is difficult, and the claim of youth no longer seems to hold many defenses against that difficulty seeping in, pushing in, sometimes taking over.
I thought about those individuals, their needs, and about my place in their lives. Most of us entered teaching idealistically. We wanted to make a difference. I had such goals. And if I can minister to those needs before me, if I can help or serve, then undoubtedly I will make a difference. I calculated the other day that if I am a teacher for twenty years of my life, I will have a chance to make an impact on perhaps 2,300 lives; and all around me at Jesuit I see teachers who care, who have dedicated their lives to making a difference, and who are fulfilling that goal.
I believe teaching is a ministry because we come into contact with students who desperately need to be ministered to, students who need to be seen as whole individuals, not intellects to be taught. Students who need adult ears to listen and adult eyes that care. I believe teaching is either a ministry fulfilled or one left unfulfilled, but it is never just a job to be done. I believe this is true for every teacher in every school, and this would be an incredible enough mission.
But what of a school whose mission statement declares that its students and its community will come to “know Christ more fully, to love Him more intimately, and to follow Him more closely?” That is part of the stated mission at Jesuit. Surely we are called to not only help our students operate successfully in this complex world but also to live with the knowledge and in the hope of the next. A solely humanistic kindness and concern, as critical as it is, is not enough to fulfill such a mission.
What of a school that unashamedly claims to strive to “build the Kingdom of God here on earth, no matter what the cost?” In my mind, teaching in such a school becomes a ministry in the most spiritual sense of the word. To me, teaching as a spiritual ministry is God-centered.
The vision of Saint Ignatius calls us to always grow, to improve upon. God-centered teaching, teaching as a spiritual ministry, is a challenge that will keep us all on the spiral of growth endlessly. Let me share with you my vision of such a ministry.
Teaching as spiritual ministry is teaching for God. It is believing that we are his hands and his voice to our students. That we are the channels of his love. Teaching as spiritual ministry is not only teaching for him, it is, if you will, teaching him. It is looking at the most resistant or defiant of students, at the sneakiest of spitball throwers, and seeing the God within. And serving that student patiently. If we see the divinity within each student, we will be as mirrors reflecting what we see. Those who are hardest to reach need the message most. They are the students for whom we can make the biggest difference.
But to consistently see that spark of God in our students takes a bit of the vision of God. Teaching with open-ended, unconditional love, day in and day out, in the depths of the trenches, is something beyond us. Teaching as ministry involves teaching in and through God. His strength is made perfect in weakness—a truth that I count on, sometimes more than I’d like to admit.
Teaching as ministry, for me, then, involves seeing God in my students, teaching for him, and teaching through him. It also involves, according to our mission, teaching of him. This is obviously true for the theology teacher, and teaching about God is an incredible joy for me. Yet sometimes I envy those of you in a different field.
The other day, I told my ten-year-old son he was handsome. It fell on deaf ears (attractive, but deaf). “Oh Mom,” he said, “you have to say that. You’re my mother!” Sometimes I think it can be that way in the classroom. I have to love God, count on him. I’m the theology teacher.
Not long ago, in response to the question: “Why do you believe in God?” a student confided that it was a science teacher in elementary school that made him a believer. “The teacher told us how great God was to create such a complex world. A science teacher!” he emphasized. I often think of the strong impact it makes on students to see their coaches and teachers worshiping together on Fridays or to hear them share on retreats.
In the last analysis, perhaps no matter what discipline we teach, as Marshall McLuhan held, ‘The medium is the message.” We are the final, indelible lesson our students will learn. I can do cartwheels in the classroom and use the latest in teaching methodology; but years from now most of my students, if they think of me, will not remember what I said about faith, but my faith. Nor what I said about love, but my love. Whether for good evil, whether I like it or not, I am the message. There is, I believe, much truth in the old Chinese proverb: “What you are shouts so loudly that I can hardly hear what you are saying.” If accurate, if we are the message, then the spiritual dimensions of our mission statement become the awesome and joyful ministry of each one of us.
As I examine what teaching as ministry means in my life, I am well aware that these meanings are far from unique to me. I am blessed to work with people who struggle and strive, as I do, to make teaching a ministry fulfilled.
Thank you all for the inspiration you have been to me.
Practical teaching tips, inspirational guided meditations, and some of the concepts from this talk are currently offered in my Teaching as Ministry Workshop.
© 2017 Sally Metzger