During the years that I was in university the church in which I grew up underwent a gradual decline in membership and giving until it was finally unable to call a full time pastor. For many congregations this event is the final toll of the death knell indicating that its time to lock the doors for the last time. But the folks at Knox Church weren’t ready to give up the ghost. Over the years, they had developed resilience and confidence in lay collaboration. So they decided to band together and make it work for as long as they could. It’s now been some 15 or so years since Knox’s transition to what they called a “shared ministry model” and they’re still making a go of it.

When I return to Knox for visits, I’m always astounded at how well things are going. I’m not saying that it’s a well oiled machine or that you won’t find bumps or bruises. But this is a congregation that is behaving like a body, with every part contributing something of value (or at least encouraged to do so).

I see a lot of promise in this approach to shared ministry.

  1. Congregation as Body of Christ: Shared ministry takes seriously the New Testament teaching on distribution of spiritual gifts among the laity and works toward fulfillment of the Old Testament hope that at one point, all would function under the anointing of the Spirit.
  2. Leadership clarity: Shared ministry focuses the task of leaders specifically on equipping for maturity and service. Shifting out of institutional functions and hierarchical roles can be a challenge, but shared ministry called leaders back to our core biblical calling.
  3. Discipleship: the more folks are included in significant service, they more their faith matures from an inward conviction to a lived social reality.
  4. Particularly for small churches or those serving in difficult environments, shared ministry seems like a very good use of resources, allowing some churches to divert funds they would have spent on salary into outreach, evangelization and discipleship.

I’m curious to know if you have experienced an intentional shared ministry model before?

Is this something your church is actively pursuing?

What are some of the benefits and struggles you’ve faced along the way?

What kind of guidance and resources have you found helpful?

Miscellaneous

I just came across a recording of a presentation I made on Mission in the Power of the Trinity from way back in 2008. I made the presentation for a group of Swedish and Estonian youth collaborating on a mission outreach in North Eastern Estonia. Interesting to hear this after having made most of my presentations since then in Estonian. There’s definitely a difference in presentation style. Also neat to go back to the source of passion for a lot of what I’m working on now on the . Give it a listen and engage! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Estonia, Faith, Ministry
This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Ruth's Solution

Until now, I have spent most of my time setting the scene and – I hope – dramatizing the tensions that are written between the lines of Ruth’s story. But the real magic of the story is not encoded in the setting or the narrative or even the social positions and potentials of the various characters but rather in the dialogue that takes place between them.

But here we come up against a modern disability that might keep us literates from the wisdom of the Bible’s master storytellers. Our disability is that we often read the Bible for action watching events unfold, judging them on moral grounds and attributing them to divine or human actors. But Old Testament narrative depends much more heavily on speech and dialogue than on narrated action to convey meaning.

In his insightful book The Art of Biblical Narrative Robert Alter explains, “The biblical writers … are often less concerned with actions in themselves than with how individual character responds to actions or produces them; and direct speech is made the chief instrument for revealing the varied and at times nuanced relations of the personages to the actions in which they are implicated.”

Our principle goal in this study is to reveal patterns of behavior which the main characters have adopted that might contribute to Ruth’s successful integration into the Bethlehem community and the consequent restoration of Boaz’ family line. As we will see, the terseness and structured nature of Hebrew dialogue reveals these patterns quite clearly under the lens of Social Network Analysis. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Hebrew storytellers and listeners were much more attuned to these nuances and didn’t need our sophisticated studies to tell them twice what the text had already so elegantly displayed.

But if like me, the patterns are not immediately clear to you, maybe you’ll join me in taking one final look at the story under the SNA lens. Let’s start by laying out our diagram slightly differently to emphasize relationships rather than social groupings and positions. Additionally, since we are looking for relational patterns we will take Alter’s advice and filter out ties describing Elimelech’s family, Boaz’ geneology and all narrative connections which simply place two or more characters on the stage ready for dialogue. What remains is a graph showing speech acts, mentions of third parties and favors, all of which could be described as interactions with intent.

Now look at the arrows associated with our three main characters: Boaz, Ruth and Naomi. What do you notice?

Circle - Intentional Narrative

Network of intentional narrative

Mutuality oxygenates the network

As we have mentioned before in regards to Boaz, he controls the vast majority of interaction in the story compared to other characters. He is clearly the dominant figure with whom all in this narrative circle must contend. But how does he employ this influence? It is striking that almost all of his connections are mutual. That could potentially be explained by a command/obedience interaction but in actually fact, Boaz is far more cordial than directive and behaves this way with people of all social stations. For example, when he first arrives on the scene he greets his laborers in the field with a blessing to which they wholeheartedly respond in kind. Furthermore, whenever Boaz requests information, he seems to be invested in the responses and to implicitly trust the person he addresses. When he does give directives, he has a way of preserving the dignity of those he is directing.

A similar tendency toward mutuality can be seen in Naomi who treats Orpah and Ruth like her own daughters at the beginning of the story and entrusts her grandson Obed to the care of the townswomen at the story’s conclusion. Boaz’ and Naomi’s mutuality invites trust from the community and creates an atmosphere of both intimacy and openness. Perhaps in response to this, Ruth recognizes their openness and responds in kind. These characters’ combined orientation toward mutuality has the effect of oxygenating the community network and allowing developments that might otherwise be restricted.

Relational generosity

“The friend of a friend is my friend” goes the saying. In Social Network Analysis, this is called transitivity. The idea is that when a two unrelated people share a common friend, they are far more likely to connect themselves. One of the fascinating patterns to notice in Ruth’s network is the way that complete triangles are formed strategically so that Ruth is eventually secure in her relationship with Boaz but also embedded in the social structure of Bethlehem. I like to call this pattern “network midwifery” because the common friend (most notably Naomi) intentionally fosters independant links between Ruth and pivotal people in the community and then allows Ruth to own these relationships without any interference. It is an incredibly generous act which beautifully returns to Naomi in the form of the townswomen’s blessing when she entrusts her newborn grandson Obed to their care. Of all the transitive triangles formed in the story, the connection between Naomi, Boaz and Ruth is of course the most important and Naomi demonstrates her skill in negotiating this connection in a series of moves over multiple scenes.

Boaz employs another set of approaches to closing relational triangles. The first example we see does not actually appear in our analysis because the final connection is implied rather than stated. When Boaz learns of Ruth’s work ethic from his foreman and then later from the reapers, he legitimates her activity in the fields by involving them in securing her provision.

Another tactic Boaz employs both explicitly and often is the mention of third parties. In his initial conversation with Ruth and then again on the threshing floor Boaz mentions his awareness that the town has spoken well of Ruth. The first time he does this it has the effect of paying a compliment but also engendering the townsfolk to Ruth. He is effectively paving the way for Ruth to begin to trust her new community by offering her their praise second hand. In the second instance, it is possible that Boaz is offering a gently veiled warning that he intends for their relationship to meet and exceed community standards of propriety. But again, he strengthens Ruth’s connection with the community by including them in his and Ruth’s moral decision making process. Boaz may not be much of a ladies man, but I envy his maturity and poise.

Later, in his conversation with the elders, Boaz exhibits similar maturity and community awareness by connecting himself to Ruth only in reference to her relationship with Elimelech, Naomi and their sons. Elimelech and Mahlon are no longer concerned with Ruth’s marital state since both are in the process of composting under Moabite soil. But by making mention of them in the presence of the elders, he dignifies these men and their line, allies himself with their purposes and creates an implicit relationship between the elders and Ruth by transferring her marital status from “widow of the dead son of Elimelech” to “under the care of Boaz”. The language may sound cumbersome, legal and antiquated for our modern ears, but with each connection, Boaz is weaving a web of supportive relationships that will identify Ruth not only as his bride but also as a member of the community in her own right.

Responsiveness and Network Intelligence

In all of this, Ruth is powerless (or rather status-less) but neither inattentive nor passive. As we have noted, she seems to recognize Boaz’ and Naomi’s mutuality and responds in kind, often boldly. She suggests to Naomi that she go out into the fields to glean and doesn’t hesitate to follow Naomi’s directions on the threshing floor. We can also see that Ruth seems to pick up on the cues she is given and directs her efforts towards those who are most likely to facilitate her integration into the community. She doesn’t engage the town, or the townswomen. She doesn’t appeal to the elders. And significantly, she doesn’t endear herself to one of the young men alongside whom she is harvesting. Whether by virtue of his position, his social intelligence or a combination of the two, Ruth focuses her efforts on Boaz under Naomi’s tutelage.

The result of all this socio-cultural waltzing is of course the birth of Obed and so also the promise of Boaz’ continued line. But it is powerfully significant that the final narrative scene displays Ruth firmly in place alongside Boaz and Naomi restored to social status in the community as the townswomen coo and coddle Ruth’s infant son.

The book of Ruth is a story of mutuality, generosity and responsiveness: a masterful choreography precisely executed and resolving in communal embrace. Doesn’t it make you want to dance?

Faith, Ministry
This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Ruth's Solution

In the history of every community, there are points when the future success of the many hangs on the behavior of the few. These moments may be dramatic and perilous, like the cold December morning in 1237 AD when Russian emissaries from the walled city of Ryazan turned their backs on an army of Mongol warriors who had demanded their surrender. The miscalculations of those sorry men resulted in the complete destruction of Ryazan and marked the beginning of the Mongol horde’s expansion into Eastern Europe.

But these pivotal moments can also be completely mundane, depending not on the judgements of emissaries or the skill of warriors or the wisdom of kings but on average men and women from average circumstances going about their daily business as life presents it. Such was the case as two women arrived at the eastern gate of Bethlehem in ancient Israel. The women were both recently widowed, one an Israelite woman named Naomi and the other her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth. They were returning from the land of Moab where Naomi, her husband and sons had moved years before to escape famine in the region of Benjamin. Completely empty handed, Naomi was now returning to her home town with her foreign daughter-in-law hoping to make her way on more familiar territory.

Unbeknownst to anybody in the town that day, the future of Israel, the reign of her greatest King, the wealth of his beautiful hymns, and the prophecies birthed from his memory depended completely on the assimilation of these two refugees into the heart of the community.

The story of these two women’s return can be found in the Bible’s book of Ruth. The book amounts to no more than a hiccup after the great sighs of the Exodus from Egypt and the wheezing exhaustion of the period of the Judges. It is brief and microscopic compared to the great events that surround it; it is a domestic sidenote in the unfolding tale of great men and competing nations. And ironically, the whole story turns on this moment.

The precariousness of Israel’s situation as well the relational decisions that lead to its solution are elegantly demonstrated through an analytical technique called social network analysis (SNA). Simply put, SNA investigates the relationships between individuals in a system and reveals both an overview of the resulting network as well as insights into the relational patterns that lead to that system’s success or failure. SNA has been used to target populations for immunization, disrupt networks of terror or crime, increase the efficiency of large corporations, and even analyze film and literature.

SNA begins with a catalogue of interactions between individuals. I have counted 97 interactions in the book of Ruth in the following categories: family and genealogical relationships, narrative interactions, speaking events, mentions of a third party, and favors. A network map is created by drawing an arrow from each actor to its object until all interactions have created a spiderweb of relationships. Here is the resulting network map from the book of Ruth. For clarity I have colored the nodes (dots) according to their social context and drawn arrows according to relationship types (dotted for family ties, dashed for weak interactions, and solid for strong interactions). 

All Interactions

Ruth’s social network

What stands out to you about the shape of this network? My eye goes first to the genealogic “tails” going into and coming out of the “village” and then to the tangle of relationships in the village itself. According to the color scheme, there seem to be three smaller systems built into the overall picture: a geneological system, Elimelech’s family system and the town system. If we divide up the graph to isolate those systems, we gain our first set of insights into the story Ruth.

Geneology

Boaz, Elimelech and the fragility of family lines

The genealogical tails that we see in the large system don’t actually come to light until the last few sentences of the story. What Boaz cannot know is what we see quite clearly in this chain: King David’s existence depends on the birth of Boaz’s son Obed. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, this relatively simple task is not so easy for Boaz. In spite of his success in agriculture, we discover that Boaz has been unlucky in love. Fields aplenty with no fruit to show for his labors.

This lineage problem demonstrates one of the insights of system theory: linear networks are notoriously fragile. Because each link in the chain is critically important, any interruption will compromise the entire network, including the many people represented by each male in the chain.

Family

Elimelechs “Fan Network”

We find a perfect example of this susceptibility problem in Elimelech’s family. The book actually begins with the failure of Elimelech’s line which in retrospect heightens the precariousness of Boaz’ potential lack of an heir. Elimelech’s network (called a “fan network”) represents a step up from Boaz’ family line. He has successfully married, had sons and married his sons to their wives. Elimelech’s social network is expanding and we can assume even more stability in his line because of (unmentioned) relationships between Naomi and her sons. But when the men of the family die in Moab, the lineage problem rears its head again and the family disintegrates with each female returning to her original home divested of family and therefore also of future.

So while a family line allows power to be efficiently managed, contained and directed, as long as that power is centralized in one person per generation the system is susceptible to complete failure.

Boaz surely never saw these final verses in his own story and so our sense of retrospective urgency might only have amounted to abiding loneliness for him. But to be fair, none of us have access to the last chapters of our life, do we? We conduct ourselves as best we can in the moment entrusting our future to the Fates or to the mercy of God. But perhaps there are other ways to pass our blessings forward. Perhaps there are patterns of relating that lend more stability, resilience and effectiveness to our relational networks.

Boaz "Hub and Spoke" Network

Boaz “Hub and Spoke” Network

Here it is important to look again to Boaz who in the absence of a spouse and offspring has clearly become the hub of his community, making it a surrogate family of sorts. As networks develop toward health, they move through a series of stages: separated clusters, hub & spoke, multiple hubs, and finally core & periphery. Boaz has clearly assumed his role as the hub in his community and so advanced its move toward maturity. Is this a power position for him, or is it a strategy for influencing network health? All will be revealed!

On a similar note, as we move forward in Ruth’s story you will notice the role that women play in stabilizing the social structure of the narrative network. But notice as well that they accomplish this not by assuming the same fragile linear power structures previously held by men but by skillfully exerting influence from where they are in the system.

Could it be that influence over community health has much less to do with power than it has to do with skillfully leveraging one’s position within the community?

Implications and Questions:

  1. What types of interactions would you include in your relational map?
  2. What stands out to you about the shape and character of Ruth’s network map?
  3. What advantages and disadvantages are represented by “the pastors’ wall” found in many of our churches?
  4. Where are power and influence located on Ruth’s network map?
Faith, Ministry