Working for the East-West Church & Ministry Report, I have at times asked myself: What is ministry? What does it mean to minister? Christians, especially in evangelical circles, use the term frequently. "God used X to minister to me." "I feel God is calling me to the ministry." My own M.A. studies are in the department of educational ministries. In the American evangelical subculture, phrases like prison ministry, student ministry, and cross-cultural ministry are taken for granted.
In Russia, there is no specifically Christian term for ministry. The literal translation, ministerstvo, refers to a political body, such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs, home for the KGB. When Western Christians in Russia use the term minister, it is translated into Russian as "to serve (sluzhit)." Ministry becomes "sluzhenie" (devotion or service), something less abstract and more practical. The Russian term for Orthodox clergy (svyashchennosluzhitel) can be translated literally into English as "holy servant." This understanding of ministry--not as a specifically Christian activity, but as common everyday service to others--has challenged me to consciously focus on those aroundme.
In order to serve others, we need to understand their needs and background. I am reminded of the child who tried to serve a goldfish by freeing it from the fishbowl! That act of service caused the death of the fish. Yet how often are Christians like that child? Do our attempts to minister to others serve them or suffocate them? Western missionaries generally leave the country after a few months, years, or, at most, decades, but for nationals, whose lives missionaries have touched, whose identity they have helped shape, these changes are permanent. A Russian teammate pointed out to me: "Missionaries so often report to supporters how many people have been converted through their ministry. But they never count the number of people they have turned away from Christ." Ministry is a great responsibility.
The English "minister" and Russian "sluzhit" even differ grammatically. Minister can stand alone, with or without reference to an object of that ministry. In English, one can speak of ministering without referring to people at all. In Russian, the main definition of the word sluzhit takes an object: one does not simply serve; one serves someone. Unless a missionary is truly being of service to those she works with, can we really say that she is involved in ministry?
An understanding of the Russian mentality would benefit Westerners wishing to truly serve people of the former Soviet Union. A Russian friend once asked me, "Do you think you can become whatever you want to be?" I truthfully answered that, as a rule, yes, I did. Contemplating that, she said she did not feel she could influence her own life. She was what others made her to be, and could not be anything else. This was not only her view, but the view of her alcoholic brother and abusive father as well. This was how she and others had been taught to think.
These comments provided insight into behavior that I found puzzling. Conversion in Russia is not simply an individual decision. It affects family, friends, and coworkers. Anthropologist Dorinne Kondo found that in Japan, "Persons seem to be constituted in and through social relations and obligations to others. Selves and society did not seem to be separate entities. Boundaries were blurred."1 I would contend that this is true in Russia as well. Relationships define identity. Western Christians must be aware of this.
It has long been recognized that both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse can lose their memory of the event. Yet I am especially intrigued by the concept of reconstructing memory, explained by Kerry Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.2 Not only do people "forget" painful memories, but they may subconsciously "distort reality" when the truth is too hard to bear.3 "'Memories' can be created during therapies, during hypnosis, and during ordinary conversations in ordinary relationships." When speaking about a past event, we may actually be re-creating that event in our memory. "The notion of historical truth disappears behind that of narrative truth."4
While to Western minds it seems far-fetched, this could explain a fuzziness about the truth which I have noticed in Russia. Often it seems that the concept of objective truth is irrelevant, as everyone speaks from their own perception, perhaps as they wanted things to have been. Yet in certain cases of obvious contradiction, people may not be deliberately lying, but rather expressing what they want to be accurate. What appears to be fabrication sometimes is not malicious distortion of truth, but rather subconscious reconstruction of reality, a defense mechanism which has served Russians well, quite possibly even saving their lives.
What a difference it would make if each missionary and religious worker, Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic, strove to be literally a svyashennosluzhitel, a sacred servant, focusing ministry not on strategy, training, or even tradition, but on understanding and serving others, and on addressing real needs. May the Church seek not only changed minds, but spiritually changed lives, rebuilding piece by piece the broken memories and relationships that shape the Russian people.
Sharyl Corrado is assistant editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
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© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report