Ministry Triage

One morning last fall, I was standing in the hallway of one of the schools in Allendale County. I was chatting with one of the staff, who had been teaching for a long time. I met her last year. I could tell that she loved the kids, but that she was worn out, and looking forward to retiring within the next few years.

A 5th grade boy walked passed us. I knew him from the after school program that I had been working in, where he rarely showed up and even more rarely was an active participant. She whispered something to me that surprised me, but just briefly. A few years ago, it would enraged me.

She said, “There goes a statistic.”

Just a Statistic?

I used to think that saying this was callous and cynical, and that means a lot coming from a calloused and cynical guy like me. But after working in Allendale for a year now, I see how it’s unfortunately all-too-true.

Over this past year, I consistently pondered what it mean if we only had a few kids in our program, or if it’s actually possible to have only a few kids. Like in my current jobs and ministry opportunities, I struggle with the balance of ministering to a few (but in depth), or ministering to many (but more superficially). How can we have the best impact?

Is this boy (and many other students like him) just a statistic? Can we write him off already? Or is there a hope for him?

There Is a Hope

Of course, there is a hope for him, and for everyone. Everyone’s ultimate hope is found solely in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Fully divine and fully human, He came to bear the weight of humanity’s sins. He lived a perfect life, and died for our imperfection. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, any situation — no matter how broken — can be redeemed.

So, knowing this — knowing that God is sovereign over all of our hopes and fears, our successes and our failures — there is still the fact that some kids will surely be a part of all those negative statistics (such as illiterate, impregnated, incarcerated, and unemployed). Will he be one of those? The odds are against him.

Ministry Triage

In the medical world, triage is about trying to prioritize patients based on how serious their condition is and how likely they are to benefit from care, compared to the other patients. Because when there is a shortage of resources — like staff (like in an emergency room), time (like in on a battlefield), or materials (like on a medical mission trip) — you must be purposeful how you use them.

How you decide to allocate those resources is never an easy choice.

And with the limited people and resources we have in Allendale (like many other areas of poverty), we have to make similar choices. I’m calling this “ministry triage” — the decision to allocate limited time and resources to one person or group of people, over another person or group of people. Ministry triage is a reality for anyone who serves others.

I faced this decision consistently in the after school program last year. Do I focus my time on the boy who really needs it, but who is disrupting the rest of the program? Or do I let him go (by ignoring him or suspending him), so that I can spend more time with the eight children who are (mostly) trying to do right?

Sacrificing one for the sake of many is not easy, but neither is sacrificing many for the sake of one. Personally, I have to let go of this 5th grader, even if he winds up being a “statistic.”

So, Now What?

I know that this seems despairing, but you can play a role After the Ministry Triage.

For now, what do you think of this term “ministry-triage”? Have you ever had to make this choice?

image courtesy of Kurhan via


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10 responses to “Ministry Triage”

  1. Barbara says :

    I am in a job where my ratio is 1 counselor to 600+ kids. No one wants to admit that triage exists, but in a 40 hour week (that is all they are in the building) there is no choice. It is a difficult choice to make and even harder to explain to someone in the outside world with more resources.

  2. Sandy says :

    I think Jesus walked around with 12 for a reason.

  3. nowhereman says :

    It’s people with that mentality that help make the “statistics” . No one should be given up on. I heard a story once.. A thousand starfish had floated to shore and there was this little girl tossing them back into to the sea one by one. A man approached her and said “Why are you wasting your time you can’t throw them all back in so it doesn’t matter”.. and the girl replied “It mattered to that one.”

    • joeyespinosa says :

      I hear what you’re saying, but maybe I wasn’t clear (I know I ended my blog on a “down” note). Actually, what is going on in the schools here is actually shows the opposite of your illustration. I (and many other leaders) are NOT giving up on the kids.

      In the case of your illustration, she is doing something, which is great. But some starfish are going to die. She is in a sense, choosing some to help while ignoring others. Some of those starfish are going to be the “statistics.”

      With us working with “at-risk” kids, we will do what we can to help some kids, but we cannot help all of them. We are surely not giving up, but the triage means we can only help a certain number.

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