Ministry Reality vs. Ministry Expectations
This past weekend BJU Seminary held its annual retreat, always a great time of fellowship and inspiration. The focus this year was giving students an “insider’s look” into the life of a gospel minister. A good deal of self-disclosure and vulnerability characterized the sessions. Without overwhelming students, it’s a healthy thing to move them from the theory of the classroom to the sometimes messy practice of local-church ministry.
In that regard, my wife and I did a workshop entitled “Calibrating Ministry Expectations to Ministry Reality.” Our concern was that when our ministry vision isn’t aligned with reality, we set ourselves up for discouragement. And no one needs help getting discouraged! With this in mind, below I rework some of my workshop thoughts. I hope they prove helpful to future and present ministers, and to those they serve.
Church-administration books emphasize the development of mission statements and strategic plans, and these are helpful tools for keeping a church moving forward in the right direction. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of ministry, what does one find in the pages of the New Testament? While leaders like Peter and Paul maintained a single-minded focus on making and maturing disciples, the circumstances and details of their ministries were rather fluid. Open doors here, closed doors there. A brief time here, a longer stint there, then on to the next locale. Sometimes bivocational, other times relying more on church funding, still other times going hungry. Look for these dynamics the next time you read through the book of Acts.
Even on the level of individual churches, growing pains, controversy, leadership changes, persecution, and local idiosyncrasies made for approaches that might not fare too well if judged by modern business models. Look for these dynamics the next time you read through the Epistles. They don’t justify poor management, but they do encourage a fair amount of flexibility.
Add to that the mysteries of God’s providence. Often his ways don’t make the best sense according to human definitions of effectiveness and efficiency. Why, for example, do I have friends who spent years learning Spanish so that they could serve as missionaries in Latin America, while I grew up bilingual but minister as a seminary professor and pastor in the US? It seems a bit crazy, especially when I get back from a mission trip and see afresh the needs and opportunities abroad. Not to mention the appeal of tacos or tostones. Yet as best as I can tell, I am following the Lord’s leading up to this point in my life. And every minister has to be prepared for the unexpected in God’s will.
ACCEPT YOUR WEAKNESS
When I was in college I took a class that dealt with “the glory of the ministry.” Actually, old A. T. Robertson wrote a book by that title—click here because the Kindle version presently costs just ninety-nine cents! The idea of the glory of gospel ministry is a biblical one, highlighting the incalculable privilege of proclaiming Christ and his salvation. Paul talks this way in 2 Corinthians 3.
Yet this emphasis might obscure some other things the apostle says in 2 Corinthians. The treasure of the gospel resides in jars of clay, people who are afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, etc. (4:7ff). Such paradoxes characterize the lives of Christ’s spokesmen. Commending themselves by calamities (6:4)? Sorrowful yet always rejoicing (6:10)? And then God gives Paul a thorn in the flesh in order to keep him humble (12:7)?
Yes. I have yet to find a verse that urges Christian leaders, “Never let them see you sweat.” Instead, here’s another ministry principle that doesn’t sound like good business advice: weakness is a good thing because it casts you on the strength of the Almighty. Once you’ve pastored for a while, you develop a certain comfort level with your responsibilities. You can get comfortable with preaching in particular. In fact, I’ve found that the somewhat scripted nature of preaching makes it one of the easier aspects of the ministry.
What really makes you feel your weakness are the unscripted moments. Unbelievers who reject the gospel. Believers who don’t take an obviously needed step of growth. Tensions that keep resurfacing no matter how hard you try to be a peacemaker. Challenges in working with fellow leaders. Complicated church-discipline situations. And all of this while you’re wrestling with your own personal set of failures and disappointments. These are the kinds of things that throw you on the floor crying out, “Lord, what in the world am I supposed to do?”
And that is precisely how God slays your perfectionism. That is how he weans you away from your self-reliance and messianic pretensions. That is how he moves you to find your identity and satisfaction in him instead of in your ministry. If you really want to be humbled about this, read Paul Tripp’s book Dangerous Calling.
DEVELOP A SHEPHERD’S HEART
In his classic work The Minister as Shepherd, Charles Jefferson described “the sentiments entertained by many young men entering the ministry”:
They say quite openly that they despise pastoral work. Study they enjoy, books they love, preaching they revel in. But as for shepherding the sheep, they hate it. They like to feel that they have special gifts for the pulpit. When their friends prophesy for them a glorious pulpit career, their heart sings. The work of a shepherd was an abomination, we are told, to the ancient Egyptians, and so it is to all pulpit-Pharaohs who are interested in building pyramids out of eloquent words. . . . Young men are, if intellectually alert, interested more in ideas than in men. (21-22)
Perhaps Brother Charles was being a tad harsh. Here’s my softer way of making the point with my students: Preaching is central to the ministry, but the ministry is not all about preaching. What else is it about?
- Encouraging and counseling God’s people through a bewildering variety of life issues—anything from assurance of salvation to ethical quandaries to addictions to marital problems to infertility to adoption to wayward children to financial problems to medical crises to loneliness to guilt to depression. And riding a roller coaster of emotions alongside them. And admitting that you don’t have all the answers. In an important sense the pastor’s job isn’t to fix things, and church people need to adjust their own expectations in this regard. On the other hand, a shepherd does whatever he can to minister healing to wounded sheep.
- Persevering through tedious late-night leadership meetings, discussing matters as significant as ministry philosophy and prospective missionaries to topics as mundane as paint colors, air-conditioning systems, and building permits.
- Evangelizing someone on multiple occasions and struggling over whether to keep appealing to them versus simply praying for the Holy Spirit to open their eyes.
- Or what the last few days have held for me: kneeling by a bedside in a nursing home, singing a solo of “Amazing Grace” to a saint in her mid-nineties, a former missionary whose husband we buried about six months ago. She died on Sunday night, and now my mind has turned to her funeral.
These are just a few specifics involved in shepherding a congregation. Then there are the ongoing generalities. As you strive to sustain positive pastoral relationships, you navigate a remarkable diversity of personality quirks and individual consciences and preferences (beyond your own, that is). You may be misunderstood and misrepresented—maybe because you miscommunicated, maybe not. You regularly wrestle over which battles are worth fighting and which matters you should let go, at least for now. You long for church unity as well as for progress, so you seek as much consensus as possible. And that takes time, maybe a long time. But as with the progressive sanctification of the individual believer, you learn that corporate progressive sanctification requires more time than you expect or like.
ENCOURAGEMENTS ALONG THE WAY
Such are the realities of the ministry, the kinds of things you can’t learn entirely in seminary. And it’s only as you experience ministry that you can fully appreciate its joys as well. Some are small, but you see them as divine nudges to keep you pressing on. A young mother gratefully sends you a picture of you on your knees chatting with her toddler. You’re given an unexpected pay raise. Someone feels called to a particular project and moves it several steps forward in a matter of months.
Then there are the more substantial blessings. A church member tells you how God used a certain sermon to deepen their relationship with him. Another assures you of their regular prayers for you and your family. A counselee shows concrete signs of progress. Someone sends you an email thanking you in detail for your long-term investment in their life.
Who is sufficient for these things?