When I was 16, I said a series of yeses to Jesus that has forever set the trajectory for my life. Meeting, knowing, and surrendering to Jesus has been the most transformative experience of my entire life. Ever since my very first yes, it has been a lifelong lesson of walking the “long obedience in the same direction” as Eugene Peterson used to say.
When I was young, I could imagine no other path than ministry. More than twenty years later, I still can imagine no other path, but the path is a lot windier, hillier, and rockier than I could have ever perceived as a teenager.
If I’m honest, there are more potholes, dead ends, and obstructions than I could even imagine since I stepped into the pulpit as the new senior pastor at a historic church in my denomination. No doubt, I imagined glistening “success.” The success I initially imagined—though not all godly—went out the door rather quickly. Every pastor knows that there is a glorious honeymoon phase at a new church that fades into the background as reality hits. Within my first year:
- I discovered that not everyone loved my preaching.
- There was pushback about my gender and family status as a mom of small children
- I began pastoring in a very tumultuous election cycle.
- It was a church that had already been in decline, so we implemented a lot of changes, such as changing music, staff, and more. (People love change!)
- People left the church.
If you’re in ministry, you know the difficulties that come and go. There is a lot of conversation these days about the stress and burden pastors carry, and this is compounded when pastors step into ministry positions that don’t match up to our honeymoon imaginations.
Of course, I’ve had my conversations with God about the difficulties of this call, and how much harder it is than my teenage mind could ever dream. But I love Jesus, I love the church, and I know that God is the one who has called me, so I am in this for the long haul.
Dear pastor, is ministry not what you thought it would be? Are you in a situation that is rockier than planned? Despair not.
Remember the “Why” and “Who” of Your Call
As Jesus was preparing his disciples to be sent on mission, he reminded them over and over the difficulties and suffering that would come their way. Jesus promised there would be troubles, suffering, and rejection. This is perhaps the most highlighted in the “Way of the Cross Teachings” in the gospel of Mark (Mark 8-10). As Jesus reveals that he must suffer, so must they; just as he must lay down their lives, so must they; just as he must carry his cross, so must they; just as he will be rejected, so will they.
Given these grim realities of the call, it helps to remember why you responded to the call. It wasn’t because you wanted to be well-liked by everyone, but it was because you love Jesus and you hunger and thirst to participate in the work of the kingdom.
Ministry is not for the faint of heart; it also is not for the self-reliant. The demands of this call are too much for any one person to carry—we desperately need the empowering presence of the triune God. Remember not just why but who it is who calls, and remember who it is we serve.
Set your Face like Flint
Having a single-minded focus on Jesus, his bride, and his call can be terribly difficult at times.
“In the long obedience in the same direction,” there will be doubts that flood our imaginations. It’s easy to begin believing the toxic vitriol we sometimes hear and thus internalize, and it’s easy to look at the church across the street and believe we are the “have-nots” while they are the “have-a- lots.”
Hear the posture in Isaiah 50:7: “Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore, I have set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.” Complaints, comparisons, and discouragement too often gets the best of us. But if we truly believe in the call, then we must set our faces like flint, put one foot in front of the other, and keep showing up.
Don’t Become a Hermit
Wounds make us want to hide and pull away. There have been plenty of days I would have rather not shown up. But, I’ve known far too many pastors who appear on a platform on Sunday morning and hide away in their office for the rest of the week. Self-protection mode is a natural defense mechanism, no doubt. Practice self-care—get a therapist, find a support system, ask for help, find safe spaces to vent—and then get out there and love the people. Show up in the hospital rooms, make those phone calls, lead the teams, reclaim the practice of deep listening, and don’t forget the call to journey with and alongside of your people.
Remember You Are Only Human
You can’t do it all. Unfortunately, too many pastors have a messiah complex that leads to their demise. Working more than 55 hours a week won’t solve all of the problems of the church and is a fast track to burnout. Remember you are clay, prone to exhaustion. Your call isn’t to personally save your church or anyone for that matter. You’re called to participate in the work God is already doing; you’re called to come alongside to nurture, love, equip, and edify, not save.
Pastors with a savior complex try to be all things to all people. Pastors with a savior complex don’t always surround themselves with equally gifted people. Pastors with a savior complex often ignore the needs of their family, and overly tend to the needs of the church. Pastors with a savior complex believe in the lie that working more means more success. Pastors with a savior complex work to make themselves the star of the show rather than Jesus.
Pastors who remember that they are clay have boundaries. Pastors who remember they are clay are present at home as well as the congregation. Pastors who remember they are clay take seriously the practice of self-care which includes mind, body, and soul. Pastors who remember they are clay seek to surround themselves with gifted, wise, and talented people. Pastors who remember they are clay remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
The Grass Isn’t Greener on the Other Side
I remember one of the first times I started to encounter difficult people in another church I served. I dreamt about going to another church just so I didn’t have to deal with “Deanne!” Eventually, I did make it to another church, and Deanne was also there. Guess what? Deanne is everywhere. What I’m trying to say is, churches are full of broken people who do very broken and hurtful things. Churches have baggage, hurts, and pains, and hurt people hurt people. The grass isn’t greener on the other side; there is green and lush grass right where God has called you.
It may be fall, but signs of spring are blooming, dear pastor. No, ministry isn’t always what we imagined when we were first called, but we are in this for one reason and one reason alone: Jesus. Jesus reminds us that if we want to save our life, we will lose it (Matt. 16:25). At the end of the day, I want to walk the long obedience in the same direction, and I want to do it faithfully…even in the twists, turns, potholes, and roadblocks. And, at the end of the day we can hopefully say, “What a privilege to do this holy work.”