“Because I wanted to tell people about Jesus so that they can follow him too!”
That was the primary reason why fifteen years ago I began pursuing a life that would eventually lead me into congregational ministry as a preacher. There were people who encouraged me along the way, including my wife, and I have always enjoyed helping people as well as studying the Bible and theology. I wanted to tell people about Jesus and believed God wanted me to do so as well. All that to say I believe God has led me to where I am today.
I still believe that.
But in all honesty, there are times when I wish that I didn’t have this burden.
A few weeks ago when visiting my alma mater, Harding University, I was asked to speak with a small group of students who are discerning if God is calling them into ministry. My impromptu topic was to share with them the reality of the struggles faced in ministry without scaring them too much.
Um… Ok. I can do that.
But the truth is, serving as a minister has been more challenging than I ever imagined it would be. To be fair, I’ve made some mistakes along the way. Ministry is always a learning curve and there’s plenty that I would do differently if I could do it over again.
I’ve also experienced frustrations that were not my own making. Every church says that it wants to grow, engage the youth, reach out to the community, and so on. But not every church wants to let the minister (or ministry staff) lead them in those endeavors because it requires change. That’s frustrating!
Beyond that, as a minister, I’ve learned that not everyone will like me. In fact, I’ve encountered things that were said and done which were discouraging, to say the least, and even hurtful at times. Sometimes I saw it coming and other times it was like being sucker-punched.
That’s not the entire picture of ministry, thankfully. There are many great moments that I’ve experienced in ministry. Every baptism has been a joyous occasion. Every time God has been at work during a sermon or conversation and someone has come to me with a story of how they are trusting more deeply in the grace of God, trying to live more like Jesus, desiring to be a better husband or wife, a better parent, a better neighbor… Every time a church has extended hospitality and generosity to a person or family in desperate need… Every time a church has said “Yes!” to the needs of a missionary or ministry that seeks to serve the world in the name of Jesus…
Those are some of the great moments in ministry and I’m thankful for them. However, in those frustrating times, and sometimes they seem to come like a tidal wave, serving Jesus as a minister of the gospel is difficult. In fact, I understand why some ministers decide to leave ministry for good and I don’t hold that decision against them at all. But I can’t leave! Nor do I want to!
Since you’re asking why, I’ll tell you. It’s the burden… I still have it and it keeps growing.
That’s why I stay in ministry. Believe me, I don’t serve as a minister because of its cathartic nature (if I can be a little sarcastic) and it’s not because I love what I do, though I do love being a minister of the gospel. I stay for two reasons and they have to do with this burden.
First, I believe God has called me for this ministry. So I must stay. I remain because I still believe in the church. I believe in the Spirit-filled body of people who belong to Christ… his bride! This is not naïveté, which I hope is clear by now. Churches have problems, some more than others. Sometimes the problems seem so numerous and exasperating that you would not believe them unless you saw them for yourself. Just ask the Apostle Paul about the Corinthians. And yet Paul still regarded them as “saints” (cf. 1 Cor 1:2).
That’s because Paul saw the church for what God had made the church to be. Paul understood that Jesus was crucified so that these people could become his holy people. Regardless of the problems, Paul still saw God at work among the church. Paul saw the potential among the church. Paul knew that it was still the church, even in all her weaknesses and follies, but Paul also knew that it was among these people whom God was carrying forth his mission of redeeming the world in Christ.
I see the same things in the church today, wherever she gathers and lives. Churches will always be less than perfect (and ministers too!) but they’re still the saints. The church, and more importantly every local church, is still the people through whom God is proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. My calling, I believe, is to help lead churches to do just that and be the people who tell their neighbors about Jesus so that they can follow him too. So I stay.
Today I encounter a lot of church members who are frustrated with their church too. I understand most of the frustrations. As I’ve said, I’ve been frustrated too. But if we could recapture the vision of who we, the church, are called to be rather than just seeing who we are, then maybe… Well, maybe, just maybe, being church begins with believing in the church as “saints!” And doing that means extending the same grace that God offers us to the church!
So I say all that to say, I hope you’ll stay with me!