So You Want to Be a Minister?

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I am not sure how it all came about, but I have become somewhat of an Ann Landers or Agony Aunt (Google it, kids) to quite a few ministers. Most of them are young but a few, like myself, are nearing their dotage. At the same time, I am getting more and more emails from young men and women who want to be ministers and spend their life in service to the Lord. The latter group is asking for advice in how to prepare to live out their calling. So here it is.

One of my first pieces of advice is to get a trade, skill or profession in addition to their ministry degrees. If all you can do is preach, you might find yourself being held hostage to a paycheck. In my religious tribe, we are facing an incredible shortage of preachers, but it isn’t because we have no one who wants to serve. I’m convinced that many would love to serve, but, the way we have organized our churches over the years makes the profession of ministry a very tenuous and fragile thing. That poison pill has finally worked its way into our bloodstream and churches are closing left and right. Dr. Trace Hebert of Lipscomb University has tracked this and found 1034 congregations of the mainstream Church of Christ that have shut their doors since 2000 and the downward slide seems to be picking up speed. Any survey of “minister wanted” ads on a variety of websites and in publications such as The Christian Chronicle reveals that the majority are small congregations where the pay is going to be low (or where you have to bring some support with you) and the resources very lean. Many of them are dominated by a family group or one or two elders who maintain tight control over the aging congregation. You can spot those by ads that say they want a “sound” preacher or one from “our brotherhood preaching schools.”

Young and well-educated ministers don’t answer those ads unless they have nowhere else to go. Once there, they find themselves frustrated by rules laid down and enforced by people who have never built up a church, never gained a degree in Bible or ministry, and who have no idea how to do the job of a minister. And if the minister has a belief that is not shared by those in power? Or if the minister does not believe something that is considered a necessary belief by those in power? He is stuck (I would say he or she is stuck but the fact is that none of those placing these ads would welcome an application from a woman). He has to choose between his integrity and a paycheck. If he has school debt, a wife, children, or needs healthcare this becomes a truly devastating, soul destroying crisis.

The larger churches in our tribe treat their ministers with great respect, pay them well, listen to them, and treat them as equals with the shepherds, not as temporary, easy to change hirelings. That is one reason they are growing and doing so much good in the Kingdom. Of course, the rejoinder from those smaller congregations to the prospering congregations is “they must not be sound.”

So, I warn those entering the ministry: It isn’t just that you might live a muzzled, frustrated life if you have nowhere else to go, nothing else to do; it is also a fact that, in almost any other job, you can go through personal crises and still have a job. But if you or your wife or child suffer from depression or anxiety disorders, it is unlikely that most churches will put up with that for long and out you go. It is unfair, unkind and unchristian but it the way it is. If your marriage is rocky or, worse, ending, you can be out of a job the same week your marriage ends. With low pay, you likely have almost no savings to live off of and any severance pay you get won’t last long. No wonder I find so many former ministers working in other fields now.

It sounds like I am discouraging anyone from entering the ministry but what I am trying to do is make sure they walk in with eyes wide open and prepared to survive the capricious and thoughtless ways of some elders and church committees.

Have another skill. Be a nurse, a plumber, an electrician, long haul semi driver, accountant…whatever your gifts and interests lead you to. Avoid getting a teaching degree as your fall back because I know dozens of ministers who tried to stay in their town after getting forced out of the pulpit only to find that they weren’t hiring teachers in their locale. And if they were, the pay was abysmal.

So many ministers – men and women of all ages – tell me in person, on the phone or in email that they wish they could say what I say and do what I do. They are not saying that they agree with me about everything or that I am their hero (lots of better ones out there, people). What they are saying is that they sense a freedom in me and a lack of fear that they wish they could share. How did I get here? I have kept other jobs going the entire time I’ve been in ministry. It took years to set up, but I can go to work at a university, or I can go on the lecture circuit for schools, hospitals, companies, military groups and law enforcement. I can play instruments behind singers and maybe even harmonize with them. I can work in therapy and counseling and more than a few have suggested I do stand-up comedy (not at all sure about that one). The point is, I have kept those exit ramps active and polished. That gives me freedom to speak and teach and grow and change my mind and… you get the idea.

You have heard people say that if they could live their life over, they wouldn’t change a thing. I call those people Slow Learners. I would change almost everything except Jesus and Miss Kami. One thing I got right entirely by accident was loading up my resume and skill set with non-ministerial jobs. That way, when someone “writes me up” or a congregation that invited me to come speak dis-invites me and I have to wave bye-bye to a nice check, I am okay. I might be sad and a bit poorer, but I will be fine. As the great philosopher, Gloria Gaynor, said, “I will survive.”

I want all ministers to have that freedom. In our church system, they do not at present. I could go on and on about the flaws and errors in our present system but going into ministry is rather like going to war. Military leaders know that you do not go to war with the resources you want; you go to war with the resources you have. And we enter ministry not with the system and resources and world we want, but with those we’ve got.

Be real. Be ready. Be prepared. And then, be fearless.

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