Ministry is never static. With Paul in Philippians 3 we “press on.” Ministry is always fluid and challenging. We ask four questions along the way at different stages in our ministry journey, and we also ask these questions throughout our ministry life.
First, we ask: Lord, how might I serve? We sense the call to ministry on our lives. We can’t imagine doing anything else. We are excited about ministry. And sometimes we get paid, and feel guilty for being paid for something we love to do.
There is a deeper question that we ask not just at the beginning of our ministry life, but throughout our life. When we ask, how might I serve, we area also asking: to whom do I belong? This deeper question is one of allegiance and commitment. We sacrifice; we surrender; we take up the cross. We do this early on in our ministry, and we do it throughout.
Second, after just a few years in ministry we ask: What am I doing? The idealism of ministry fades. Ministry becomes harder. People are hard. The word is hard. We realize that we don’t know as much as we thought we did. Many drop out of ministry at around years 5-8. It is not easy.
The deeper question that we ask throughout our lives is: How do I stay faithful and fruitful? We realize that the tasks of ministry are hard. We cannot do this work in our own strength. So we commit to abide in Christ (John 15). We can serve well because we trust that the Lord will strengthen us.
Third, a bit later in ministry we ask: Do I want to do this for the rest of my life? Mid-career we get tired. The work is rewarding, but exhausting. The rewards don’t always outweigh the costs personally and to one’s family. So we ask the hard question around years 13-15: Do I want to keep doing this?
This is another period of walking away from ministry. I am convinced that lifelong learning is so critical at years 5-8, and years 13-15. We need good supportive people around us, a place to vent and to pray. We need to engage our minds with new thinking. We need to develop new skills. We need encouragement to refresh our own walk with the Lord. This is why I am such a strong advocate for Doctor of Ministry programs (especially Fullers!), and other programs and conferences Fuller and others develop to keep us fresh.
Those who make it through enter into a wonderful season of ministry. They are wiser. They are able to discern better between what is important and what is not. They know the difference between fads and gimmicks, and paradigms that are generative and transforming. These can be the very best years of ministry characterized by personal humility and professional will (Jim Collins).
The deeper question is: How do I endure with hope? Paul faced challenges throughout his ministry. He said: we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within (2 Cor. 7:5). Paul was able to endure, and so are we because we take a new stance in life—one of weakness and humility. In Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 4 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. …But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
Fourth, later in ministry, if we hang in, we ask How do I finish well? With greater degrees of wisdom and maturity, we are able to minister to others and mentor. We pour into the lives of others, watching them succeed and flourish, helping them to avoid some of the mistakes we made along the way. This is a period of significant impact.
The deeper question for us our whole lives long is: How do I build practices and create community now? If we are not careful, ministry will kill us-emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and physically. A friend of mine who is in charge of the care and discipline of pastors in the Evangelical Covenant Church notes this formula for disaster for clergy: depletion + isolation + conflict= significant trouble. Disaster is not only seen in the melt down of our externalized lives, but also with a growing incongruity between how we present ourselves to others, and what we are like on the inside. Depletion + isolation + conflict= significant trouble. It is a formula for disaster.
Here is the reality: We can’t do anything about conflict or challenges. They are a reality for leaders. Conflict cannot be avoided. If we work for change, if we seek to move an organization forward, there will be conflict. Most of the time, we cannot escape conflict, but we have can order our lives so that we are not depleted or isolated.
Eugene Peterson speaks to pastors and to all ministry leaders when he says: “The congregation is the pastor’s place for developing vocational holiness. It goes without saying that it is the place of ministry: we preach the word and administer the sacraments, we give pastoral care and administer community life, we teach and we give spiritual direction. But it is also the place in which we develop virtue, learn to love, advance in hope—become what we preach.” In our work, we are to be developing in holiness. How do we do this? Maybe three simple ABC’s will help: Abide, Breath, Connect.
Abide—We need to stay connected to Jesus Christ as branches to the vine. We need to set aside time to read Scripture, to pray, to reflect , to confess. We do this not as preparation for a sermon or a talk. We do this because we want to know Jesus better and become more like him.
Breathe—We need to take time away from the busyness of life. We need to take a Sabbath. We need once a week to stop working. We need to get off of the people pleasing, proving our worth to God and to ourselves treadmill. We need to just stop. One day in our lives should be different from the other six. Eugene Peterson says one day should be spent Praying and Playing.
Connect—We need to have a small group of trusted friends circling around us. These are people who love us for who we are, not our job or title. These are people we can vent to, and confide in, who pray for us, who will say the hard things to us, who give us space for laughter and fun.
A recipe for disaster in our lives is Conflict, Depletion, and Isolation. The path towards ministering well and finishing well is Abide in Christ; Breathe in still spaces, and Connect with others in community.
What stage are you at? What questions are you asking? At each stage, and our whole life long, we all need: to gather with community of support, a commitment to lifelong learning, and a determination to cultivate our walk with the Lord.
So we press on!
(Thanks to my Evangelical Covenant Church friend and colleague Dan Pietryzyk for the initial work on this subject. His work was published in as Shooting the Rapids in Faith & Leadership.)