The boxes have been neatly stacked in our guest room for five months now. I've put their contents away, but I don' t know where to place them in a house that's already set up. The boxes are full of books, file folders, sermons, devotionals, pictures, thank-you cards memories of my past seven and a half years of pastoring. I've taken an extended leave of absence to be a full-time mother. So what do you do with "an office in boxes"?
Well, one thing I do is go through their contents. When I take occasional speaking appointments or wonder what I did with a certain book or paper, off come the lids, and I go searching! But twice I've done some thing else with their contents, which hold much of the past few years of my life. I smile at some of my first sermon titles, affectionately study photos of my youth group, read a letter of appreciation with warm feelings, or hold a gift from a group of women to whom I've presented a seminar.
Such rich memories. They take me back to when I received my call to be a pastor. It had been a long road for me, but finally, eight years after graduating with a B.A. in theology, I obtained a full-time position. Maybe it was because I had to wait so long. Maybe it was because full-time pastoral positions are hard to come by for women. Maybe it was because it had been my dream since I was 10 years old. Whatever the case, I remember well my strong "first love" experience as a new pastor. On my first day of work a man called our house asking to speak to the pastor. I started to say I would call my husband when he replied, "I want to talk to the woman pastor." That's me, I thought. "I'm a pastor."
I was thrilled to go to work each morning. Every day seemed to bring a new challenge a new dependence on the Lord for wisdom. My pastor-husband used to chuckle at me be cause I was actually excited about attending workers' meetings! I even remember once going to work when I was ill with the flu because I didn't want to miss a single day!
Do you remember some of those first-love feelings when you began your ministry? If you're like me, you've discovered that your first-love feelings for the ministry are only as good as your first-love feelings for God.
I'll never forget what it was like, at the age of 10, to give my life to God along with my entire family. First love was definitely there. We children had such simple faith in God. My father, who had led our family to God, taught us about prayer that we could talk to Jesus about anything. I remember praying for our dying cherry tree, and it bloomed again. Another memory is that of my little brother, then 4, kneeling in front of a gum-ball machine at the grocery store and praying out loud that a prize would come out instead of gum. As other children gathered around him, they watched in amazement when a prize came out three times in a row! God honored our childlike faith.
As a new Christian, my dad had promised God that he would gather his family together for worship every night. We must have been very busy one evening, because we forgot worship and went to bed. Then Dad remembered at 2:30 a.m.! He awakened Mom and they built a fire in the fireplace and made hot chocolate. Then they came and gently awakened my siblings and me for family worship. I remember the love in our family room warming us like the heat of the fire.
On camping trips we would go to different campsites and invite other campers to join us for worship as we sang religious songs around the campfire. Prayer and Bible study were like a hobby we couldn't get enough of it.
Whether you were raised in a Christian home or experienced a conversion later in life, you can probably look back to one point in your life when you gave yourself to God. Maybe it was through a Week of Prayer, evangelistic meetings, a friend, or studying on your own. Do you re member those first-love feelings, too?
Losing first love
I think it's important that we do remember. That we don't forget where we came from in our conversion experience or call to the ministry, be cause as I stated before, they go hand in hand. As pastors when our prayers become quick and trite, when we study our Bible only for preparing sermons that feed another's soul, we begin to lose that first love---for God as well as the ministry. Then sermons don't come from the heart but from some one else's idea or story; hospital visits become something we do because we're supposed to rather than because we feel compassion for one who's hurting; our minds tend to wander during counseling sessions rather than hearing and feeling the pain of the person sitting across from us.
It's dangerous to lose our first love, whether it be for God or the ministry. I'm not intimating that anyone read ing this doesn't love God, but it's so easy to have that first love slip quietly away without realizing it.
The church in Ephesus lost their first love. God spoke to them and said, "I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance . . . You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first" (Rev. 2:2-5, NIV).
These Christians had not lost their love for God. In fact, He affirmed them for what they were doing. But enduring, persevering, and not growing weary don't mean much if the initial love is missing.
Remember and return
What can cause a pastor to lose his or her first love for the ministry? Many things. Overwork, critical members, poor time management, seeing the ministry as a "job" rather than a service, members' high expectations, being pulled in too many directions, and, of course, losing first love for God.
So if we feel we've lost it, if the ministry has become a drudgery rather than a joy, how do we get that first love back? The advice to Ephesus is also advice to us: "Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first." Let me invite you to take some time away to think about this text. Get alone in your study, go for a drive or walk, and remember. Remember like the text says. Remember what it was like when you first came to know God and the miracle He brought to your life. Remember early answers to prayer and review His leading over the past years. Remember the things that kept you close to Him back then, and as the text invites, "do the things you did at first."
I've learned that as with any relationship, I must work at my relation ship with God. The times when I've felt my first love for God or the ministry slipping, it wasn't because He moved, but because I had unintentionally moved.
I remember a story told by one of my theology professors that made a real impression on me. An elderly couple were driving to church on a Sabbath morning. They were each sitting in their corner of the front seat when the wife turned to her husband and said, "Honey, why don't we sit close to each other in the car, the way we used to?" Her husband turned to her and answered, "I haven't moved." He'd been behind the steering wheel all those years, while she'd moved toward the other side of the seat!
Sometimes we have similar conversations with God. We say to Him, "Lord, remember when we used to be so close? Remember when we had a relationship that was alive and the ministry was my passion?" And He answers us, "I haven't moved. I've been here all along. But you've slipped away through the years."
Although I don't regret my decision to take a leave of absence from paid ministry, being away from it has made me realize even more how fortunate I was that I had the opportunity to pastor. For those of you pastors reading this, I want to remind you of the incredible special calling you have. You're like one of the twelve, one of those close to Jesus whom He taught and then sent out to finish His work.
Remember. Remember the height and return. Return to first love.