How are you feeling about your ministry? When it comes to your day-to-day function as a pastor, how would you describe the undercurrents of your thoughts and moods during recent months? What is going on in the private domain of your soul as you think about your work, particularly your lifelong call to ministry? Are you loving it or hating it? Or do you find yourself in a monotonous state of restive indifference?
We sometimes have a way of griping and grouching about this or that in ministry. I must quickly admit that all too often I have contributed too emphatically to this pastime, getting that familiar sense of displaced "high" as I did. The good old word, "grousing," often used during my growing-up years in South Africa, accurately describes this rather common phenomenon. Excessive, frequent grousing may well be an indication that the excitement is dead, that the focus has shifted from embracing the privilege of ministry to what we have come to see as the dreadful, detested chores and conditions of pastoring. Incessant grumbling about meaningless ministers' meetings, trouble some church members, or the foibles of the corporate church is symptomatic of an inner ministerial misery caused not so much by the conditions we are grousing about (real as some may be) as by the fact that the light of our divine call to real ministry has gone out or seriously dimmed.
On the other side of things, I have listened to pastors who enthusiastically, even electrically, declare their joy and fulfillment in ministry. You sense the wonder in them and their deep sense of privilege about being ministers. Their spirit is generally upbeat. They know who they are and are glad to be what they are. They know what they want to accomplish. Most of the time there is spring in their ministerial step. Being around them is, in some cases, almost too much! Yet their sense of calling seems to have much of the charged exhilaration Paul displayed when he spoke about his ministry (see below). This tends to remain discernible and operative even in the midst of the hardest rejections and setbacks.
When I describe ministerial grousing and contrast it to the positive attitudes behind an upbeat approach to our conditions and calling, my intention is not merely to praise optimism and decry pessimism! The goal is rather to identify a far-reaching negative condition that afflicts many of us and, quite frankly, makes us and others rather miserable, while it curtails the thrust of our ministry and even our life. The aim is our translation from a critical cynicism into a dignified enthusiasm about our ministry, even in the face of ministerial vicissitudes.
Here are a few beginning thoughts that are calculated to be helpful in this:
1. It would be productive for us to consciously lower our expectations of what day-to-day ministry should be like, as we raise our sense of privilege in having been called to be servants (ministers). Life on this planet, let alone life in ministry, is simply not what we fondly wish it was; if we insist on clinging to unrealistic expectations, we become irritated, disillusioned, and cynical when reality consistently turns to dash what is in fact fantasy on our part. Paul talked of ministry including "troubles, hardships and distresses, beatings, imprisonments and riots, hard work, sleepless nights and hunger." He then talked of the "servants of God" enduring this "in purity, understanding, patience, and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God, with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report, having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (2 Cor. 6:4-10, NIV). What a terrifically healthy attitude!
2. So, let's take an inventory of our ministerial soul, a reality check. Many of us simply function within a kind of habituated negativity mode, believing our pejorative assessments are representative of objective reality, when in fact they are quite subjective and neglectful of the very real positive side of everyday life. The point here is, "You might already have more meaning than you realize [so literally, take stock of it . No occupational fulfillment in the whole world faintly compares with the satisfaction a pastor enjoys who loves God, loves his call and shows love for the people he [or she] serves."1
3. But what if you don't feel much love for your call right now? It is critical then, to go back to Who actually called you and not to doubt that it was indeed He who personally gave you that summons. All the affirmation in the church and in the world cannot substitute for the deep inner conviction that Christ Himself has called you to be His servant. Conversely, all the criticisms, sorrows, failures, and foolishnesses of contemporary ministry may well have accosted your sense of the reality of that call, but they cannot destroy the call itself. And right now that call may well be needing the kind of affirmation that comes in rediscovering and renewing your ministerial standing in Christ. Renew it as an act of deep worship and devotion.
4. Just like the vows of marriage, our ministerial calling needs to be nurtured. At the heart of such nurture, I believe, is the recognition of the sacredness of the summons and the divine enabling that goes with God's bidding. I find myself quickly and subtly forgetting these things as I get into the rhythmic round of everyday, pragmatic ministry. It is awful to try to do ministry running on empty. Trying to do ministry without the sense of divine call and empowerment is miserable and breaks out into all kinds of negative maladies. Functioning within the wonder of God's call and empowerment makes all the difference. So it is for us to nurture our sense of God's calling to us and begin, if need be, by simply acting as though we love our ministry and our particular placement and the people we are serving.
'"Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground'" (Exod. 3:5, NIV). "I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit fruit that will last" (John 15:16, NIV).
1. H. B. London Jr. and Neil B. Wiseman, The Heart of a Great Pastor (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1994), 120.