A quarter century of ministry: A few observations
The circle of life has crept up on me in a way I never could have anticipated in the recent months of ministry. As a pastor serving outside of Chicago, I live in two worlds: the world of my youth and the world of current ministry.
Now, a quarter of a century after starting in ministry, I see the joys and struggles of a variety of pastors and “students.” I say “students” because I have come to believe that I am as much a student as they are, and thus, we all learn together. From this perch—a varied combination of being a local pastor, experiencing 25 years of pastoral ministry in local congregations, being educated throughout the formal ministerial education process with colleagues in ministry, and now returning to the classroom—a confluence of seven observations regarding ministry find their expression.
Marathon, not a sprint
First, pastoral ministry is a marathon and not a sprint. The energy necessary to launch is extremely important. However, one of the side effects of this energy heading into the journey is that I approached ministry as a sprint. One normal response for people following their formal educational experience is to rush into their careers and establish those careers. This establishingrequires much energy, and pent-up energy compelled me to move fast and furiously. This season combined these three different “establishments”: my calling, my ministry, and my home. Most people I interact with share that somewhere between years five and seven in their career, a shift begins to occur. There starts to be a career (“calling”) reassessment, part of which is accompanied by the question, is this all there is? The idealism of the launch now meets squarely with the calling—at least as it was envisioned at the moment of launch. The aspirations of transforming local congregations and local lives now meets squarely with hospital visits, church board meetings, local school fund-raising, and doing worship for the first grade. I began to detect the cycles of congregational life and saw those cycles repeating throughout time and space. As I remember one pastor observing, “Regardless of the congregation, the problems are the same. It’s just the faces that are different.”
“Being” trumps “doing”
Second, “being” trumps “doing,” while acknowledging the necessity of “knowing.” Between workers meetings and reports, local area pastors’ gatherings, and popular writings on pastoral ministry, the unspoken value that rang louder than all others was this: doing determines distance. Through all the various reporting systems I had come across, I came to believe that pastoral identity came through what I could report as “accomplished” or “done.” Of course, this aligned beautifully with my desire to “change the world for God.” The numbers of Bible studies, numbers of small groups, numbers of people fed in homeless ministries, numbers of baptisms, numbers of Signs of the Times distributed—as good as all these are—easily became the markers of my identity.
Yet, upon entering the second phase of ministry (“the post-assessment period”), I began to discover that different kinds of seminars attracted my attention, as well as different kinds of books, podcasts, and so forth. I began reading the Scriptures differently. Something was occurring at places I had not anticipated. Suddenly, what I began to discover as “being” surfaced. The reality of the soul, the feeding of the inner world, the sustenance of “being,” soon began to take hold. Along with this, my own personal family challenges emerged, as well as watching friends I knew burn out of ministry, some leaving as the result of moral failures. All these began to collude in a way as to make me reexamine a facet of ministry that, at that point, I had found largely ignored by the system at large.
Third, prescriptive ministry is a model of disappointment and heart- ache. This is the practice of gathering methodologies from a variety of successful ministries and seeking to make the local congregation the test tube for those strategies.
In my launching days of ministry, I was eager to head into congregational life and change the world for God. This necessary energy for launching into ministry would also serve as a source for future disappointment. The energy, vision, idealism, and sense of destiny easily combined to keep me occupied with the latest congregational methodology books, seminars, conferences, podcasts, and so forth. I was flooded with information but had not the prerequisite wisdom to make the information actually work. I did not find many people coming to a 26-year-old intern asking for my wisdom. Of course, I would not “learn” until later that unfortunately, wisdom comes only through processed experiences and not from idealism.
I have since learned that the yearning for congregational quick fixes, quick-growth methods, and strategies built from other congregational cultures and other denominations are not the solutions to what ails most congregations. This prescriptive model of pastoral ministry easily became a crutch and a distraction from doing the necessary hard work of listening to what already was present in our midst. Yes, the gathering of data is important but occupies only one part of the congregational/organizational dynamic.
The life of a pastor
Fourth, the life of a pastor must be understood against the backdrop of lifelong learning. As inferred above, part of the idealism of younger pastors is a requisite for leaving the nest of formalized education and heading out into the yet-to-be-conquered world of congregational ministry. And as such, we who are along in years must cease from our complaining and “concerning” and spend more time building, strengthening, and encouraging. The amount of debt these new entries carry into their first districts would stagger most of us further along the journey. This issue of lifelong learning, as pastors, cannot be underestimated. The assumptions born within the context of a certain season of life do shed light regarding the issues of learning, leading, and evangelizing. More often than not, whether through our local pastors’ meetings, classes taken as continuing education units, or engaging with online learning, there is very little in the way of understanding the impact seasonal-life issues carry into these various delivery systems. What would it be like to gather pastors together on a regular basis who are at the same seasonal mile marker in their journey? To take a lifelong approach to learning will do much to improve the being, knowing, and doing sides of pastoral ministry.
Fifth, pastors, especially newly placed pastors out of seminary, must not do life and ministry alone. I love the fearlessness with which many of these new pastors enter into ministry as they seek to follow the call of God. I experienced this recently when I gave one class an assignment that centers on them examining various “leadership moments” in our history and write up a case-study leadership assessment. What subjects did they cover? The Kellogg crisis, the response of many Adventist leaders to the rise of the Third Reich in prewar Germany, the question of homosexuality from the perspective of leadership, the topic of woman’s ordination (not from a theological perspective but through the eyes of organizational learning and leadership), the question of separate conferences, and the unbelievably delicate subject of how our system handles sexual indiscretion. What these responses indicate is the fearlessness with which this cohort willingly tackles the tough stuff of life and ministry. This is to be applauded, not discarded or marginalized. I find it an unbelievable privilege to minister alongside these fearless colleagues.
Models of leadership
Sixth, our models of leadership must evolve if ministry will continue to grow in effectiveness. The command- and-control model of leadership carried within our system of pastoral ministry cannot withstand the relentless cry pastors have for encouragement. New pastors, while facing similar challenges of launching into the pastoral workforce that I faced when I started in ministry, will not stick around long enough to fi true community within the pastoral workforce. Their sources for pastoral calling companionship are far more vast than most of us experience. They will not do life and ministry alone. If they feel that the support systems and structure are stronger outside the fellowship of our faith-tradition, they will run there.
While much of their launching experience may reflect the age-appropriate experiences of those of us who launched decades ago, their loyalty to stay within the system and work through the system is far from staunch. They will pursue wherever they sense is the call of God— even if it leads them away from the formal structures of pastoral ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They will launch their own ministry (perhaps around a social media or online outlet) or simply disappear into the darkness of discontent and disillusionment. This is especially true for those who enter ministry with a tremendous amount of unprocessed and, therefore, unproductive pain—something that is a generational hazard.
God is in control
Seventh, God is in control. Perhaps this is the most freeing and fear-reducing force I have observed throughout this quarter century. The reality of God’s activity, present before I arrive at a congregation and after I leave, frees me from believing that congregational life and ministry begin and end with me. God works through all of pastoral life and ministry—not just the programs, sermons, evangelistic campaigns, board meetings, school programs, etc. I know this sounds ratter obvious, but God works with or without me. I am amazed through the journey of ministry to see people grow deeper in their faith in my absence!
A tension exists between the decades-generated pastoral dependency that many congregations have developed and the reality that God is in control and works through the Spirit-planted gifts in the life of a local congregation. The issue of pastoral dependency by local congregations and pastoral identity cannot be mitigated by a program but requires transformative work. As difficult as I have found it, God is in control as much with heavy, pastorally dependent congregations as He is with less dependent congregations. God works. Period.
Twenty-five years ago, I never would have imagined that I would be at this perch looking out over the landscape of calling, life, and ministry. I have come to believe that perhaps the greatest proof of the existence of a God is the existence of His church. There is no way we would exist as a people if we had not been carried by Him. I have found, to my shame, that He works more often despite me than through me. And in this return to this “first place,” I hear echoes from the voice of poet T. S. Eliot in his timeless words a century ago, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”* And here, in this place, I pray God can provide through me another place for future generations of pastoral leaders to encounter the faithfulness of God dynamically living through me and, yes, perhaps, know Him for the first time.
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