Ministry with Fear and Trembling

Brandon Pierce


When my office door is shut it’s not necessarily for the concentration or quiet, though that helps when the mental workload needs to get done. Its more because I’m introverted and a little shy, though I like people (especially the nice ones). I do much better—internally and externally—when I can have the smallest bit of control over my social interaction. These are typical circumstances. I like people (doth he protest too much?), but I like them better when they schedule appointments.

Sometimes my door is shut for more harrowing reasons. It’s because I don’t like you right now. Not “you” dear reader, I’m sure “you’re” a perfectly amicable person whose company I’d never despise. But be in ministry long enough (and it doesn’t take long for most) and you’ll find yourself sitting behind a door in a mood that ranges from brooding to apathetic. It goes without saying that these are not ideal circumstances. They do not make for healthy or effective ministry. On a list of “best practices” one will not find ‘internal screaming’ or ‘ignore, postpone, delay, and otherwise detest people and/or responsibilities’.

In graduate school we would go over these case studies where a particular crisis situation in ministry would be put forward with as much detail as could be represented in writing. But a factor that is hard to represent is the mental or emotional energy at one’s disposal. We would always just assume that we would take that same untested motivation we had in school and throw it at the problem at hand. We did not take into account, for instance, that this might be the third or fourth or tenth time you’ve had to deal with some nonsense, or how the circumstances of a ministry as a whole might be so demotivating that problems with “simple” solutions from a technical or detached perspective now become very complicated.

We can call this a symptom of burnout, or perhaps even depression, but it does not have to be reduced to such extremes. Often it is just the reality of this ‘job’ that is more than a job. It is one thing, I think, to work a job for a paycheck. It is another thing to believe in the value of one’s work and of the organization one works for as a whole. And it is a wholly other thing for one’s work to be intertwined with the core of one’s belief system and social community. Ministry is work whose value transcends paycheck and career and ambition. The personal and emotional and psychic investment does not come without cost. So, one can find oneself facing a problem with readily available solutions, and one with existential import, but which one nevertheless cannot summon the willingness to execute. The flesh is able, but the spirit is weak.

In these circumstances I am drawn back to that timeless 6th century pastoral manual, The Book of Pastoral Rule by Gregory the Great. In the opening pages Gregory offers a warning:

“Now, so that no one may believe that these burdens [of spiritual leadership/ministry] are light, I write the present book to express my opinion of the severity of their weight so that he who is free of these burdens might not recklessly pursue them and he who has already attained them might tremble for having done so.”[1]

This warning is an important prelude to the heart of Gregory’s Rule in chapter 3 which concerns ‘how the spiritual director who lives well should teach and advise the laity’. This section, the longest of the four, is composed of a series of complementary binaries: men/women, young/old, rich/poor, that allows Gregory to organize the details of his pastoral wisdom. Nothing he says is common sense or obvious, it’s a treasury of hard-earned wisdom. But in the end it has that feel of the seminarian’s case-study. If X is the case, then just do Y; simple, clean, and practical solutions only to the untrained and untried. Read by themselves we lose sight of how difficult it is to do what needs to be done, to overcome mental exhaustion and emotional fatigue, to resist bitterness and resentment, to fight through apathy and the desire to give up and move on to what must be greener pastures. The reality is that every aspect of ministry, every problem or crisis no matter how small or large, is exasperated by the unique personal and spiritual toll of the ministerial vocation.

Gregory warns us at the beginning of his book that things will appear easy, but are indeed quite difficult. And he concludes with another important admission of frailty:

“Alas I am like a poor painter who tries to paint the ideal man. I am trying to point others to the shore of perfection, as I am tossed back and forth by the waves of sin. But in the shipwreck of this life, I beg you to sustain me with the plank of your prayers, so that your merit-filled hands might lift me up, since my own weight causes me to sink.”[2]

As with any great problem there are no easy solutions. I find sequestering myself in an office can be therapeutic, but it can also create opportunities for wounds to fester. Other practices can be helpful: prayer, mentorships, examen (especially done with the supervision of a competent spiritual director). Letting time do its healing work can be helpful, especially when one has the wherewithal to know when emotional energy is running low and a retreat needs to be made before mistakes are. A sacred commitment to excellence, to the community, to the good of the church and to honoring the image of God within one another will at the very least help to stifle actions in poor judgment. Sober self-assessment can shortcut excessive self-pity. None of this is a cure, just medicine (sometimes preventative) for the disease when it sets in.

If I have a point here it is to shed light on a reality many of us in ministry are all-too-familiar with, but is not often addressed. Perhaps we feel we risk too much by suggesting we are human too. I’m sure it applies in different degrees to other vocations as well.

Perhaps a point that follows if is that this phenomenon of the relationship of ministry to mental or emotional energy is ultimately an issue that calls our attention to the mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual work required of a minister—and therefore about the kind of person a minister must aspire to be. In order to be capable of facing and enduring this challenge a minister must possess certain personal and spiritual resources and wisdom and support networks. This is not to say that clergy must be heroic or naively self-reliant, but it is to say that a minister must work hard to cultivate qualities—ultimately graces—which will sustain them in this dogged vocation.

Gregory’s Rule consists of four parts. Three out of the four focus on the minister herself: the first concerns the qualifications of a minister, the second concerns the expectations of how a minister should conduct themselves publicly and privately, the last part concerns how the minister should keep their ego in check. Gregory recognizes that to exercise the skills and wisdom of practical ministry a minister must be themselves up to the task. The challenge of ministry and emotional energy is a challenge to the preparedness and continuing work a minister must do for and on themselves. It demands the attention of a qualified and wise spiritual director, it merits the occasional (or regular) help of mental health professionals, it makes the need for mentorships all the more evident. This dilemma asserts the simple fact that good, healthy, effective ministry requires the minister to have something more than a passion for God—not elitist or self-righteous or heroic or unable to present flaws—but mature and supported. It asks that the minister be a little less fragile, less egotistical, more wise and discerning, strong in their vulnerability, having a willingness to better themselves and get the help they need to do so.

Training is indispensable in this process, but no training will be sufficient. This phenomenon is as much a catalyst for growth in ministry as it is a challenge to it. This suffering reveals to us what we need and grants us the occasion to find it. As Paul writes, our salvation—here understood in terms of our increasing likeness to Jesus—is to be worked out “with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13). It is not a stretch to suggest that our ministry as well must be worked out with fear and trembling. We recognize in this insight that we will inevitably and regularly face overpowering moments that God and the graces God makes available to us are at work within us, making us tremble not in fear but in awe as we are given the chance to become worthy of the tasks given to us.

[1] Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007), 27.

[2] Ibid., 212.

Brandon Pierce graduated with a BA in Biblical Studies (’08) and an MA in Theology (’12) from Abilene Christian University. He is now the Senior Minister at the Stamford Church of Christ in Stamford, Connecticut.