Beginning my 21styear with the Graduate School of Theology I am reminded again how wonderful it is to welcome new students who are seeking advanced training for all sorts of ministry endeavors. Whether it be preaching, pastoral care, social justice initiatives, missions, or other forms of service, students come with expectations of success in keeping with their calling. Such eagerness encourages me to renew my faith.
However, the news reports another scandal and the Pew Report details the decline of respect. My email messages remind me of strugglers who are seeking encouragement as they experience the heartaches of their ministerial vocation. My LinkedIn informs me of another alumni of our program who has quit. The change in job is not so much “greener pastures” but from a bruised and broken calling. Therefore, the much needed existence of the Ministry Support Network deals with the ever-constant enemy of burn out. And I’m reminded that a “long road” is a common metaphor for ministry. Terms like “hill, rut, pothole, detour, exit” and others makes the metaphor rich for exploring the complexities that surround both the joy and sorrow that comes with the terrain.
In his 1985 book, Free to Speak, Cecil Hook speaks with courage about topics in his retirement he was too timid to say while employed. The final chapter (which has a better title than actual content) resonates with my experience as a minister. The chapter’s title, “Lamentations of a Mediocre Preacher” is his playful attempt to deal with discouragement. You see, the trappings of marketplace values often measure competitive success in ministry for churches. And when I dwell on those trappings, lamentations spring forth from me as well. In ministry, I use to dread “preacher meetings” or what I termed, “brag sessions” for the reports of how we were doing in ministry all said the same, “Look at me! I’m doing okay when I compare myself with you.” While Hook uses the language of a “hireling” to speak of how churches often relate to their ministry partners, the fact is employer and employee dealings often has hampered the mission of God. All the mundane corporate aspects of contracts, insurance, paychecks, role descriptions, and retirement accounts put ministers in vulnerable positions. So my critique of Hook’s timidity is tempered with my empathy. The systemic double bind squeezes many of us who need to keep food on the table. We do not have the luxury to speak as did Paul as an apostle to Corinth or Hook in retirement. Keeping a record of all the slights one receives in ministry might lead to a humorous chapter about the job, but “lamentations” is the better word. As Hook recounts several stories of humor, affronts, snubs, and unrealistic expectations, you realize that his tongue in his cheek is massaging a deeper wound. Ministry is a long road.
Most of us who enter ministry will never have our names remembered among the elite. While editing the book, The Living Pulpit: Sermons that Illustrate Preaching in the Stone-Campbell Movement 1968-2018, I made sure there were sermons from folks who serve small churches. While the temptation to only include sermons from the famous would make us look good in the eyes of our peers, it would not be representative of our churches. And the most successful preachers are the ones no one knows outside the county lines. They define success by their lifetime faithfulness to a ministry while turning a deaf ear to the lure of greener pastures. They are described by words like “hope, hardiness, perseverance, peace, joy, and determined.” They, like Paul, pour out their lives as an offering. I won’t say, “Let their tribe increase,” for their tribe is already substantial. May their testimony be more present in my ministry.
How do I keep myself encouraged during these days of comparisons, regrets, and discouragements? My faith is renewed every semester when new students describe their calling into ministry. The hope that prepares these hearts for God’s service is a wonder to behold. And I’m learning more and more stories from a growing list of stalwarts of the faith whose calling is coming to fruition. They exemplify resilience and joy on the long road. Both the beginners and the enders of the journey teach me that God blesses and does not keep a record of the slights. While the hurts are hard to forget, the blessings far out number them all. If God is for me…