It seems that just about every week I get a call from a younger person in ministry asking me for advice about pastoring. This is strange for me. Even though I’ve been in ministry for over twenty years, most days I still feel like a novice. I suppose the male pattern baldness and greying hair make me appear as if I know more than I really do.
Below is a letter I wrote to a young man in ministry who reached out to me for advice about some uncertainty he had begun to feel about his calling.
For those of us who have been in this line of work for a long time, the letter may be a good reminder of the things that stoked those coals within us so long ago, leading us into a life of love and service to people.
For those who are new, the letter may help us see what lies ahead, so that when it arrives we can remember that we are not alone, that many have gone before us experiencing the very same, and that we can find strength through a shared identity that only a few really understand.
Hey man –
Just wanted to follow up about our call last night and reassure you that you aren’t crazy, nor are you thinking thoughts that any of us in ministry-work don’t think from time to time.
We get into this game because of “mountaintop experiences.” We sense a deep responsibility for people and a love for them we can’t quite put into words. It is wonderfully overwhelming.
The longer we are in this line of work though, we see that we are half-hearted creatures. We are walking contradictions. We get tired. We lose hope. We see the “back rooms” of the faith and the many within it who have chosen to spend their time and energy making this all about something that it’s not.
Ministers from every generation in every part of the world have struggled with this since, well… forever.
Not a single Epistle in the New Testament is void of squabbles over theology, philosophy about ministry, or infighting in the church. These things are there in scripture to show us that even those closest to Jesus had the same struggles.
Our job is to keep pointing people back to the Source and to see the bigger picture.
Know that it is the initial “mountaintop experience” that gets us in the door, but we ultimately only stay in because we realize there’s just nothing else we have to do. We were born for this.
Of course there are the paradoxes of the long days, the strain that showing love to our church family puts on our own family, and the fact that we are learning, growing beings- just as those we lead are also growing and learning.
This is all grace.
Perhaps ministry isn’t about us having a solidified, repeatable formula with which we save the world. Maybe our true calling is to be humble people who are learning alongside those that we teach.
We have so much to learn from each other, and none of us have the full picture or the finished product. We need each other. We also need each other’s struggles.
When Sundays are terrible or our stats are not what we want them to be, remember that these things are carrots on sticks. The best stats in the world will never be enough. We will always want more. What we are in control of, and what our goal should be, is to work as diligently as we are able with humility and love. If we do this, may the stats be what they are.
Know God. Get to know him more every day, even when he seems to be silenced by your approaches. Sometimes silence is exactly what we need from God. It keeps us searching.
Never let your work stifle your prayer and meditation times. Put them first, above all else.
When the inner “politics” of ministry seem to hijack your schedule for weeks at a time, make sure that you are caring for the people in your community who haven’t been pulled into the mess. People who are new in the faith will refresh your spirit and remind you why what you are doing matters.
A man named Richard Alpert once said,
“I HELP PEOPLE AS A WAY TO WORK ON MYSELF, AND I WORK ON MYSELF TO HELP PEOPLE… TO ME, THAT’S WHAT THE EMERGING GAME IS ALL ABOUT.”
I find this to be more true with each passing year.
We need the people that we minister to as much as they need us. This is about a human family wherein we see God at work through all of us.
Whether you believe it or not, you are in a very good place. You are being detoxed of the idea that ministry is about fame, superstars, book deals, recording contracts, money, or feelings of pride about how wonderful you are (or can become).
None of us are wonderful. We are just people trying to get through life. This is where God lives- in the everyday.
You are realizing that the only thing that will ever keep you going is your love for people, and this is the true “mountaintop experience.” All others are just smokescreens.
Ryan is the Lead Pastor of Forefront Church in Manhattan, New York City. Forefront is a vibrant, growing faith community dedicated to cultivating a just and generous expression of the Christian Faith in New York City and around the world.
Ryan also serves as the Director of Communications at Convergence, a parachurch network building a multi-denominational movement of progressive congregations and leaders.
Learn more about Ryan at ryanphipps.com