Ministry is hard.
That’s all there is to it. It is a hard life, a hard job, and a hard road to walk.
We ministers often joke that we wouldn’t wish this lot on our worst enemy… and yet, most of us wouldn’t trade it in for the world. When we encounter people who tell us they “want to be a preacher”, we are quick to tell them they are crazy and no one wants to be a preacher. But when we meet someone who says they are called to be a preacher, we are the first to open our arms and take that person under our wings. Our protective instincts kick in, and we hope to prepare them for the bubble-bursting reality of ministry while hoping to protect them from some of the mistakes we have made.
So, if someone were to approach me and ask me what my advice to a person considering ministry would be, I would offer these points:
- You’ve got to have a big heart to be in ministry. You have to love your flock, even when they don’t love you. You have to love the unlovable. You have to love the people who don’t want your love. But that much love comes with a price tag. It will cost you. To open your heart that much means it will broken from time-to-time. You may find yourself in places and times when all you can do is weep from your soul. But no matter how much it might hurt, you’ve got to keep loving. After all, Jesus loved us right up to the cross, didn’t he?
- Big hearts mean you will be hurt. A lot. So you need thick skin. You need to be able to take an insult. You need to be able to handle harsh criticism that doesn’t even border on being constructive. Jesus told us to turn the other cheek… that isn’t always easy to do (maybe never easy), but we’ve got to do it. Because if we return our every hurt for hurt, everyone suffers. Sometimes we just have to toughen up and bear the brunt of the pain ourselves.
- But don’t become callous. There is a difference between being thick-skinned and being calloused. You must never stop feeling for your flock, for the people your serve. The people who lash out at you over and over again must always be in your heart… but if you callous yourself to them, you won’t be able to let them in.
- Failure is common. Don’t let it discourage you. Ministry is a lot like baseball. You might take a swing ten times and only get three hits. If this were a test, 30% would be reason enough to hold you back a year. But this isn’t a test. This is baseball. And 30% is a .300 average and that is amazing! Babe Ruth, the very Sultan of Swat, batted .342… and he’s long been considered one of the best ever. Don’t be discouraged by failure. Dig in. Get a grip. And stare down the next opportunity. Because even if you only connect three out of every ten times, you are already the Babe Ruth of ministry!
- Focus on the best. Instead of dwelling on the things that are most hurtful, most destructive, most distracting, look for the good in people. Mr. Rogers once famously told us to “look for the helpers” in scary situations. Those people are always present. Even in the darkest valleys you will find a warm embrace, a kind word, and a hopeful spirit. Let those things be the focus of your vision, because in those things you will see God shining.
- Although this is a hard job, it is a rewarding job. Even on your worst day, you will know that you have done some good in this world. When you live in the light of Christ, you can’t go to bed without knowing that even out of your worst moments, Christ can breathe a spirit of resurrection and new life. And nothing feels better than seeing that.
- People will let you down. But before you get too discouraged, remember that you are human, too. And as a human you have more than likely let your people down from time-to-time. Don’t be afraid to hear those concerns. But be gentle about how you express that same concern to others.
- Be ready to live in a fishbowl. I have been very blessed in that every church I have had the pleasure of serving has been excellent about respecting my privacy. And even so, there is still a fishbowl element to my life. I’ve found it’s not so bad. If you truly know who you are and are willing to be honest about that, there will never be anything for people to catch you off-guard with. Just be true to who you are, who God made you… and be aware everyone is looking.
- Take the phone off the hook every once in a while. In my first year of ministry it seemed everything terrible happened while I was out of town. I would rush back to tend to those who were ill or injured or struggling… I convinced myself that I couldn’t disconnect from the community, even for a moment. As a single pastor without children, my personal sense of duty caused me to feel ashamed if I spent a day at home. But that is nothing more than a fast track to burnout. The world won’t end if you decide to take a couple hours every morning for prayers and devotion and turn off the ringer while you do it. The church won’t fall to the ground if you take a day trip out of town. You need to be fresh and healthy and vigorous, because ministry is hard. So take a breather every once in a while!
- Be a prophet. God has called you to a ministry which includes proclaiming the Word. Don’t be afraid to speak it. Sometimes we, as pastors, worry so much about staying neutral and not rocking the boat or causing strife that we let important things left unsaid. Sometimes, what God is laying on your heart, isn’t going to be popular. But it still needs to be said.
Ministry is hard. I won’t lie to you. But if you can fully immerse yourself into the wonder of it all, if you can learn to trust Jesus to make you walk on water even in the worst of storms, amazing things will happen.
Sounds familiar… My family has ministers in every generation going back as far as anyone can remember. You describe the “life” quite eloquently.