How do we think we will make it? To be clear, I am not talking about salvation. I am talking about our expectations for life in ministry. After we graduate from college, get ordained or commissioned, brighteyed and full of hope at how God will work to build his church, what do we really think will happen?
We have a few options of course. We can look around and see ministers who have fallen into devastating sin, abusing money, power, and sex. Clearly not a highlight for the yearbook. If not that, we could burn out and retire within a few years, or maybe, just maybe, we hang in there and hope that Jesus comes back soon. Like next week?!
I recently saw a photo of thirty or so people whom I studied at theological college with. Some of them graduated with me or around the same time, all within the last 10 years. Of that group, one had to leave ministry because they were disqualified for moral failure, one left because the burden was too great and they burnt out, and four others were continuing on but badly bruised by the impact of other clerics. I count myself as one of the bruised. And of the thirty, I have lost touch with at least half so their stores are unknown to me.
What are we to do? How are we to survive ministry? Honestly, I don't even just want to survive, just hanging in there one more day. I want to thrive, and not because I want glory, but because I want my family to not see me as someone broken by what is the hope of the nations, and I don't want to see myself as another carcass behind someone else's bus.
So as I limp and seek Christ's healing, here are some things that I am learning. I don't have all the answers but I hope this is helpful to you.
ONE. Cling to Christ's call to follow him into salvation and TWO. Cling to Christ’s call to follow him into his mission. It is purely a gift of grace that I still call Jesus my king and saviour. We grieve as pastors when people share their stories of how the church has hurt them and how they have walked away. It is only God’s grace that my story is different. And not only has God kept me in the vine but he still calls me to lead his church, a wounded pastor. So with great thanks, I cling to this dual call. We don’t want to be one of those stories of pastors who walk away from Jesus, so with me, strive to nurture our faith, seek healing, grow in prayer and biblical devotion, and keep trusting in God to lead us in our ministry. If God can save Paul from a stoning and a shipwreck, what can a bully do?!
THREE. Gather people around you who are there to bless you. We know we can't do it alone but I think practically we can often live as if that is the case. Ministry is isolating in how it changes how we live and serve others in God's family, so we need to be proactive to gather people around us who are there for us, mentors, counsellors, peers, mental health professionals, etc. Right now I think the more the merrier!! So call your GP or EAP, get a mental health care plan and get support. Call a pastor who is a little bit older than you, a bit further along in their journey, and ask them to mentor you, to care for your soul.
One of God's great gifts to me is a peer group filled with other Gospel ministers. Some of us are in church ministry, some in campus ministry, and some in theological education. Our singular purpose is to be there with each other as we take the hits of ministry and to encourage each other to keep clinging to Christ and his call on our lives to lead his church and to proclaim the gospel.
If you don't have a peer group and a mentor, I can't impress on you how invaluable they are. It is priceless to know there are others who are with you, others who are praying for you, and that there are others you can go to and offload your situation without judgment or offence. I have ministered in a multi-staffed team and now on my own, and in each church, I have needed people outside of my ministry context to whom I can cry out, safe people who love me and are with me. And at times, this love has been hard truthful words that I didn’t want to hear. We need people who we can share our deepest struggles with so that the pulpit is not our moment of self-care but a moment of sharing how Jesus has triumphed (definitely needs to be past tense) over our scars.
Practically what this looks like in my peer group is that we go away on retreat each year to debrief our year of ministry, to pray deeply for each other, and to reflect on our ministry by discussing a helpful resource. We also share prayer points throughout the year for our ministry but mostly for each other in ministry, our own faithfulness, holiness, struggles, and of course joys, ministry isn’t all bad! At times we also call each other for counsel as we are confronted with challenges and help each other reflect in practice.
There is a joy that comes from fostering deep fellowship with others, a joy that is a comfort during the isolation and struggles of being a jar clay. So let’s carry this treasure together, for the glory of our Lord Jesus and for our joy and peace and thriving.
Samuel Crane is Priest-in-charge of St James Glen Iris, Victoria.