The Challenges of Pastoral Ministry
What follows are some reflections on chapter 1 of “That Their Work Will Be a Joy”, by Cameron Lee and Kurt Fredrickson. (Amazon link: http://a.co/0lWeM08). It’s part of my first Doctorate of Ministry class at Fuller Seminary. All quotes are from the book. I wholeheartedly recommend it to everybody in ministry!
In premarital counseling, we talked to couples about idealistic distortion. Basically the idea is that both persons go into a marriage thinking that it will be perfect, joyful, blissful. They hold the other person and such a high regard and believe all of their needs and wants will be met. I lovingly try to burst that bubble.
I had some idealistic distortions about ministry. When I was younger, I thought that I only needed to have the love of Jesus in my heart and everything would be okay. I pictured myself praying, teaching, and caring for those who were seeking God. I am in my 11th year of pastoral work and am now feeling the effects of joy and challenges in ministry. I love what I do. I believe I’m called to it and that I have the skillset. But I’ve struggled with anxiety, fear of disappointing others, fear of disappointing God, not getting enough rest, focusing on the job and not the vocation.
Pastoral work is both fulfilling and challenging. There are practices that pastors can engage in order to focus and deepen on the satisfying aspects and look for ways to cope with the challenging ones. I’ve been wrestling with the challenging aspects for the last 3 years or so. And compared to other stories I’ve heard, I feel like my challenges are petty. Some of the challenges includes who I give my time and attention to. Doing pastoral work in the marketplace in a 600 employee setting has its challenges. I don’t have an administrative team. Much of my work is doing pastoral rounds throughout the company with people that don’t have a faith background. Some may not even value the pastoral presence, thinking that I’m just trying to convert them. I’m good with all of this. It’s how I can be creative in my vocation in this setting.
I’ve tried to build relationships with as many employees as I can and make myself available to those that are hurting or in crisis. There are others who want more pastoral presence via discipleship, 1-1 counseling, and mentoring.
Some want me to visit more. Others may not care. Some feel like having someone in my role onsite is a gift and are grateful. Others would care less to have someone in my vocation at a company setting, with the mindset work is for production, not presence and care. Some have engaged in dialogue, with times of attending a local church. Others have poked at me, asking me why I’m even at the company. But even the ones who could care less or have poked have become good friends and there is a deep respect both ways.
Working out my vocation has been tough and creative. It’s been very fulfilling. Trying to figure out how to stay to the vocation among people who may not value it has been tough. And yet I think that’s more about my inner trappings than external ones.
I’m experiencing joy in the midst of the challenges. I see it most when I focus on discerning God’s redemptive presence at work in people’s lives. I was moved by this quote:
Joy is first and foremost a theological issue, a question of faithful imagination and the ability to peer behind and beneath the surfaces of ministry. p. 15
I’ve been thinking more about faithfulness and creativity to the vocation the last few years. To be honest, I felt like quitting last year. We had three employees pass away within an 8 month span of each other. In 2015, there were 40+ employees who lost a loved one or a close friend. I was becoming exhausted. The work was getting larger and my pastoral rounds were diminishing. They’re a job expectation to do every day, but I wasn’t able to physically and emotionally do it. I then realized that much of my vocation is to pray, intercede, study, and practice spiritual disciplines that keep me attuned to God’s presence and activity. I also noticed that my work was changing. I was a lot more joyful about attending to certain aspects of the work and struggled with others.
At present, I’m focusing on juggling SquarePatch, my main client that I serve, and my new Fuller Seminary adventure. Trying to figure out time management for this endeavor has a been a source of prayer. I want to stay creative and curious in my vocation. Going to school, reading, learning more about the classic spiritual disciplines and formation, and practicing Sabbath are helping to do the former.
Underneath any discussion about the nurture and care of pastors in the local setting is our strong and profound conviction that God is at work in the church and the lives of his people. p.15.
This truth has saved my life…literally. I’ve had to visit the emergency room a few times when I first started this work because I thought I was having a heart attack. It turned out to be panic attacks and anxiety. I was working on the premise that I was in charge, not God. Since then, I’ve learned to trust God’s active work and learn listen, observe, and respond. God cares more about the people I serve than I do! And I care a lot about them! My focus has shifted to prayer and the three previous postures I just mentioned. I’ve seen more joy and hope when this happens.
When I think about my “marriage to ministry” and the idealistic distortion I’ve been wrestling with, it makes me wonder if it’s possible to experience joy and fulfillment in this work. Eugene Peterson has been quoted as saying that ministry is the best vocation and most joyful if we’re called to it. And that it’s filled with many challenges. A change in perspective–to look at something from different eyes–can help us to see with clarity that problems will arise, waves of change will swell, and stuff will hit the fan.
Is it possible to be joyful amidst the challenges? We believe that it is, provided that joy is not equated with the promise of continual smooth sailing or a problem-free ministry. p.16
But as we lean into the ways of Jesus, taking on His yoke and learning from him (Matt. 11:28-30), we begin to experience the greater work happening.
By far, one of my favorite lines in the book is to tease out pastoral vocation and the job of a pastor. These are two different elements, but both connected to the pastoral role.
…ministry is experienced as more burdensome when the job obscures the vocation, and is experienced as more joyful when one’s vocation is discovered and rediscovered amidst the demands of the job. p.17
I think of what originally pulled towards ministry: I get to partner with God’s redemptive purposes and presence in the world. I’m not trying to say that pastors have a better vocation than others. Certainly when I see the work of psychiatrists, medical doctors, mechanics (whom I’ve seen first hand do their holy craft), I’m in awe. For me, I feel a deep meaningful purpose in this world when I picture Jesus shoulder to shoulder with me, asking me to feed His sheep. There is a “other-worldly” type of call in pastoral work. It’s beautiful, slow, creative, and has stretched me beyond anything I’ve ever done.
Discovering and rediscovering my vocation has been a challenge. I remember about 5 years ago thinking, “Okay, I’m in the promised land. I’m doing what I always wanted to do. Now that I’m in the land of the living, what now?” I had this great opportunity to pastor people in a non-traditional setting and felt a lack of direction of where to go from that point of entry. But then I remembered that in Hebrew tradition, the word shalom was about a whole life transformation. It was about learning the ways of a God who wants humanity to flourish. So I turned my attention to aiding others to flourish in their lives.
I also feel pretty lucky to work with the people that I serve. They have showered me with gratitude, love, and care. Gerald May, a renowned psychiatrist, once said that we need to learn the art of giving and receiving in our professions; that we can be deeply gifted by those we serve. Without a doubt, I feel like I receive a lot from the work community.