“So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done’” (Luke 17:10)
The training for ministry culminates in the service of ordination. The high point of this ceremony, though, is not necessarily what you would expect. The service of ordination does not pinnacle with the ordinand casting off the burdens of schooling. And neither does the rite crest with the elevation of the individual from prospective pastor to fully-fledged reverend.
On the contrary, the apex of every ordination takes place when the ordinand is kneeling down. What’s more, neither does the candidate for ministry take a knee to receive any laurels. No, the initiant kneels so that other pastors might come forward and place their hands upon them.
I can still recall that moment myself. It was humbling to have all those clergy I admired gathered ‘round to put their hands on my shoulder. However, it soon became clear they were leaning in with all the weight and wonder they accrued over their years of service. It was heavy. But at the same time, it was also somehow weightless, too.
I remember how surprised I was that all their hands didn’t weigh heavy upon me. That was one of my first “hands-on” experiences of Jesus’ faithfulness when it comes to ministry. In the life of the church, Jesus is the one who does the heavy lifting.
I recently observed the tenth anniversary of my ordination. And I’m here to tell you, those experiences of Jesus putting in the hard work are not the anomaly. Rather, they are the norm. These instances occur with startling regularity.
We are regularly told that ministry is burdensome. And I have to admit I’ve experienced ministry as a crucible. Yet ministry isn’t difficult. If and when it is difficult, I’ve found it’s because I’ve made it harder than it needs to be.
I know that sounds provocative. And the old satanic foe is all too happy to help make ministry all the more vexing. My point still holds, though. And if that isn’t enough, I’d like to suggest that the main thing mucking up the pastoral gig is professionalism.
Yes, professionalism. I know; it doesn’t seem like anything could be wrong with the desire to do a job competently. But when it comes to Christ’s ministry, it’s truly a beginner’s mistake. The aspiration to be perfectly capable in the ministry is utterly antithetical to what makes ministry work.
I, myself, have felt the pull to this impulse. And, unhappily, have indulged it more than I care to admit, too. I can speak from my own experience of the miserable martyrdom-complex professionalism breeds. That said, I can also bear witness to the miraculous ease of ministry Christ seems to play fast and loose with, too. And it usually begins at the last place the pastor who desires to be well-qualified wants to look: the laity.
Honestly, the folks who really bear a burden on Sunday mornings are the ones who walk through the church doors without being paid. I’m talking about, of course, the members. Pastors do themselves no favors when they consider parishioners as problems to be solved. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that until a pastor has perfected themselves, they ought to avoid the impulse to treat a congregation like their pet project.
I hope it goes without saying that I speak from personal experience here. But on that note, I can also say I’ve learned the flip side of the lesson too. The sooner I quit trying to be the professional Christian in the room, the faster the call gets a whole lot more fun. And that much easier, too!
I’ve experienced firsthand the promise that God never leaves a congregation empty-handed. There is always an embarrassment of riches shuffling through the church doors on any given Sunday. Most members are more capable than pastors give them credit. After all, each member has a lifetime of experience in their God-given vocations. The skills and insights these folks have amassed over the years are an enormous reservoir of resources clergy would be foolish not to utilize.
But that’s not all. First of all, those tasks that the clergy are explicitly called upon to perform are the ones God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit have promised to show up and help out with, too! Second, the folks who darken the church doors are truly a delight to be around.
The Christians who walk through the church doors at their own expense come with a strange sense of the hand of God in their life. And if a pastor trusts that intuition, folks will turn around and open up about it in return. In fact, members will even invite the minister into the deepest, most closely held, and holiest moments of their life. And, when the going gets rough, that witness can keep a pastor going through the darkest nights of the soul. When the members open up to their pastor, it’s the members who minister to the minister.
At ten years of being in Christ’s ministry, I don’t feel like I’ve done much. Honestly, I feel like I’m the one who’s gotten the free ride. And if I have anything to share, it would be my regrets.
I regret my arrogance. I regret being unkind to members. I regret no longer seeing folks who have left the congregation for any number of reasons. And I regret that I can no longer worship in the flesh with all those who have been called home.
There is no silver bullet when it comes to ministry. But there are things that help. What’s more, these are things anyone can do. For instance, when you lay eyes on a sister or brother in Christ, remind yourself of two things.
God is perfectly capable of working with that nothing we are constantly drawn toward.
First of all, remember this person is a sinner—just like you. Everyone is struggling with the same besetting bend toward nihilo. Don’t take it personally when someone is driving you up the wall. No one ever means to be more difficult than you have been on your own worst days.
This simple reminder has the capacity to extend your fuse infinitely. And it can also provide an endless supply of empathy, too. This empathy has the power not only to surprise the offending party, it can even surprise you. And if that wasn’t enough, extending a bit of this understanding can even help you to see the merit in a disagreeable person’s arguments. Truthfully, some of the most profound insights have come from the mouth of someone I couldn’t have disagreed with more.
And second, remember that these are sisters and brothers in Christ who could be taken away at any moment. Each one of our lives is infinitely more fragile than we know. And so are our relationships. When we deal with one another, we are handling something as valuable as it is breakable.
Yes, this observation can drive a person to madness. And no, we shouldn’t be driven by the fear that we might do or say the wrong thing. Nevertheless, there is also no reason we shouldn’t try and treat others with the dignity God has seen fit to bestow upon us all.
But the real reason we shouldn’t be driven by fear is that God is a specialist with nihilo. God is perfectly capable of working with that nothing we are constantly drawn toward. He can take all our failures and shortcomings and use them for his ministry.
The gift of reconciliation is one that’s readily available to us all. We can all, in Christ, ask for forgiveness. And even better, we can drop our grudges, too. And finally, even if death should cut our attempts at mercy short, it will not stop Christ.
On the great last day, Christ will raise us all up. And on that day, by his own power, Christ will complete his ministry himself. When that happens, we will finally and fully see one another (and ourselves) as that which we always strove after, from God’s perspective.
And that’s not all, either. Because when we behold all that for ourselves, we will also see how simple it all was all along. And this is not just true for clergy. It’s true for all of us, including you.