I have been wondering lately how I have made it through 22 years of full time pastoral ministry with my love for ministry still intact. So many who go into pastoral ministry only make it a short time. Pastors can feel ineffective, unappreciated and can often experience ministry as an adversarial relationship with a congregation.
For what they are worth, here are 6 things that I can identify as having sustained me in this work I continue to love.
1. Get a life! That is, a spiritual life. Just because we spend our days talking ABOUT faith or God or the Way of Jesus doesn't mean we actually live by faith, connect to God or follow the way of Jesus. As pastors, people often give us more credit than we deserve for being spiritual people. Being a pastor is an endurance sport. We need a life steeped in spiritual practices to make it very far.
2. When you look at the congregation, see the Body of Christ. If you find you don't see the Body of Christ, beware. Get new lenses. Go on retreat. Talk with someone who loves pastoral ministry. When we slip into cynicism in our relationship with a congregation, we become like nagging parents or snobbish neighbors, giving off the "vibe" that if people would just do it our way, they could become what they clearly are not now. If you believe the Body of Christ was there before you arrives, you will be surprised by the gifts of the spirit that your joy will evoke.
3. Recognize when people see you, their history with God, Jesus and the church flashes before their eyes. When you walk into a hospital room or meet a disgruntled church member you are not just you. You, for good and ill, remind them of their love or hate for God, their embrace or rejection by a church, their shame or joy in how they have lived their life. This is a gift to you --an opening for ministry. But it is easy to mistake for a reaction to you personally.
4. Preach to yourself. What do you need to hear from a particular text? How does it challenge and embarrass you? How does it rearrange your thinking or dash your hopes? Preaching is not so much deciding what "they need to hear (meaning I'm really off the hook)," but what do we need to hear together?
5. Practice curiosity. Curiosity is a marvelous antidote to defensiveness. When someone seems unhappy with you, the church, the session's decision, the changes in worship, go deeper. Find out what's worrying them, what gives them joy, what life in community means to them. Explanations and justifications can leave the conversation cold and unsatisfying for everyone.
6. Ask for help. We spend our days trying to get communities of faith to support each other and reach out for help. Then we put ourselves in some kind of special category as people who should know how to carry out the tasks of ministry alone. There is help everywhere. I have called seminary professors to help me with sermons, seasoned pastors to help me plan session agendas, psychologists to help me address issues of addiction, nuns to help me create a spirituality among church leadership. I have also learned to deeply trust the wisdom within the congregation, to tell the leaders honestly about struggles in ministry, to gather a trusted team to deal with serious personnel issues, and to invite presbytery assistance in times of conflict. People want to help you succeed and appreciate the opportunity to offer wisdom and insight, to be treated as members of the "priesthood of all believers."