Here is the temptation for all ministers: We listen so intently to …
the inner voice of the church,
the angry voice of parishioners,
the painful voice of hurting people,
the empty voice of bureaucracy,
the distant voice of uncertainties,
the unheard voice of unrecognized people…
We listen so intently to the voices of others, that we forget the sound of our own inner voice. “Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a lonely place where he prayed” (Mark 1:15). When, where, and how do you listen to your inner voice from God? These are common questions and concerns. Perhaps there is a more significant question: Why do you listen for the inner voice, the voice of God?
We believe that if we could escape the demands and the confusion we would be better at listening, we would be more spiritual. However, spirituality is not escape. Spirituality is an invitation into life, full life in Christ with all the joys, troubles, ease, and burdens of daily existence. Listening keeps us alive. One of my favorite quotes is from Howard Thurman:
Don’t do what the world needs you to do,
find out what keeps you alive and do that,
for what the world needs is you alive.
I love the quote, but I especially love the practicality of it. Try this: replace the word “world” with the word “church.”
Don’t do what the Church needs you to do,
find out what keeps you alive and do that, because…
…the Church needs you, vitally alive in your spirit
…the Church needs you, filled with well-being in body, mind, and soul
…the Church needs you, healthy in relationships at home and at church
…the Church needs you, developing personally and professionally
…the Church needs you, filly alive in the Spirit of Christ Jesus.
Let me share a story of a pastor, who was also a friend and student who was in the doctor of ministry program I directed some years ago. He sent me a letter stating he was going to drop out of the program, “I have no passion for it anymore.” I asked him to come and see me before he made his final decision. He agreed, which was quite a sacrifice because it was a four hour drive from his home to the school.
My purpose was to provide a safe place. Over lunch he unburdened his soul. It was a sad tale of church politics, stubborn ways, and broken promises. My friend, like many ministers, was tired, angry, and fearful. This was his calling and carrier; it was crashing around him. Leaders in the denomination who could help him ignored his pain. Those he served in his parish were hurting him at every decision. He was in a disappointing mess.
He reached the end of the lament and we sat in silence for a moment. I had such deep identification with the situation. My heart flooded with empathy. Yet, I felt an inner nudge to ask a question, a rather pointed question, “What is it about this disappointing mess that is significant to you?”
He accepted the question as a reasonable request and answered with utter authenticity, “Dr. Parrott, there’s more to me than this mess and there is more to ministry than this mess.”
Building on his answer, I pushed a little deeper, “What is in that phrase ‘something more’ that is significant to you?”
With that question, something sparked and I could see the fire that jumped into his eyes. He declared with renewed conviction, “I am a partner with Jesus Christ.” He pushed himself back into his chair, sat up straight and continued, “I am passionate about Jesus.” Could this be the same pastor who wrote, “I have no passion left.”
I pushed once more, “What is it about being a passionate partner with Jesus that is important to you?”
Out of his heart spilled all the possibilities of ministry, the challenge to make a difference, the vision of Christ working in him and through him. We rejoiced together at rediscovered passion. Then, I pushed one last time as I put a hand on each side of the table and said, “Here, on this side, is the disappointing mess of ministry and here, on the other side is the passionate possibility in Christ.” I placed my finger on the spot in between the two, looked him right in the eye and asked, “What is it about living right here that is significant to you.”
He drew a deep breath and went, “That’s where I have to find God, isn’t it?”
“That’s where God will find you” I responded, “and that’s your doctoral project. I know you came to drop out and you may choose to never finish the doctoral program, but this challenge we have discussed, this is your project for the rest of your life and ministry: being alive in Christ as you minister between the disappointments and the possibilities.”
Fast forward two years. I was sitting at one end of the conference table. My friend, now a doctoral candidate, is seated at the other end of the table with seminary facility on both sides. He was defending his dissertation entitled Overcoming Disappointment in Ministry.
This was his project: He interviewed pastors who were in the midst of disappointments and pastors who had overcome disappointment. This is what he discovered about pastors who overcome the disappointments of ministry:
- The pastors who overcome disappointment have a regular pattern of spiritual discipline. They pray, retreat, find support from other ministers, and care for their souls.
- The pastors who overcome disappointment have a pattern of self care. In addition to soul-care, care for physical needs. They exercise, eat properly, and take time off.
- The pastors who overcome disappointment have a support group that is outside the church. It is a group where they are not the pastor.
Ministry is always a mixture of disappointment and possibility. You receive blows from hardened parishioners as well as experience the rushing wind of the Spirit. You rejoice with those who find new life and cry over those who refuse the vitality of God’s presence. You regret your own mistakes and poor judgment and bow in amazement when God uses you despite your own weakness and folly. However, beneath all you do in and for the ministry, the essential priority is to remain fully alive in Christ. This is your primary task as God’s called one.
Don’t do what the church needs you to you do,
find out what keeps you alive and do that,
because what the church needs is you full of life in Christ Jesus.
Copyright © Richard Leslie Parrott, Ph.D.