PASTORING FOR THE LONG HAUL
I’ve done a few things in my life during which I wondered why I was doing this to myself. I have run in several marathons and climbed a few mountains. Both kinds of experiences mean your body depends on the training you have given it so you can maintain a healthy oxygen level. There is nothing like sucking air and hyper-ventilating to make one realize how fragile we are.
In one marathon I felt I was doing fine until an EMT stuck his head out of a passing ambulance and asked me if I needed bandages. I told him, “no.” Then I tried to figure out why he had asked me. I looked down and saw that the front of my shirt had two streams of blood on it from my shirt chaffing against my chest. I didn’t finish that race. In another marathon I lost all the feeling on the left side of my body.
When I climbed Mount Kenya I(and don’t you dare ask what country that is in) I was feeling pretty sick by the time we reached the base of the peak camp at 14,000 feet. My head hurt and I was sick to my stomach. Our guide led us to our tent and told us to get what rest we could, and he would wake us up at 2:00 am to go the rest of the way up the mountain. I dreaded the idea that we would be crossing a glacier in the dark with me feeling as bad as I was. When I awoke I felt so much better and it was joy to get to the top just at sunrise. The acclimation and rest, the hydration, all gave me renewed resources to make it all the way.
Pastoring is somewhat like a feat of endurance except in reality you will need more than your own resources. One year I asked to preach at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. I don’t even remember my text but the title was, “Six divorces and three funerals.” As I preached in chapel at my alma mater I wanted those still preparing for the ministry to know that sometimes everything seems to go wrong and fall apart, and sometimes all at once.
The early years of the 90’s were hard for me even in the midst of what looked like success. We had finally moved into a church building for which he had prayed for over a decade. We doubled in attendance in two years, from 300 to 600, and would continue to grow from there. Yet, there was some dissension in the leadership, my marriage was stressed from long term underlying problems, and I was readjusting from being mobilized and sent to war during Desert Storm. Some folks couldn’t adjust to the growth nor were they happy with what this meant for me in some relationships. I was no longer as available as I had been when we were a young struggling church plant. Stress came from expanded opportunities and blessing as well as conflict and discouraging events.
In one particular year we had some sudden and surprising deaths, including that of an infant, in the church. Then marriages seemed to start falling like dominoes. Each divorce seemed to give someone else permission to leave their spouse. No one becomes a pastor or elder because they enjoy exercising church discipline, and divorce cases are by nature divisive and that divisiveness can spread the congregation quickly as friends and relatives take sides.
So when I was asked to come preach at the seminary I knew that I would just have to lay it out on the table. Sometimes it seems we are sucking wind in our role as pastors. I know, looking back at that time, that I escaped by the “skin of my teeth.” My own sin, my own incapacity, the circumstances, and the opposition all seemed to be conspiring to not only disqualify me for the ministry but to even make me a castaway from the faith.
“Through many dangers toils and snares we have already come. T’was grace that brought us safe thus far and grace will lead us home.” I have learned some lessons about being a pastor, about how to lead a congregation, about how to preach. Yet, the one indispensable resource, and the only reason for longevity in the ministry has been nothing but the simple grace of a faithful Father God whose love overcomes all else to enable me to finish the race of my vocational calling.
I want to encourage any of my younger brothers in the pastorate to keep depending on the grace of God to sustain you and see you through. Please admit you need help from him, humble yourself and get the grace you need. Don’t be surprised that things are too hard for you. The sooner you admit you don’t have what it takes to handle all situations, to solve all problems, to keep everyone happy, and to continually model godliness and wisdom in the face of adversity, the sooner your vulnerability will become an asset and not a liability.
Please pray for (a positive impact from) a new book (on this subject) that I have written called Insufficient, which should be out soon, we hope.