My morning devotion took me to just one of the many Pauline notes about the hardships of serving Christ. It's a tiny slice of what was a significant theme in the Epistles, a couple of verses that magnify so many others about his personal trials. To the Colossians he wrote, "For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me" (Colossians 1:29). It is a stunning confession, the weight of such terms as "toil" and "struggling", and the follow- up in 2:1, "For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you...". Again, these are simply two isolated references to Paul's reality teaching about mission and ministry. There's more. And, they are mentioned here mainly because those words confronted me with a large truth: ministry is hard!
How could I ever forget a gut-wrenching conversaton with a young pastor several years ago? As Director of Pastoral Ministries for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, I was out of the office a good bit, ministering to pastors facing trouble in their churches. In this instance the young man, a recent seminary graduate in his first full-time pastorate, had been confronted by the deacons of his church after services on Sunday. They were concerned with the direction of the church and his inability to perform instant magic in their dying rural congregation. Four of them blasted his preaching, outreach, leadership skills, sense of humor, and the color of his ties. There were even some comments about his hair cut, his wife, and children, and just about anything negative they could throw at him. When we talked, he actually said, "I sure didn't think it would be like this". In that instant I knew he was tragically disillusioned.
Here he was, expecting to change the world, experience the glories and joys of Christian service, being criticized and scolded by the gate-keepers of his church. In all of his preparation any words of caution or reality were seconded to mountain-top promises and "greater things than these" expectations. When he had yielded to God's claim on his life, his home church held a covered- dish supper, convened an ordination committee, put his picture in the Baptist Courier, and talked about him becoming the next Billy Graham. In college and seminary his mentors and teachers raised the bar on his learning, accentuated his personal spiritual development, and drew him into a circle of like-minded preacher boys called to make a difference in a world like this one. There were classes in church history, New and Old Testament, ethics, systematic theology, philosophy of religion, biblical languages, and an entire curriculum designed to stretch him emotionally, physically, and spiritually. He may have taken a few electives in missions and ministry, church administration, and some of the practical necessities of leading churches today. Someone may have mentioned the hardships of serving Christ in pastoral ministry. Or, maybe not. When the time came, he was going to bring revival to that first church, make an impact on an entire community, maybe get on television, write a book, or become the next young gun of the current crop of spiritual cowboys. There were dreams and aspirations.
Then, there was real life. The hard stuff, what it was not supposed to be. Disillusionment.
Let me pause right here. After thirty-five years of pastoral ministry I am constantly thankful for the privilege of serving him and his church. Today, in retirement, I can hardly believe these years have slipped by so suddenly. And, now, nearing the finish line, I can clearly recall the many hours of drudgery, early mornings, late nights, never really being off the treadmill, and opposition to change of just about any variety, simple or complex. There were many times I just wanted to walk away, such were the demands and tests of ministry. Yes, I was wearied by them on occasion and once in while labored over disillusionment too. On several occasions Harriet and I talked long into the night about the conduct of church people, and often wondered how churches could become so engrossed in peripheral matters. One night we looked through the New Testament and some church history documents to discover how business, bulletins, budgets, buildings, and by-laws could have become the central issues of church life.
In those times I would remember the coaching I had received from an older, retired pastor who was a member of our first congregation. He and I had little in common theologically but he did understand pastoral ministry and taught me lesson after lesson about dealing with personal disillusionment. I took copious notes of his instruction and hauled them out when those dark clouds gathered overhead. What did he teach me? Two primary lessons---
(1) He told me that life and ministry are not a constant, on-going Billy Graham crusade. What this did was strip away any illusions I may have developed about what was ahead. It was reality therapy for life. As a result, early in the process of leading, dealing with people, working in the church, I really had no pretenses about what was coming. This wise man had been frank and honest with me about serving in times like these. He also reminded me that we wouldn't have most of the Pauline Epistles had it not been for troubles in the church. So, he told us over and over again to prepare for the trouble. Jesus didn't warn his disciples of trouble in this world for nothing. They knew it was going to be hard.
(2) Then he nailed the doctrine of the total depravity of man into me for three years. He hammered that theme so I would not be blown off course by other humans, or by my own reaction to them. In the process, he warned me about unbelievers in the church and their inability to grasp spiritual truth (see 1 Cor. 2:14). Being mindful of human nature and my own fiery personality helped me have more realistic views about what to expect from the human equation and how life happens in a broken world.
Thankfully, these two lessons didn't make me jaded about people, or cynical about the miracle of new life Jesus had called me to preach. Instead, they added several measures of reality to my natural positivity and took some of the la-la land out of my rose-colored-glasses. Because of his coaching, there was some down-to-earth grit added to my expectations about serving. And, when those testy times came, they didn't shift me off course. They taught me not to expect church ministry to be a stroll in the park or a Sunday afternoon picnic.
They are important lessons for anyone regardless of their calling. The exit ramp from church membership and involvement is bumper-to-bumper too. I cannot tell you how many people I've known, and no doubt you too, who have turned to church during a crisis only to leave by the back door when their expectations weren't met. It's pandemic today as people look for some- thing meaningful and real to help navigate the rough seas of life. This is why so many leaders are implementing new member training and other venues to prepare their congregations for the down sides of being aligned with other humans, even in Christ's church.
Paul's mention of toil and struggle are the eye-catching words of those two sentences addressed to the Colossian church. Another phrase is operative however, even if overlooked. He added, "...with all his energy that he powerfully works within me" (Colossians 1:29, again). It's that old human nature thing again. We have the tendency to make everything about us, you know, the toil and struggling part. Paul had that tendency too, even as he wore the marks of Christ. But, he served in hard and seemingly impossible times because he knew it wasn't about him in the first place. Paul knew God's energy and powerful work was the deal, working in him.
So, bring it to the point. We should put our arms about brothers and sisters new to the minsitry or the church, or those caught in teh landslide of serving, tell them the truth about what to expect from humans and themselves, and emphasize their reliance on him for the outcomes.
Disillusionment is real. It can cut us to the core of our deepest beliefs, create doubt in us, even make us question his call. When we expect it, and anticipate it, even if quietly, we can be preapared to shrug it off when we're the ones under the microscope.
Fixing our eyes on Jesus is the way around question marks, events that don't resonate with Scripture, and people that test us. When we pay careful attention to him, he teaches us endurance for the road ahead.