Recently I was travelling interstate to speak at a conference for people considering Christian ministry as a full-time calling. I was picked up at the airport by an old friend and fellow pastor, a man about my age. He had recently been through an absolutely horrendous period of conflict in his church, and was about to go on a period of stress leave.
It wasn’t that his story was unusual. It was that it was all too common.
Stories of clergy burnout seem to be everywhere.
As we were talking it struck me: why are we trying to convince young people to pursue the noble calling of Christian ministry when it is all so hard? Why would anyone be a pastor today?
It seems the job of leading the local church – “parish ministry,” as it is called in my denomination – has never been under as much fire as it is at the moment.
Stories of clergy burnout seem to be everywhere. Or worse: of clergy sin, or of clergy marriages falling apart. Good people seem to be leaving the trenches of parish ministry and finding work in a variety of parachurch jobs. As Eternity has reported recently, there seem to be fewer and fewer students at our theological colleges. And fewer of those students seem to study theology with a view to being senior minister in a church.
How come? I think there are a number of reasons.
First, we live in a much more secular age than even a decade ago. The ground that we ministers till is that much harder. The generation that walked away from church are now parents, and their children are reaching adulthood – people who’ve never even thought of going near a church. The church seems constantly under attack in the media and in the wider culture, sometimes deservedly. Like many institutions, it faces a widespread loss of trust. To be a minister means to be treated not so much with respect as with suspicion.
And that means, secondly, that we live in age of greater compliance and more complex administration. Teachers often complain that the administrative burden put upon them has drained the joy out of the work of teaching. To run a local church community you face something similar: rafts of form-filling and box-ticking, made necessary by the slackness of the past. And those of us who feel called into the ministry tend not to place “administration” at the top of the list of gifts we possess.
Which would be OK if there were people to help, but (and this is the third thing) lay people these days have a very high expectation of what a church community will give without having the time to volunteer in support of it. So the minister either has to employ professional staff to do the work that would have been done by volunteers in years gone by or do it on their own. People in church have many valid calls on their time beyond the church – travel, family and friends.
And fourth, I would say that even for regular churchgoers, what used to be the unspoken givens of Christian discipleship are no longer. Active and committed Christians don’t see regular church attendance or daily prayer or giving generously to church or saving sex for marriage as non-negotiables anymore. Which means that pastors are having to have more awkward conversations than they perhaps once did.
And, fifth, there’s a consumerism about churches which is new. Once, if you were a Baptist or an Anglican – well that was that. You were denominationally loyal, and it would take a lot for you to shift. But now – if a church doesn’t work for you, you move to one that is better. And pastors know this. They cannot simply count on people rocking up each Sunday.
Why would this be something still worth giving your all to?
Now, it was already a stressful job anyway. A pastor has to be emotionally capable of sitting with people in the deepest tragedies imaginable, capable of running a good meeting, have an aesthete’s eye for graphic design and websites and architecture and music, and to be compelling in the pulpit.
He or she has to be a good people-manager and team-leader, with a good knowledge of HR practices. It would be good to know how to read a spreadsheet, too! You have to be patient to a fault. Know how to cope with conflict. And also cast a vision that is compelling.
Who could ever live up to this calling? Why would this be something still worth giving your all to? The first reason is: because of the gospel itself.
A friend of mine, the Dean of Sydney, Kanishka Raffel, said this, and I can’t say it better: “It’s still worth it because Jesus is still King and is still building his church. It’s still worth it because Jesus died to reconcile the world to God, and people to one another. It’s still worth it because God’s word does not return to him empty but achieves what he purposes for it. It’s still worth it because Jesus is still giving hope to the hopeless, help to the helpless, strength to the weary, healing to the broken, life to the dead in sin. And it’s still worth it because all our duties are privileges, and all our troubles and trials (and there are plenty of those!) will seem light and momentary compared to the eternal weight of glory being stored up for those whose hope is in the Lord. It’s worth it because though I am unworthy, Jesus is SO worth it!”
To be a pastor in a local church is to be reminded of your inadequacy all the time. But here’s the secret: it’s not about you. In fact, the greater my humility, the more Jesus himself shines in his grace. In other words: ministry is worth it because of the power and the goodness of the gospel.
Christ Jesus is the centre of all things, the goal of history and the world’s only hope. In Christ we see the deepest need that people have and the greatest hope to which they can cling. To put it in crassly commercial terms: I may not be a great salesman, but boy – I have a great product!
Never mind all that – the local church is on the right side of history.
Secondly: local church ministry is worth it because God has chosen the local church as his instrument for saving the world.
What? The feeble local church? Yes. In his first letter, Peter writes to the scattered and browbeaten believers, and reassures them that they are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God – that you may declare the praises of him who brought you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Like Israel, the church has not been chosen because it is powerful and impressive. Far from it. God choose the weak things of the world to shame the strong and the foolish to shame the wise. If we are weaker than we once were, then maybe God will do all the more powerful things in and through us.
The local church is where the action is. As the Holy Spirit draws people to Christ, he draws them together. And in their love for each other, he shows his love for the world. Tiny – perhaps. Tired – maybe. Feeling insignificant – possibly. Not cool – almost certainly. But never mind all that – the local church is on the right side of history.
And so that means that serving in the local church, in whatever capacity, is profoundly meaningful and powerful.
When I go about my pastoral work, I remind myself often that I have the power of prayer on my side. I can go into the darkest places with people and shine the light of Christ into it – even in the valley of the shadow of death.
I also remind myself that dealing with conflict and difficulty in the local church isn’t a sideline from the work of the gospel – it is the work of applying the gospel truth. As the local church seeks to be reconciled to one another and to live out godly lives, it becomes more and more a beacon of Jesus Christ to the world.
So, if you are looking to use your time and your gifts for the sake of Jesus Christ, then you can’t do better than work in the shepherding of God’s people in the local church. It’s not a personal power-trip, or about gaining some sense of self-fulfilment. It’s going to be really tough at times, and it will take every ounce of strength you have. But there’s no greater privilege, and no deeper joy, than to see the word of God at work in people’s lives by the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit day by day. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.