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This is a letter I wrote to an aspiring pastor in seminary.

Dear seminarian,

I’m ashamed to admit that I was bored to tears during my “Interpersonal Communications” class in seminary. The only thing worse than the boredom was the pain in my jaw from my excessive yawning. I waited in vain for a delectable morsel to drop from the professor’s mouth, but none came. After a few short months in ministry, however, I quickly came to regret snoozing intellectually through the class.

I’ll go ahead and lay my cards on the table: I went to seminary for the systematic theology and church history courses, not for the church administration and leadership credits. In hindsight . . . I still think I made the right decision. But I’ll let you in on what I’ve learned thus far in hopes to prepare you for what awaits you on the other side.

Seminary may have prepared you to exegete a text of Scripture, highlight its salient features, and locate the main idea of a passage, but it doesn’t necessarily prepare you for how to interact with various kinds of people in your congregation. Certain aspects of ministry require barreling into them and learning as you go.

Let me introduce you to three types of people you’re bound to meet in the world and in your church. One of my mentors gave me these categories, and I found them helpful. And yes, a person can fit into more than one category, while others may struggle with all three.

People with fists – You should know that some men haven’t learned to be men. In turn, you’ll come across men who equate masculinity with brusqueness. Do your best to relate well to them. It’s kind of annoying, honestly. But I’m happy to report that in dealing with these kind of people I can now affirm the veracity of Oscar Wilde’s words: “Some people make others happy wherever they go; others, whenever they go.”

Some people are always ready for a fight. They’re implacably adversarial. Without a tinge of self-righteousness, I can honestly say I feel sorry for such people. They enflesh before your very eyes the dehumanizing effects of sin. When I come face-to-face with such anger, I wonder: What’s happened to this person? Why are they so angry? What’s going on in their heart that brings such rage to the surface?

But know this: the rough and tough exterior functions as a comb over for deep insecurities. Trust me: the warrior is a child. Typically they are emotionally dependent on other people for their self-worth, but lack the self-awareness necessary to see it. Rather than expose their tenderness within, which would lead to vulnerability, they resort to sarcasm, biting remarks, accusation, and criticism. After a lifetime of hurt and disappointment—probably from their parents or other authority figures—they’ve built up resentment toward people. Unfortunately, they take their anger out on you. And alas, usually these people are quite comfortable in the church and have no plans of leaving.

Aspiring pastor: Think and pray in advance to prepare yourself for such as these.

People with fears – People fear all kinds of things. They fear the future, they fear losing their spouse, they fear losing their children. Prayerfully explore the deeper issues with these kind folks: They fear advancing in age. They tremble at the thought of leaving this world without making a difference. Others wake up in cold sweats at the thought of being forgotten by the world. Still others fear that they will search endlessly for some kind of earthly satisfaction but find that it eludes them. The overachievers in your congregation will divulge that rather than satiating their inner thirst for satisfaction, all of their accomplishments thus far in life have been sparklingly anticlimactic. And they’ll ask you: “Pastor, can you help me with this?”

I’ll go ahead and admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for each of these precious souls, and it’s because I know what they feel.

Aspiring pastor: Think and pray in advance to prepare yourself for such as these.

People with comparisons – If we conceive of ourselves apart from Christ, then we’ll compare ourselves to the person next to us—or far from us, or someone we don’t know, or to a person that does not even exist, except in our minds. Typically this is an image of an all-around better human being who reproaches us for every conceivable failure we’ve made or shortcoming that presently makes up our repertoire of moral or personal blemishes.

Untold numbers battle this beast, striving hard to silence the voice of the inner task master incessantly pushing them to prove themselves to someone out there. I’m convinced that people can’t fully grasp the “unmerciful hours of despair” these strugglers endure.[1]

For what it’s worth, here’s a lesson I’ve had to learn again quite recently: People are bad saviors. And you can’t give other people the power to either shame you or exalt you. Easier said than done, I know. I’ve been shadowboxing these demons for quite some time.

But you asked for my thoughts, so there you have it.


[1] Language borrowed from Jane Kenyon, “Happiness,” in Otherwise: New & Selected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1996), 3.