As I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and contemplate my first decade in ministry, my mind wanders back to the seventeen-year-old version of myself. I’m sitting in a folding chair in Heartland Community Church’s gymnasium listening to Pastor Scott Veroneau preach at the Sunday evening youth service. While I have no recollection of the sermon’s contents, the effects of what transpired during the message are still with me. God called me to pastoral ministry that night.
It’s been nearly twenty-three years. And here I am. The Lord has done great things for me, and I am glad (Psalm 126:3).
As I think about what I’ve learned during my time in ministry, two overarching lessons stand out to me.
Don’t Play It Safe
Here’s the first lesson: Don’t play it safe. I never thought I would live in either Iowa or Massachusetts. But more adventurous than packing up our lives and moving across country was the surprising way God moved my family and I in that direction. The adventure began in 2011.
While reading Matthew 4 in my morning devotions, verses 18–22 flew off the page and landed firmly in my heart:
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he [Jesus] saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him (emphasis mine).
Later that day, a sentence from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship unsettled me. As he commented on what the Apostles gave up in order to follow Christ, Bonhoeffer observed, “They have no security, no possessions to call their own, not even a foot of earth to call their home, no earthly society to claim their absolute allegiance. . . . For his sake they have lost all.”
The combination of these two moments filled me with determination. I’m done playing it safe. I want to give my life to serving God. I will go where he wants me to go and do what he wants me to do.
Prior to that moment, I would bring God my tailored list of acceptable locations that I’d be willing serve as a pastor. After my reading that morning, however, when it came time to fill out my denomination’s questionnaire regarding where I’d be willing to serve, I checked the box that said, “Willing to serve anywhere.” With a smirk on his face and hesitancy in his voice, the Regional Minister asked, “Does that include North Dakota?” With a smile on my face and hesitancy in my voice, I responded, “Yes.” (Let’s just say North Dakota was not every aspiring pastor’s preferred destination! As God would have it, I ended up in small town Iowa.)
And I’m glad I did.
The ministry has brought with it countless sacred moments. Visiting with, and praying for, the sick and dying; leading and sharing God’s Word at funerals; officiating at weddings. God, why did you choose me to serve you in this way?
Sublime moments are also part of life in ministry. There’s the euphoria of discovering the main point of a passage of Scripture; there’s the serendipitous moment of seeing how to apply a text; there’s the walk up to the pulpit each Sunday to deliver God’s Word. God, why did you grace me with this privilege?
And then, of course, there are sanctifying moments. Interpersonal conflict, profound disappointment with yourself and others, criticism—both constructive and destructive—hard conversations, self-doubt, feelings of inferiority, the unrealistic expectations of others, the long stretches where nothing significant seems to be happening, the dirty business of human love, the enduring. God, thank you for sanctifying me.
Ministry Has a Way of Humbling You
This brings me to my second lesson: Ministry has a way of humbling you—and it is good for you. Like most pastors just starting out, when I arrived at my first church, I assumed it would grow numerically under my preaching and leadership. Sure, the church had been in decline for decades, but I believed things would be different under my watch. (I’ll give you a couple of minutes to pick yourself up off the floor.)
The realization that I most likely would not be the exception to this rule came my way through a conversation with a veteran pastor. We’ll call him Ethan.
On our drive home from a denominational meeting, my usually talkative veteran pastor-friend was unusually quiet. Concerned, I ventured, “You’re awfully quiet. Is everything okay? Is something wrong?”
“Actually, no. Everything’s not okay,” he replied.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, treading carefully.
“Did you hear Jonathan’s reasoning for why we were going to see Pastor Henry’s new sanctuary?”
I chuckled under my breath, and said, “Yeah, he said Henry’s church was one of the success stories in our denomination.”
Ethan replied, “Well, Joe, if Henry’s church is one of the ‘success stories,’ then what does that say about the church’s we’re pastoring? Does the fact that our churches aren’t growing numerically mean we’re unsuccessful pastors?”
In a rare display of emotion, Ethan unloaded: “Sorry, Joe, but I’m just frustrated. I thought that by now I’d be pastoring a larger church. I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and I genuinely thought it would be easier by now. I thought I’d have some sense of what I was doing, some sense of accomplishment, but it still feels like I’m just treading water. I’m exhausted and have nothing to show for it.”
I wished I’d had some wise counsel to offer, but I didn’t. I was a newbie. To my shame, the main question in my mind was: Is this what’s in store for me? The odor of self-centeredness in that question was suffocating. I needed to pray.
More specifically, I needed to prayerfully contemplate that question—and many more: What if the church doesn’t grow? What if I serve a small church in a small, obscure town my entire ministry, and I’m criticized and virtually nit-picked to death until I’m seventy. What then?
I now believe that the main question God was posing to me was this: Are you willing to let me be your ultimate security? And my specific prayer requests became: God, give me a heart that rejoices in what you give—whatever that is. Help me learn to see life and ministry through the lens of Christ instead of through my own aspirations.
Aspirations—that word punctures my pride. I brought a lot of them with me into the ministry. But now that I’m ten years in, I think most of them were rooted in vanity and feelings of self-importance. They weren’t truly about God’s glory.
And therein is perhaps the most humbling lesson I think I’ve learned in my ten years of ministry: What I needed most was not to fulfill my aspirations; what I needed to cultivate was learned desperation.
But only the crucible of ministry could teach me this because learned desperation isn’t something we sign up for. It’s foisted upon us by a gracious God. He throws us into these seasons because he knows we need them.
We need seasons that feel spectacularly mundane. We need the husky arms of disappointment to envelop us. We need criticism. We need seasons where we do nothing but endure. Can I say it? We need to fail. Why? Because these seasons are the soil out of which growth springs.
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities
will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth
you will bring me up again (Psalm 71:20).
If I could rewind time and start my ministry preparation all over again, I think I would take Eugene Peterson’s advice: I would go into the wilderness for three months, not read my emails, stay off social media, attend no conferences or classes, and instead “take a deep, long, prayerful time of doing nothing.” And then as I arrived at my first church, I would tell myself what he told his son, Eric, as he began his first pastorate: “No trying to be successful.”
That sounds like good advice for my next decade in ministry.