Monday, October 8, 2012

Living Between the Highs and Lows of Ministry

In his commentary on Mark 4:21-34 RC Sproul writes, 

“Every year in the United States, thousands of pastors leave the ministry.  Some leave for moral reasons, but most leave because they feel unappreciated by their congregations. They feel like they are spinning their wheels, that they’re preaching their hearts out but nothing is happening.”

As a pastor I have had the privilege of leading in multiple congregations over the past decade. I have experienced times of feeling appreciated, and times of feeling unappreciated. Admittedly, I have struggled with wanting to quit ministry more times than I can count. There are days, weeks, months, sometimes even long seasons, where the weight of ministry feels overwhelming and the temptation is to do something else - anything else.  

The opposite side of the coin are times of excitement and rejuvenation in ministry. There are times when I can see what God is doing in the church, and I can see lives being impacted.  A recent example would when as a church we baptized a whole bunch of people in one day. Some made decisions of faith on the spot, and could not wait to get into the water of baptism. There was joy and excitement, and people’s lives were being forever changed. Those days are great, and I never consider quitting ministry in those times.  

The issue is how to live in between the lows and the highs, and not wanting to quit during the lows.  

When I first read the words in the commentary quoted above it made me consider why I have had such polar swings in ministry. Could this just be normal? Here is the problem that I see: in both examples above, both good and bad, the basis of my emotional standing is based solely on what I can see.  

In the above quote, Dr. Sproul is commenting on a parable in Mark where Jesus says,

And [Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29 ESV)

Jesus shares a parable about a man who scatters seed and how it grows. He has done his job, but there is no growth; not yet. It takes time, but it eventually happens. The parable is a great reminder from Jesus that we are called to do as pastors. Here are some thoughts I pulled out of this passage for you to consider:
  • Jesus teaches us that we are talking about the “Kingdom of God”. We are not just raising crops of some kind, like the man in the parable.  I know this is simple, but we need an occasional reminder of the goal we are laboring towards. We anticipate the realizing of the Kingdom of God: Christ physically reigning in glory on earth! Is there any heartache, any “lack of appreciation”, that is not worth living to see that day come? Perspective helps.

  • Jesus tells us that the job of the man in the parable is to “scatter seed”, and then “when the grain is ripe” he is to harvest it.  My tendency is to think that I am also in charge of the growth.  I love what the parable says the man does after scattering, “He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows”. The man sleeps because his job is done. The lord causes the growth, not the man. My time is often spent working on the growing part, and that is when I fail to see what is my role, and what is God’s alone. This can lead to me feeling inadequate (because I am!), and wondering why I am not appreciated. The parable continues, “The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” I love the words “by itself”. It reminds me of who is in charge.

  • At last the man, “when the grain is ripe”, is invited into the “harvest”. God allows me to participate in the joy of seeing the Harvest. He doesn’t, however, put me in charge of it. I  often tend to slip into the mode of measuring my ministry (for better or worse) by the size of the harvest. It is no wonder my view of my ministry is like a roller-coaster of emotions. I am measuring my value by something I cannot control.

How different it would be if I lived like the man in the parable. I scatter the seed I am given (a beautiful gospel message), and then I rest in the security of knowing God alone causes the growth. I am invited into the privilege of seeing the harvest, and I can take joy in that, but I am not allowed to take value in it. My value comes from  what Christ has done in me alone. There will be days, weeks, or longer, that people won’t appreciate me the way I like, but at the end of the day, God still provides a harvest.