In the previous post I referred to the ministry learning curve as frustratingly fascinating. I think that description nails it. Fascination and frustration seem to partner up frequently in ministry.
I entered full-time ministry with a great deal of idealism (which I have never completely shaken). I possessed noble ideas about how as Christians we would all be united in passion and purpose; together in commitment and dedication; that the church would always be striving to be better, to grow, and mature; and if we simply followed Scripture that this would be the happy outcome. Couple that with the fact that I was also convinced that I possessed the answers on how to make this happen and as you can guess, my idealism quickly collided with realism. So began the learning curve.
And so I present some of the twists in the curve I have discovered:
- I gotta be me. As a young preacher I had my preaching heroes. After hearing these brothers fire me up at workshops, meetings, and lectureships–I would return to my church with my best impersonations. Then I waited for the expected tremendous response–and usually got crickets. How I wanted to be those guys in those keynote moments enthusiastically charging up the masses! Except it just never happened quite like that. Eventually I learned to simply be me–to allow God to use my personality and giftedness–not me attempting to channel someone else. I think it has worked out okay so far. I have never keynoted the masses at a nation-wide event (once I was told that I needed to “specialize” in something other than local preaching–write a book–in order to catapult myself into well-known keynote status), but God has rewarded me richly with wonderful relationships with several churches–that accepted me for me.
- Change happens slowly. This, for me, falls under the frustrating category–even now as I realize its merits (well usually anyway). I recall once storming out of a men’s meeting overwhelmed with impatience. The topic was building maintenance, no one was making a decision, and I had world-altering evangelistic plans to propose! As I dramatically exited I think I uttered something like, “You will have the best building in town, but no one in it!” (Talk about grace. Somehow I kept my job.) So while it will always be my personality to move quickly, most churches cannot and remain healthy. Rash, quick, forced change generally brings trouble and often explosive division–which is usually counterproductive to the kingdom. Healthy churches do change, but over time– an evolution rather than a revolution–all being led and guided by the Holy Spirit of God. Realizing this I have had to make sure that my agenda as the preacher is also shaped by God’s will and fits squarely into the personality and goals of the church I serve–while at the same time encouraging the church not to settle for status quo but rather to continue to mature and grow. Often it is not an easy balance, especially with my impatient personality, but typically it is for the best. The church is like a big ship. It does not turn on a dime, but it does turn. The challenge is to make sure the changes bring health and growth for the church and glory to God.
- Everyone will not always be happy. Yea, I figured this one out fairly quickly. Folks have been unhappy with me for years! At one point my sermons were too targeted to youth; then before I knew it my sermons were not reaching the younger generation. I have been called “liberal;” was criticized for teaching too much on love; and was once told I was making things up–that what I preached was not in the Bible (even as I turned to the text in question). I have seen unhappiness with elders; with song selection for worship; with youth ministers; with how much time I spend (or do not spend) in the office; with the color of paint; with how to use the church budget; with Bible class topic selection; once even over the type of car I purchased; and with–well the list could literally be exhaustive. And unhappy people leave–feeling frustrated, betrayed, hurt, angry and letdown. (Note–almost all preachers take it personally when someone leaves the church. It is a reflexive reaction–even if it has been handled corectly and even if needed to happen for the sake of those leaving–it always stings. If you cannot understand that check out my next post in which I will try to open the window into what it is like being a preacher). Some of my worst and most personally painful ministry experiences have been people unhappy. With all of my heart I wish this could be different. My idealism kicks in still and I wonder why we can’t work through our unhappiness together as iron sharpening iron to emerge even better and stronger? I don’t like this twist in the learning curve, but it is there.
- God blesses sincere effort. In my preaching ministry I have always tried to be sincere, if not smart. And looking back I realized God blessed that. It really is the only way to explain my journey. Usually calling an idea presented by an elder, “the stupidest thing I have ever heard,” would not go very well or engender good relationship, but God protected me through that due to his grace living within that eldership. Almost always living out the nightmare of a divorce would not be something a church would endure with their preacher, but the Skyway Hills church in Pearl, MS did–and saved my life in more ways then one. Then later another church, Gateway in Pensacola, FL, was the first to invite this divorced preacher in after another church rejected me, stating, “we cannot see a divorced man in this role.” And now God has blessed me to be a part of this wonderful family at Levy. The only way I can explain it is: I have just tried to do my best through it all–my own immaturity; frustrations; brashness; ignorance; sin; arrogance; insecurities; divorce; hurt; stubbornness; weakness; ego and pride–to sincerely share a message from the Lord. And I have been blessed beyond measure by God and his marvelous people.
After all these years I remain firmly on the learning curve–perhaps a bit further down it for sure. But it still can be frustratingly fascinating and I’ll be the first to admit that I have even more to learn. I am just thankful that God and his people have not given up on me yet!