The resurrection is reason enough (or, why ministry is still worth it).

A friend of mine who edits a website wrote this post some time ago and it still resonates. On this Monday after Easter, I appreciate being reminded that we all need to learn how to sit with one another in our graves — not because death is good, but because resurrection is possible.

I also appreciate being reminded of the grace I’ve received on this journey. I am not among those good and faithful pastors who somewhere along the way had the honesty to acknowledge that vocational ministry wasn’t for them (since my teenage years I’ve believed this is where I belong), but I definitely respect their journey. I get it. I’ve been in far too many dark, dark places in these nineteen years of full-time church life to pretend that I might not have ended up in their company.

Maybe I just don’t know how to quit. Maybe it is the mercy of being married to a man who won’t let me quit.

In any case, I can say after nineteen Easters as a pastor that as I look at the big picture of it, the staying has been a mercy. I am grateful I’m still serving the Church of Jesus Christ — still broken for his people, still passionate about preaching the Word. While a lot of vocational ministry isn’t what you’d call “fun,” I have found the grand sweep of it to be so very rewarding.

Not always easy, but always rewarding … always worth it.

There is a depth and beauty to honest, authentic ministry. It isn’t “gungho cheerleading,” as Jennifer says in her post. As she rightly notes, that kind of thing will stifle a spirit pretty quickly. What seems to work best is clinging to the cross … finding a personal resolve to know nothing but Christ and him crucified. It is rooting one’s faith in truth, not emotion, because emotions will kill a calling faster than just about anything.

But clinging to the cross? That is worth spending a lifetime on. Knowing Christ and him crucified is worth every drop of us, even as he expressed on the cross that we are worth every drop of him.

The story is true: Jesus is worthy. The cross is glorious. The good news is worth believing. The Kingdom to come is an absolute assurance. The resurrection is proof.

Blessings on you, my pastor friends, as you live into the resurrection on this glorious Monday, having spent yourself all weekend for the cause of Christ.

(Jennifer Woodruff’s beautifully expressed post on the vocation of serving Christ is here.)

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You’re not crazy (or, what it feels like to be a pastor)

You don’t want to be me.

According to a series of New York Times articles* and a plethora of other studies** done on the topic, people like me are ticking time bombs.

Consider these stats:

  • Pastors suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans.
  • The rate of depression among clergy is 11% — about double the national rate.
  • 13% report issues with anxiety.
  • 33% felt burned out within their first five years of ministry.
  • 33% say that being in ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
  • 50% feel unable to meet the needs of the job.
  • 52% of pastors say they and their spouses believe that being in pastoral ministry is hazardous to their family’s well-being and health.
  • 70% don’t have any close friends.
  • 90% feel unqualified or poorly prepared for ministry.
  • 90% work more than 50 hours a week.
  • 94% feel under pressure to have a perfect family.
  • 1,500 pastors leave their ministries each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure. There is actually a viable market for something called “pastoral dismissal insurance.”

What sane person would want to deal with competing demands, the constant fear of failure and the chronic loss of sleep (not to mention the loss of weekends)? And those are first-world, 21st-century struggles. Pastor-friends in African countries tell me they wake up every day prepared to die. A pastor’s home in India is likely to be smaller than your master bathroom. A friend in Nepal hid in an attic to avoid being killed by a Hindu extremist (he later escaped the town on foot).

In the first century, signing on to be a leader in the Christian movement meant signing on for something that was completely reviled by the prevailing religious and political world. The life expectancy of a circuit rider in early Methodism was 33 years.

A person would have to be crazy to sign on for this job, right?

In Paul’s two letters to Timothy, he counsels endurance even when it seems crazy. In Paul’s advice we hear Timothy’s state of mind. He is hanging by a thread — tired, stressed out, anxious. “Take some wine for your stomach,” Paul advises, because bearing other people’s burdens will give a person stomach problems. Watching them slide backwards after you’ve tried so hard to move them forward can make a person downright depressed. Competing complaints can send a person over the edge. Battling heresy can wear a person out.

Timothy is tired. I can relate. I’m grateful the Bible gives me permission to admit it when I have those days.

Maybe you are right there with Timothy and you are tired, too. Tired of day-in, day-out stresses. Tired of conflicts and misunderstandings. Tired of physical issues and mental issues and marital issues. Tired of the battle.

Are we insane to stay with this, when so much of it is crazy-making?

My experience after eighteen years of ministry and the start of two congregations is that the only thing standing between me and complete burn-out is not success, but the power of God. It is the power of God that saves me from those baser fight-or-flight instincts. The strength of this gospel keeps me bound to this call because in the end I’m convinced that’s where the power is.

Herein lies the difference between crazy and courageous. It depends on the thing you’re fighting for. What sets us apart who serve this gospel is not sheer force of will nor sheer enjoyment. What separates us from “crazy” is the character of what we believe in, which is proven by the character it brings out in us.

It is not crazy to make ministry your vocation. Given the vocational hazards it is perhaps the most courageous possible choice. On this day, may that be encouragement enough to help you begin again.

*Several articles appeared in the New York Times in 2010 addressing the issue of clergy burnout. Begin with this one, and follow it to others. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html

**http://www.pastorburnout.com/pastor-burnout-statistics.html

 

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Take a little wine for your stomach (or, how to live well in a stressful world)

You definitely get the sense in Paul’s two letters to Timothy that he is writing a young and anxious pastor who is hanging by a thread. You can hear the anxiety and depression in Paul’s advice: “Take some wine for your stomach,” he tells Timothy. “Remember that if you’re suffering for the gospel, you’re not the first to do that, and you won’t be the last.”

This is Paul encouraging a young leader who is beginning to question his call because frankly, this is hard. Bearing other people’s burdens will give you stomach problems.* Watching them slide backward after you’ve done so much to move them forward can make a person downright depressed.

And all the pastors said, “Amen.”

Timothy is frustrated. It seems almost like the folks with whom he lives have gone deaf. The message he has for them seems to have no effect. Maybe they’d rather believe comfortable things than uncomfortable things. “Maybe Jesus was more like a ghost than a flesh-and-blood man,” they say, because that is an easier answer to grab onto than the idea of a man who is fully human and fully divine all at once.

Battling heresy can wear a person out.

Some of you are right there with him. Just tired. Tired of weekly reports of terrorist attacks. Tired of the day-in, day-out stresses. Tired of a political scene that only reveals our corporate insanity. Tired of conflict and misunderstandings. Tired of physical issues and mental issues and marital issues. Tired of the battle.

The question seems inevitable: Why bother? 

William Blake once wrote, “You ought to know that what is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men.” Whether he meant to or not, Blake is paraphrasing Paul, who told the Corinthians, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Both the apostle and the poet are saying the same thing: God uses foolish things, foolish people, ordinary people, obscure people, nobodies, everybody to accomplish his purposes. And in fact, God refuses to accomplish his purposes without those partnerships, no matter how obscure or foolish.

In that word, I hear a word for Timothy and all of us who dare to listen: Hang in there, because what you do with your life matters.

What sets us apart who serve this gospel is not sheer force of will nor sheer enjoyment. What separates us from “crazy” is the character of the one in whom we place our faith, which is proven by the character he brings out in us.

It is not crazy to stand for truth, to live by a moral code, to trust that there is more to life than just fallen people. It is not crazy to make your life count for something more than a bank account balance (after all, the one with the most toys still dies).

It is not crazy to look beyond a job to a vocation. In fact, it is perhaps the most courageous possible choice. Maybe you will work hard and sleep less and endure criticism or worse yet obscurity; which is to say, we’re not the point even of our own calling. And that ends up being quite the point.

We don’t always (or maybe even ever) get the results we think we deserve. But here’s what we do get. We get the one thing that makes all the rest of it worth it: We get Jesus.

On this day, may that be encouragement enough to help you begin again.

 

* Just for clarity’s sake, I’m not proposing that we deal with stress by buying a bottle of wine. Been there, done that and by God’s immense grace, I enjoy a beautifully sober life. The point is that life can be hard but Jesus is good. And Jesus is worth it.

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