The religion editor from the Fargo Forum came and spent a couple of hours with me yesterday afternoon asking me to share a bit about stress in the ministry. This, of course, caught me by complete surprise because I typically do not think about “stress in ministry.” And, this encounter was somewhat curious timing to me considering the past several days have been exceedingly hectic and, I suppose, stressful. After all, just in the past two weeks many of us on staff, including me, have had either H1N1 or some other form of creepy crud, a dear gentleman in our church was murdered at his home, we are working on budgetary items for the new year, and our counseling load has skyrocketed. Of course, I lied to him and told him that in ministry we are all so close to Jesus that there simply is no real stress. Only those who do not walk with the Lord have stress.
Right? Actually, I said nothing like that. Ministry is, for right or wrong, a case study in stress. Perhaps it has no more stress than being a banker or a car salesman or a teacher, but stress can at times appear magnified because of the uniquely spiritual and eternal quality associated with ministry.
After meandering around the Milky Way of Ministry for quite a while I was finally able to land on at least two noble reasons why stress exists for those of us in vocational ministry. It boils down to the fact that we in vocational ministry are dealing with two of the Father’s most precious things: His people and His purposes, and these things are so important to the Father that it makes the stakes seem very high. Add to that the fact that people can be very messy and one has a quick recipe for stress. Just look at my calendar or the calendars of any one of my dear partners at Bethel Church and you will see that in many cases—not all, but many—messy lives captivate much of our attention. This, of course, is fine. We are shepherds in part because we really love the sheep and are so willing to thrust our hands into the messiness that overwhelms folk. We actually have answers that can help; God’s answers, of course, but we have them to give nonetheless. And, we love to see those moments when God’s people awaken to purposes designed uniquely for them by that hand of the Creator. Frankly, it is exhilarating.
But it can be wearying and painful and a long, drawn-out ordeal. And then sometimes it does not happen at all, which can devastate the heart of any pastor worth his salt. Add to this mix the notion that the sheep are sometimes restless about things that may be very important or, too often enough, my have very little real importance, and the stress can mount up and take a toll. There is a reason the average tenure of a pastor today is about two-and-a-half years.
There is one other major stress-instigator for those of us in vocational ministry, but I will address that later. For now, though, I just have to say how much I love what I do and who I am. The stress, if indeed it really does exist, is worth it all. After all, Jesus died so that the Father could have the kind of relationship with me wherein He might spend me for His glory. Honestly, not being spent for Him would be far more stressful than anything I can imagine.
I do think the ministry carries with it its own set of stressors, but not in the sense that the world thinks of stress. Those of us in pastoral ministry know the stress and the anguish we feel when we see souls on a collision course with Hell, yet people fail to heed the conviction of the Holy Spirit. We feel the sadness when we see families in turmoil and coming unraveled thread by thread yet we are powerless to put it all back together again despite our best efforts.
Yet, in spite of all of the “dirty work” of the ministry, I can’t think of any other vocation I’d want to be involved in. I’ve taken a “sabbatical” of sorts for the last few years from full-time pulpit ministry, but God has restored that desire and has at my pleading put this lump of clay back on the potters wheel and remolded me into something I pray will be even more pleasing to Him than I have ever been. Our prayer as a family is that we can be of great use in the future serving Him full time once again.
you are on right on target.. even (or just) church leadership has its own set of messiness and could be considered stressful i suppose. thankfully, jesus provides the roadmap to remedy messiness in mine and others lives. thanks for being frank, matthew!