We’ve seen the statistics. Pastors are leaving the ministry in droves. Why? Could it be that the actual reality of life in ministry did not match up with the expectations going into ministry?
I’d like to talk about that. I am married to a pastor. I was married to him while he was in seminary. I know the classes he took in order to receive his degree and his ordination. I helped him with his Greek and Hebrew flashcards. I listened while he practiced his sermons for his Homiletics class. I typed his papers for Old Testament history and Apologetics. After several years of full-time school and part-time work I clapped for him when he was handed his diploma. Bachelors of Arts Degree in Ministry. He was equipped to go out into the world and preach the gospel. But that’s the problem. He was equipped to preach the gospel, but in no way was he equipped for life in ministry. Ministry involves so much more than preaching on Sundays and preparing teaching notes for a mid-week service.
To be fair my husband did have one class, for one semester, titled Practical Ministry. Wives were encouraged to audit the class with their husbands. I did. Overall the class was a good one. We took a tour of the local funeral home, even behind the scenes (slightly creepy – especially the greenish punch they served us at the end that I was convinced was fruit-flavored formaldehyde) and learned some practical tips on conducting funeral services and walking families through the steps of grief. We also touched briefly on pre-marital counseling and conducting weddings. I don’t really remember much more beyond that. I think I had my rose-colored glasses firmly in place and wasn’t able to fully grasp what the reality of life in ministry would entail.
Life in ministry involves relationships. We are dealing with people all day long. Not a lot of seminary and Bible college classes are geared toward getting along with the people in your congregation. Students may take counseling classes, which is great, the church needs more trained counselors. But unless the student’s degree is geared toward a counseling emphasis those classes are few.
We are left with those pesky people again. Due to the nature of Christianity, hurting people are drawn to the church. The church was never intended as a place for the healthy to congregate to the exclusion of the sick. Jesus himself stated this in Matthew 9:12 when he said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” He also understood that people get weary of life, they need a respite from the pain. Church is to be that place of finding rest in Jesus Christ (Matthew 11:28). Therefore, it stands to reason that every church congregation will be a mixture of the healthy and the sick – spiritually, mentally, and physically. While it is one thing to study the scripture to get an intellectual understanding of these scriptures, it is another thing to deal with hurting people on a daily basis. They tend to wear you out. But, I believe that most young men and women going into ministry understand that hurting people hurt people and have some expectation of dealing with those situations.
But what is not expected is the mine fields of opinions and preferences. So many problems in the church happen when opinions and preferences clash. Let me give you a few examples of areas of church life that can be contentious, not because of sin or unscriptural practices but because of personal preferences:
The volume of the music
Bible versions – KJV vs NASB vs NIV vs NLT vs NKJV vs TLB….(you get the idea)
Traditional services vs Gen X services
The role of women
The role of the pastor’s wife
Proper church attire
The pastor’s salary
The pastor’s job description
There are many, many more, but that will suffice. All of the above examples generate intense opinion and debate. Debates that tend to take up a lot of the pastor’s time and energy. Do you think that the young man or woman with that crisp diploma was expecting to spend a large part of his or her working hours putting out fires within the congregation due to personal preference or opinion? Probably not.
So now we are back to the reality of church life versus expectations of church life. How do we manage our expectations so that we are not walking around disappointed, disillusioned, depressed, frustrated, angry, and resentful?
First off, we need to have a mature attitude. Expect to be disappointed. That’s reality. We are dealing with hurting, stubborn, opinionated people remember?
Next, take inventory of your expectations. Are they based in reality or an idealized version of how church should be conducted? Unrealistic expectations are a source of daily pain and anguish because life is not living up to the dream. Revise your expectations. Don’t settle into a fatalistic “it will never get better” mindset, just remember we are dealing with broken people in a broken world. We ourselves are broken people. We have disappointed others. We have hurt others by not living up to their expectations. Extend grace. Then encourage with vision. We can all do a better job.
Lastly, but certainly not the final word on the subject, find a mentor. Get yourself a grace-filled, mercy-minded, experienced individual that has walked in your shoes and knows the path intimately. For someone in church leadership this means a more experienced mature pastor or leader, not a peer. Part of managing our expectations is learning to see our situation from different perspectives. A mentor can give us fresh perspective and encouragement. Our current situation may not change just because we are now free to vent our frustrations, but our attitude will certainly change. Built up pressure is never a good thing and is actually an unhealthy state of being. A mature mentor is very beneficial.
Life is certainly messy and uncomfortable at times isn’t it? Church life is no different. Jesus knew what we would be facing when he prayed in John 17:21 – “I pray that they may be one just as you and I are one.” He knew human nature. He is never surprised by the actions of our board members or congregation even though we might be. So take heart. Jesus is still praying that prayer over us.