My latest column in Christian Week:
I don’t envy them: the pastors with big names and book deals and conference circuits. Well, that’s not completely true. I do envy them. They have been blessed with charisma and gifts and success; I haven’t. Yet I know enough about the stresses they face to realize that I don’t really want what they have no matter how good it looks.
But most pastors I know aren’t trying to cope with success. I met with an older pastor yesterday and saw hurt in his eyes. He seems to feel lonely and pushed aside. If I wrote a book on pastoral faithfulness, I’d have to include a chapter on his life. Yet I get the sense that he wonders if his ministry has amounted to much. He’s not alone.
It’s also true of churches. Many are smaller than they used to be. Their cinderblock cement rooms in the basement used to be full of children. The wooden pews were crammed even on Sunday nights, even in the sticky heat of summer before there was air conditioning. Now they’re mostly empty, and the people discouraged.
Some of my heroes in ministry are doing exactly the right things, yet suffer from a low-grade sense of ministerial (or church) failure.
I don’t want to ignore our problems, but I do have something to say about this situation.
Let’s start with dismantling our warped view of success. A cosmetics company launched a Campaign for Real Beauty. “We want to free ourselves and the next generation from beauty stereotypes.” I’m thinking of starting a similar campaign for churches. We need to get rid of the airbrushed pictures of churches that exist in our minds but have never existed in reality. Simply put, churches are a mess. They have always been messy, but they won’t always be. That gives me hope.
We need to redefine beauty in churches, because a lot of our churches are more beautiful than they first appear if we see them from the right perspective. It’s like what Derek Webb says: “I’ve found that often success looks more like failure, riches more like poverty, and real life often feels more like death.” Things aren’t always what they appear to be.
Also, we can’t ignore our context. A couple of years ago a pastor from Africa visited our church. He was puzzled by the lack of spiritual vibrancy in Canada. We thought we had it good compared to him; he set us straight. If ministry is like catching a wind, we have to admit that the gusts seem to be stronger in other parts of the world right now.
Mostly, we need to be careful of evaluating. We’re simply not up to the job. My evaluations of successful ministry are probably going to be different than God’s. Maybe that’s what Paul meant when he said that he didn’t judge himself. It’s the Lord’s judgment that counts. “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time,” he wrote.
I planted grass seed last month. I always have a hard time believing that the grass is going to grow. For a week I feel like I’m watering mud, and the joke is on me. Then I start to see some grass blades poking through. I’m always amazed. You’d think I’d learn by now, but I’m always surprised. I’m not good at evaluating the progress of grass seed four days after it’s planted; I’m probably not a good judge of ministry success over the course of a lifetime.
There’s no question: we live in challenging times. And we are engaged in Christian ministry, which itself is beyond anyone’s competence. And we work with people, who are just as frustrating sometimes as we are to ourselves. It’s easy to be overwhelmed.
But let’s look for the beauty that’s found in ordinary pastors and churches. Let’s pray that we’ll catch a strong wind again, and let’s do everything we can to serve effectively. Let’s resist the temptation to evaluate things prematurely and to get discouraged. There’s only one evaluation that counts, and it hasn’t happened yet.