The Long Defeat of Ministry

Ministry can feel impossible, lonely, scary, frustrating, and beautiful, all at the same time.

Seminary orientation was like the first day of middle school all over again. We were all adults, yes, but we all wanted to be cool, to be liked, to be noticed. We sized one another up, “so who have you read?” We divided into tribes, “what denomination are you?” And we made sweeping generalizations about one another. I remember turning to my wife after the day was over and saying, “ya, I don’t like any of these people.”

During our second day of orientation, we got to hear from some of the professors. Much of what was said was prophetically representative of what seminary often felt like. People told us to study diligently, to be creative, to expand our vision, to learn, question, doubt, and explore. One professor quipped that seminary is like sitting at a bountiful buffet of the best food and only having fifteen minutes to eat. How true that is.

And then came our last speaker, Dr. Amy Laura Hall. If I’m honest I was a bit over orientation, so my enthusiasm was severely waning. With staggering honesty Dr. Hall looked at us and said, “what you need to find here is someone who will get down in the mud with you when you’re spent and dying, and ministry is miserable and lonely.”

The room went silent. You could cut the discomfort with a knife. We were all over-eager seminarians. We wanted to change and conquer the world. We wanted to change the church. We wanted to change ourselves. That day Dr. Hall knew something that we did not. Seminary isn’t just about learning to love God with your mind. It is that, but without a beating heart, your mind will get you nowhere in ministry. The indelible lesson of seminary is the people God puts in your life when you are in the valley of death’s shadow.

I graduated in 2016, but it feels like since then the number of my fellow seminarians in church ministry has been dropping like flies. I heard recently that younger pastors are leaving ministry more than any other generation of pastors. I’m not surprised. I am so thankful for all I learned in seminary, but I wish someone had told me that ministry at times feels impossible, lonely, scary, frustrating, and beautiful, all at the same time.

And now I have a few folks who get down in the mud of ministry with me, fellow pastors who know what this wild and wonderful call of God feels like as it is lived inside a complicated world and broken human life. These people understand the infinite qualitative difference between talking about God and knowing God, between leading worship and worshipping, between pointing people towards God’s strange activity and sensing it in one’s own life. These colleagues shake their head knowingly when I talk about the mounting pressure of post-covid ministry. They also laugh when we exchange stories of the things people have said and done at church, like the time I offered the communion bread to a high school senior, “The body of Christ for you,” to which she responded, “Siiiick.” If you work where people confess their sins, it’s going to be a shit-show once in a while.

In ministry, the highs are Everest-high, but the lows are Sheol-low. Ministry is a wonderful and frustrating vocation, and it comes with a cross-shaped burden. You will lose parts of yourself in it, but if I remember correctly, there already was a Messiah who died for the church. Thanks be to God.

Through it all, the biggest lie I ever believed was that I am alone. My favorite definition of ministry comes from Francis Spufford, “the church is a failing but not quite failed attempt for limited people to express the unlimited generosity of God in the world.” One of my favorite writers, J.R.R. Tolkien, called the journey of the warriors on middle earth “the fighting of the long defeat.”

Maybe that’s just what ministry is — limited people fighting the long defeat.

Our best sermons fall on deaf ears, and our worst ones inspire forgiveness in broken people. We grasp at words like creative, innovative, leadership, and change, but none of us really know what we are doing or what works. We pastors are in the limited people business, often tripping over other people’s brokenness while our own spills out onto the 1970’s bright green sanctuary carpet.

Yet beyond all the slurry of ministerial activity and in between the words we constantly speak into other people’s lives is God’s hidden and quiet truth for those of us in ministry — we are not alone, we never were. Sure, even with one another we’re still going to get lost. Better it is to be lost with someone than to be lost alone. So tomorrow morning instead of clicking through your email for the eighteenth time and worrying about today’s ecclesial gauntlet, pick up that old school Samsung church landline and dial a friend in ministry. Let’s fight the long defeat together.

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