Dear Fellow Servants of the Lord Jesus:
A couple of days ago, on two different occasions, trusted ministry partners shared with me that a significant portion of pastors in North America are discouraged, and even considering leaving pastoral ministry. I woke up this morning with this fact, or observation, on my mind and heart, and during morning devotions wondered if I could speak a word to any of you wrestling along such lines.
The fact is, pastoral ministry in any context is a challenging work. Joining Jesus, the Great Shepherd, in pastoring His sheep, is just plain old hard work, even under the best of circumstances. So it is natural to periodically wonder how long one can continue in it even in “normal” times. What the world has been experiencing in 2020 has, as we all feel, made things much harder, and thus, the wrestling with maybe doing something else with one’s life.
I want to appeal to us all … do not give up.
Perhaps a bit about myself will help in hearing the basis on which I am making the appeal.
I am 73 years old. The Lord has graciously allowed me to serve with Him in formal, public ministry, for 50 years now. A half a century! Like, whoa how time flies! I have served as Youth Pastor, Associate Pastor, Senior Pastor (for a number of Presbyterian churches in the US, Union Church of Manila in the Philippines, First Baptist in Vancouver), and as Professor (at Regent College, Vancouver, Carey Theological College, Vancouver, where I live with my wife of 49 years). In this now more “itinerate” stage, the Lord has given me the privilege of serving as a kind of theological mentor for Alpha Canada, and for The Way Church, a new church plant in the heart of the city. And I spend a good amount of time one-on-one with amazingly gifted young pastors.
2020 has been for me, as I would assume for many of you, the hardest year in ministry thus far. Even harder than the year our youngest son died. Hard because at my age having to learn to teach and preach on Zoom; not being able to spend face-to-face time with family and friends; wondering if momentary chest pains or lingering coughs or headaches are signs I should go get tested for Covid-19; overwhelmed by all the chaos in the political realm. Many times a week, I just want to take a nap. Or go for a vacation (right … ). But, by the grace of God, He keeps me going.
So my appeal … do not give up. Especially … do not act on the feeling you want to resign from pastoral ministry.
For at least five reasons.
One, it is usually not wise to make major decisions in times of chaos or trauma.
We simply do not, cannot, see all the factors involved in such decisions. Times of stress are not the time to make major career moves. We are too vulnerable to act wisely. I think that I made a move from one church to another when I should not have. Maybe the move would have eventually been a right one to make. But I think that the time I made it was not the right time. I was very weary. I was feeling beat-up by a segment of the congregation that did not want to hear about Jesus all the time. Right now, in the midst of the pandemic, and while under the constant bombardment of twisting of truth in the public arena, is not a good time to be able to discern whether to leave one’s calling.
Two, it is time to “wait,” to “wait on the Lord.”
Waiting is never easy any time; it is all the harder right now. It is perfectly appropriate to tell the Lord that we feel we want to make a change, even saying, “I want out.” And He understands. Think of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Is there any other way out of what You are calling Me to do?” He expressed His feelings born of deep anguishing. And then He waited. And then trusted. And, so must we. The fact is, this “new normal” is not forever. (Vaccines seem to be on the near horizon). And when the “newer new normal” comes into being, we do not want to regret having not waited. Psalm 37 comes to mind as a gift right now. So does Isaiah 40. Especially the last line, verse 31: “Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not get tired, they will walk and not faint.” This is a time for waiting. (If you need more help on this, read the children’s Elephant & Piggy book by Mo Williams, “Waiting Is Not Easy!” One of my granddaughters loves to hear it. The surprise ending is perfect for this Advent season).
Three, this is a time when pastors are needed all the more!
More needed than before the pandemic and political upheaval. The church needs its pastors more than ever. The sheep are also weary. The sheep are also tired. The sheep are also feeling disoriented. They need shepherds. Even if we cannot be all that shepherds are suppose to be, or what we think shepherds are suppose to be, the sheep need to know that someone is looking after them, so that they might know that The Someone is looking after them. Again, ours is hard work. But it is work that needs to be done. Remember what Jesus asked the first band of disciples to pray? “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore, beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:38). Remember the context? “And seeing the multitudes, Jesus felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd” (9:37). I read those lines right now and say, “But I too am distressed and downcast,” and then say, “But I feel Your compassion for the world, for Your church, for me. And so I say, ‘Here I am’.” I commend to you the ministry of Lee Eclov who is writing a weekly meditation for Preaching Today. Lee always begins with, “Dear Shepherds,” and always ends, “Be Ye Glad!” Lee understands what shepherding is all about, and what it especially needs to be right now. And although “retired,” he is still in it for the long haul. We are needed as never before dear sisters and brothers!
Four, this is a time for creativity.
Let us follow the lead of so many small, and large, business entrepreneurs, and be creative. Or, as I should put it, this is the time to ask our wonderfully creative Creator to help us be creative, which He is doing for so many congregations. Although I have resisted the whole online phenomenon, I praise God for giving creative genius to those who can design Internet platforms making communication possible. Imagine where we would be without Zoom right now! Our Lord has more creative ideas to share! “He calls into being things that are not” (Romans 4:17). One such idea is to consider a move toward bi-vocational ministry. Especially for those who serve congregations that cannot right now afford to pay a full salary. Taking on another part-time job would not only help with the finances, but could lift one’s soul a bit through using gifts not ordinarily used in the life of the church. I see the recruiting ads on TV for Amazon right now, and think, that just might be a good diversion for a season, and give me more contact with people who are not in the church right now. Other ideas. Congregations could come together for a season, and share resources during the months to come, even combining Sunday Services until each can get back on their feet. You get the point. Now is a time to lean into the creative ways of the Holy Spirit. When I walk in the morning, I listen to worship music. And since the beginning of the pandemic I have played nearly everyday, “Way Maker.” I think it is the song for this season. Certainly for Advent.
“You are here, moving in our midst, I worship You.
You are here working in this place, I worship You …
Even when I can’t see it, You’re working.
Even when I can’t feel it, You’re working …
You never stop, You never stop, You never stop working.
Way Maker, Miracle Worker, Promise Keeper, Light in the darkness.
My God, that is Who You are.”
Five, go back and remember what the call to pastoral ministry is all about.
Maybe most important right now. Go back and remember why we said, “Yes,” when He first called us. Oh my! Remember?
He invited us to join Him in His work in the world! His work. His never-stop-working-work. We get to join Him in His announcing, “The Kingdom of God has come near!” We get to join Him in doing all the works of the Kingdom. We get to join Him in helping people live their lives in light of the in-breaking Kingdom. We get to keep pointing to Jesus as “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:6). We get to keep pointing to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). We get to keep telling people that Jesus has won the victory over all that seeks to ruin humanity and creation. We get to invite people to open themselves up to the presence and power of His Spirit. We get to help people live in “the really real world,” where the Triune God of grace invites us into His inner life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We get to help people get ready for that Day when Jesus comes in all His glory, bringing with Him a whole new City. On it goes! I mean, can you think of any greater work to do? To put it most boldly, we get to be a vehicle of Encounter. Somehow, through our words and deeds, Jesus Christ Himself shows up and gives Himself again. Why stop now? Especially when more people are more open to “something beyond” than in the recent past.
Well, enough. I did not mean to “go to preaching.” I just felt that as an older servant I might be able to speak a word of encouragement.
Do not give up. “Fix your eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2). And watch what He can do with us!
With much gratitude for you.
- Darrell W. Johnson