Mountains and Valleys – the ups and downs of ministry…

Few people outside the world of church ministry have a grasp of the daily mountains and valleys the pastor or other ministry leader experiences.  On the other hand, I suspect that some ministers do not see as many mountains as others, simply because they allow the valleys to weigh them down in a way that causes them to miss the opportunity to experience those mountains.

And stepping beyond the daily ups and owns, are the weekly blessings and discouragements, the monthly trials and joys, and so on.  It is my prayer that this entry will at least give a peek into the mountains and valleys of ministry.

The Valleys

Serving the Lord, carrying the greatest News every given to mankind to each and every person you encounter – what greater blessing could there be?  The reality is, while the greatest blessing is carrying that blessed news, Jesus Himself warned that His followers would be hated for His name’s sake.  He also warned that Satan would be prowling around seeking those he can devour.  While those who are truly born-again are save in Christ’s hands, that doesn’t mean Satan won’t try to devour our joy – indeed, he absolutely loves to cause doubt, pain, and trouble to do that very thing.  There are many examples that I call “The Valleys”.

One such example is my own fear of tripping or falling.  Some people view ministers as “special” folks – and while I appreciate the sentiment, I would like to make it clear that we are subject to the same kinds of temptations and testing that all mankind face.  Further, when you add in the pressure of trying to live up to the biblical description or qualifications of the pastor (bishop, elder, overseer – depending on translation) found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7,  you have a unique situation, especially when you take into consideration the opinions of others.  Not being a drunkard is easy, particularly if you don’t drink at all.  But what about being “sober-minded”?  Do we interpret that as “thinking clearly”?   What about not being “quarrelsome”?  Does that mean you will not debate or speak up for what is right by God’s Word?  Of course not – yet that is how this is sometimes interpreted.  He must “manage his own household well”, so when you kids misbehave, or a spouse makes a mistake – does that suddenly make the pastor unworthy?  I could go on, but I believe the point is made.

And my greatest fear of all, while it should not be a concern if I am truly listening to and abiding with the Lord, but it is a healthy fear, I believe – that of speaking something that isn’t accurate.  The very last thing I desire is to lead someone astray, presenting a false message from God.  This rates right up there with giving someone a false sense of security – telling them they are “saved” when they haven’t truly repented of their sin, and trusted wholly in the completed work of Christ.  This latter is most dangerous among children, yet has become a trait of many preachers of the day.

And then you have the challenges that come when working with people, and this being no more evident than in the local church.  Every church, whether it has been organized for decades, or for months, has a mix of people who have a varying level of Christian maturity.  Add to it the natural proclivity of some people to be, shall we say “unreliable”, and the work of ministry becomes a real challenge, especially in the context of a small church body.  I firmly believe that, with real Christian growth, comes faithfulness both to the local church and towards others.  Jesus said (recorded in Matthew 5:33-37)  to not commit yourself unless you are willing to follow through (let your yes be yes, your no be no).  The apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 3:23-24 to do all you do (work, commitments, obligations, etc.) as if you were doing them directly for the Lord.

This carries over to what many pastors face – and I believe it is also directly related to spiritual maturity (or lack thereof) – and that is the double-minded church member.  This is the person who will praise you and pat you on the back to your face, but stab you in the back when you turn to walk away.  They cover you with platitudes to your face, but pour out venom about you to others when you are not present.  While ministers shouldn’t allow the attitudes of such people to hurt them, it is very difficult to ignore.  What becomes even more painful is that in some church bodies, other supposedly mature members put up with it and say nothing.

This goes hand-in-hand with the eternal (often joked about) question of church attendance.  In a realm often measured by numbers, when a preacher prepares, prays, studies, writes, and opens his heart to the Lord’s message each week, only to find low attendance on Sunday, it gets discouraging.  It probably shouldn’t, since the Lord knew who would come and who wouldn’t.  Yet the flesh is week – and the heart pierced through.  It again brings on questions of faithfulness.

For the pastor, there is also the pressure of finances, both personal and church.  From the personal side, a pastor desires to supply his family’s needs, and to live fairly comfortably (without a great deal of stress about how to pay his expenses), while also wants to set a faithful example for the members of the congregation he serves.  He desires to be a good steward of what God blesses him with, yet often finds such balance difficult to achieve.  Pastors face the exact same financial pressures as everyone else.  Add to the mix, the delicate balance of juggling the IRS regulations on income and state tax questions which come with the unique taxpayer status of the minister.  Most people do not realize that pastors are considered BOTH self-employed and employed by the IRS.  Pastors are responsible for paying the full self-employment tax (not just the half that regular employees pay), plus stringent documentation requirements for any allowances (including the pastor’s housing allowance) that might be provided.  I can fully admit I have lost many nights of sleep in my relatively short time in full-time ministry, concerned that I have all my “ducks” in a row.  Then, the finances of the church, which often can be precarious.  You deal with a mix of views on giving (or tithing), an economic climate that might be struggling, and you get the added stress of trying to orchestrate financial security for the local church.

Family – one of the greatest blessings a man can have, his family, can also be one of the biggest challenges – not only in the 1 Timothy “manage” sense of the word, but also in the sometimes very limited time to spend with his family.  This is something that I have tried to make a top priority, yet still sometimes the work of ministry can get in the way of my family.  But this is one of the prices to pay.

All work and no play…  a common enough phrase that is intended to put a picture to the danger of being consumed with your work.  Yet for the Pastor, his work IS his life.  It is a life dedicated to the Lord’s purposes.  I’m afraid we pastors sometimes allow our work to become everything – not only at the expense of our family, but to our own sanity.  Add to the picture what one of my seminary professors labeled “joy suckers” – those who so burden you, so consume (demand) your time, and constantly bombard you with their own worries and concerns, that they literally suck the joy right out of you, and a pastor can easily become that “all work, no play” figure, slowly losing it, with family and other “higher” duties suffering for it.  Again, a very difficult balance to maintain, but oh so important.

Expectations – when a pastor arrives on the field, often his success (or failure) is based on numbers.  Because it is difficult to measure SPIRITUAL growth, it is quite easy to measure numerical growth.  It is a simple matter to tabulate how many professions of faith, how many baptisms, how many have joined the church, just as it is easy to count those who disappear out the revolving door on the back side.  The “numbers game” has done as much damage to the Gospel as nearly any other assault on the Good News.  How many have adopted an “easy-believism” gospel to bolster the professions/baptism numbers?  For those that do not know what that term means, easy-believism is where you essentially ask – “do you believe in God?  Do you want to go to heaven?  Then ask Jesus into your heart…  have you done that?  Then welcome to the “family of God” – you are saved and sealed forever….”.  It completely ignores the clear biblical imperative that one must be called by the Sprit,  you must repent (literally a change of heart way from sin),  and a belief that is far more than simply “head knowledge”.  This false gospel ignores the imperative that there be visible change in a person – in their actions, in their character that demonstrate the internal change brought by the Lord and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.    This, I believe is one of the leading causes of that church “revolving door” – people who have made professions based on this flawed version of the Gospel, who do not grow spiritually, and thus eventually wander away.

One of the most difficult valleys is being a part of the end of life for someone.  Prior to surrendering to the ministry, I had never been present when someone passed away.  Since entering the ministry, I have been present for quite a few.  The emotion can be overwhelming – yet this valley can also be a blessing, especially when you have confidence that the person leaving this earth has left to be with the Lord.  The second blessing from it is the honor of being in a position to try to help those grieving the loss.

I could go on for page after page reflecting on the dark valleys and frustrations, but it is time to turn to the Mountains – the joys and great blessings that truly help to remind the minister that God is in control:

The Mountains:

I would be committing an injustice if I left this post with nothing more than the frustrations.  To do so would be little more than a self-imposed pity party.  To be honest, the Mountains – the “ups” of ministry truly are incredible.

In contrast to the unfaithful and the double-minded, in a congregation, you generally also find those who are very faithful, and who do love and support you.  They would consider any back-stabbing to be offensive, and are going to do what they can to help you succeed in ministry.  These are the Barnabas-types.  Those who, whether spiritually mature or not, work hard, contribute generously both of their time and their resources, and who have placed Christ first in their lives.  These people remind me of what we all are CALLED to be like.  Certainly these types of people trip sometimes.  Yet they rebound because of Christ who live within them.  Their lives are a genuine Christian witness.  These people are pillars helping to support the pastor.

Another great “up” of the ministry is joy that comes when you are blessed to lead someone to genuine  faith in Jesus Christ.  The accompanying joy is being able to invest yourself in those people (discipleship).  Yes, this opens you up to being hurt when someone isn’t as faithful or as committed as they should be, but overall – the experience is usually a great blessing.

A related mountain would be seeing the proverbial “light bulb” go on in a person.  This is the same joy that I received as a teacher and band director – when students actually “get it”.  In the context of the local church and Gospel ministry, it is when someone actually grasps, understands, and then applies it in their life.  There are few of the blessings of ministry as powerful as seeing lives actually changed by God’s Word.

Yet another incredible “up” is being able to look back at those times when you didn’t really see a lot of positive going on, yet the look back reveals some incredible blessings – an impact that you just couldn’t see at the time.  Often this comes in the form of pieces you put into place, or some concepts you introduced (maybe to resistance) that have taken root and produced fruit.

Another exciting experience in ministry is the blessing of introducing new areas or opportunities to minister to others.  Whether it is leading your people to participate in community events, or simply helping them to see where they can minister to others based on their own skills, experiences, and gifts.  After all, we are called together as a local church, in part, to minister to each other.  When I can encourage others.  Further, when you help someone to build the confidence to share their faith – and they have the honor of leading someone to Christ – it is a blessing to all involved.

But one of the greatest joys of ministry – one that many never really understand – is that my “job” revolves around God’s Word.  I get distinct honor of studying, praying, studying, praying, and expounding on God’s Word as the core of my life.  In the process, so many “messages” flow that the congregation will never hear – because God was speaking to me – for me.  My time with the Lord is such a huge and sustaining blessing.  I cannot imagine life without it!

In fact, if not for the Holy Spirit’s regular ministry TO me, if not for the power of God’s Word every time I open the pages and read, if not for the faithful people who lift me up, and if not for the joy of seeing fruits produced from time-to-time, ministry would be impossible.

When I sometimes feel like throwing myself a pity party, I go back and read the adventures that the apostle Paul endured as he Contended for Christ.  Nothing I have faced or likely will face, can ever come close to the trials and massive valleys that he endures.  Yet what can we learn from Paul’s experience?  That God will use the willing, even in the dark times, for his glory.  If we as ministers have to face some pain, trials, and even persecution that God might be glorified (and that souls might be saved), then it is so worth it.

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