A Bible College professor once told his class of future preachers that if they kept working toward that big church then someday they would get there. This was bad advice, as if a big church is more prestigious in the kingdom than a small one. Last time I checked the kingdom was not about prestige, but more akin to downward mobility after the manner of Christ.
The attitude of waiting for that big church leads ministers to view churches as stepping stones on the way to some higher and greater earthly position. I once bought into this believing that my service to smaller congregations amounted to paying my dues. But I always thought it would lead to something "greater."
I dreamed of that big, multi-staff church where my gifts could really be used to their fullest. There I could be more of a specialist as I focused on what I did best while retiring many of the hats I wore in smaller congregations. I reasoned that a multi-staff church could benefit my family by being able to afford group health insurance.
By the time I was 41, 42, and 43-years-old I went through a serious bout with mid-life crisis. I felt like a failure. Nearly two decades of experience and a Master's degree had not propelled me to where I thought I would be by this point in my life. Church members would tell me how great I was and I believed them. Some asked why I was preaching for such a small congregation when a guy like me could excel to much loftier heights. It went to my head.
But when I started applying to larger congregations I found that they didn't want me. They wanted pizzaz, flare, innovation, management skills, and an Activities Director. I thought I could be all those things and still focus on my scholarship, writing, and one-on-one people time, all of which remain my strengths. Since I had so much to offer, in my not-so-humble opinion, why didn't anyone want me?
I eventually made a lateral move with my family across the country to a church that was not any bigger, but far more progressive. I thought that progressive was the key to church growth, assuming that everyone was as sick of legalism as I was. What I learned is that the grass isn't greener on the progressive side of the fence. In many respects, it is just as dead. The progressives talk a good game about loving the masses of faceless poor and marginalized people, but they are often challenged, like many of us, when it comes to loving the brother in front of them. Moreover, Scripture is not typically held in the highest of esteem, attendance is largely optional, and giving is pitiful.
I had jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. I was the object of constant criticism by some and outright contempt by others. Though I still think a majority liked me, the ones who didn't want me there made it abundantly clear on a regular basis. In all fairness, I did bring some baggage with me that was admittedly a distraction. I also found it difficult to deliver on the "campaign promises" of being everything to everyone. But I cannot take all the blame. The constant psychological beating I received only compounded my personal problems and made them worse. I would bring my frustrations home to family which was no good for a marriage that had already been too neglected due in part to all the major changes.
After nine months I was almost relieved to be fired, although it led to the loss of our life savings. To the [designated] leadership's credit, I received three months severance and was afforded the closure of being able to address the congregation prior to my departure. This showed great confidence in my integrity for which I'll always be grateful. We were also assured that the door remained opened and we were always welcome. I did not intend to disappear, but later thought it best for my family and the congregation that we move on. So we did, which turned out for the best since we made great friends at another area congregation.
So I had three months severance, which is more than most employers would have given. But anyone who has looked for a ministry job knows that it's hardly enough time to find one. Five months later I was working a day job in the suburbs while preaching at yet another regional congregation who was without a full time minister. Four months after that, I was preaching full time again.
I learned a lot about myself through those experiences and I learned a lot about my relationship with God. I learned how to take joy in at least something each day, no matter how seemingly small. I don't need a fancy car, a lot of money, or even a job to go hiking with my family or to enjoy a cheap menu item from a drive-thru. I learned to trust God in a way I never had before. He does have a great track record.
It wasn't until I finally learned to pray for God to send me wherever he wanted me that I could be content. I no longer care about going to a big church and I probably wouldn't like the politics (I'm not very political). I'd also assume that such a position would place a great deal of pressure on the minister as figurehead of the institution. So this is no longer a position I covet and moreover it would probably not fit my unique skill set (which I'll address in a later post). I don't think I could ever be "commercial" enough to be comfortable in that setting. (If I were in a 70s rock band, it would be more like Yes, Kansas, or ELP than one of the top 40 groups. If that analogy doesn't resonate with you, don't worry about it).
One of the most important things I learned in what I've been through is that ministry is not a career. In ministry there are no promotions, or pensions, and very few perks or bonuses. Most of my perks through the years have come through generous professionals who've provided services like free eye care or dental care. So some of this balances out.
I once resented the fact that people of comparable education and experience levels made far more than the preacher. Are secular employers more sensitive than churches? Does the preacher's family not deserve as good a vehicle, health insurance, and vacations as Joe Member who works at the credit union? It's not that the church cannot afford to do better. Judging from the cars in a middle class church parking lot on any given Sunday, the houses members live in, and the vacations they take, people could give enough for the preacher to live a comparable standard of living. Elders often want to do better, but the contribution doesn't give them enough to work with.
So I've just come to realize that in a fallen world the price tags have definitely been switched. People place greater value on entertaining themselves and having the latest and greatest toys than they do in supporting those who bring the bread of life to them. Folks spend hundreds of dollars supporting their favorite musicians and athletes while the minster's kids cannot afford to go to the dentist. Did I mention that I once resented this arrangement? It's ironic that in some of those "evil denominations," that aren't even supposed to be real churches, preachers have more perks and greater job security. Go figure!
Okay, I'll admit that some of these things still bother me, but only slightly, and not nearly as much as they once did. Maybe I've learned to lower my expectations that even most Christians will ever place the most value on the things of greatest importance. So if you want to climb the corporate ladder go to business school, but not Bible college. If, on the other hand, you decide to be a teacher, minister, or social worker then you'd better do it because it's your calling and passion---not because you want to feel secure. Our only security is in God anyway.
Now don't get me wrong. I am far from being at a place in my life where I am bitter about anything. Life is too short. I'm actually in a pretty good place right now. The elders have set my salary as generously as possible. All of our family's needs are met and I have every confidence that in the event of an emergency that the church would come through for us. Plus, I get to do what I love. I get to live my passion every day and get paid for it. How many people can say that?
I don't have a supervisor breathing down my neck or berating me for having clocked in thirty seconds late. If I go to lunch with someone and talk for three hours, no big deal. I typically get to set my own schedule. My job has enough variety that if I'm tired of the office I can go do something else. And if people get irritating (a purely hypothetical possibility) then I can retreat to the office. Since I'm the only full time employee there are no office politics, except when I argue with myself.
Ministry is not a career. It's a way of life. You're left with no alternative but to rely heavily upon God, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Most ministers, I would guess, are underpaid and under-appreciated. But the greatest reward is in the next age. Whether we get a literal mansion or a trailer makes no difference to me. What really matters is getting to be with Jesus. When you decide that being with Jesus, even now, is what matters more than anything else in the world, you have embarked upon the path to contentment.