This ad will not display on your printed page.
Ten years ago, I stood at my ordination reception, shaking hands with the well-wishers. Near the end of the long line, a church elder congratulated me. Then, he stooped to greet my 4-year-old daughter, whose hand I held.
"Do you know what we're celebrating, today, Kelly?" he asked.
"Today is the day they make my daddy king," she replied.
We laughed. However, I glowed inwardly. She voiced what may have been close to my ministry expectations.
I'll be liked by people, I thought during my years of ministry preparation. They'll be grateful for my help; they'll rise up and call me blessed.
My upbringing reinforced my beliefs: my father was a Christian college professor, my brother a youth pastor, and my brother-in-law a pastor. Ministry was elevated above all other careers. Certainly God would be pleased that I had not chosen another calling.
In the midst of my euphoria, though, I heard the whisper of a subtle fear: What if they rise up, not to bless me, but to leave me? What if I fail? What if my performance doesn't please God?
I ignored my whispered fear. It was drowned out in the clamor of pursuing the dream.
Eight years after my ordination, I sat in the office of a good friend who had gone into counseling. Recalling his seminary training, I asked, "Have you ever thought seriously about becoming a pastor, Dan?"
"I would rather be stripped naked, tied down in a field, covered with honey, and devoured by red ants," he shot back.
We laughed. Inside, however, I wasn't laughing. The dreams about being king had long ago evaporated. I wondered if Dan's red-ant option wasn't more attractive than what I had experienced.
The gauge on my emotional tank showed empty. I was running on fumes. I couldn't service the endless line of people in my congregation needing my expertise. I was like Robert Conrad in the old Eveready(r) commercial, daring the church members to knock my battery off my shoulder.
But I kept putting the battery back on. When someone said this or that had to get done, I volunteered, "Fine, I'll do it." I seldom completed the jobs I started, however, because I'd be busy taking on new assignments. People-pleasing became my calling.
And now I was angry. It was a sophisticated anger, of course. Few suspected it. The ones who felt it the most-my wife and three daughters-deserved it the least. I could walk out of a board meeting unruffled, even though I had just been ordered to tackle another impossible task or had been criticized for not meeting someone's expectation. I'd smile and shove my emotions just beneath the surface.
Until I got home. Then I'd blow my stack over my daughters' ordinary requests. I lumped their normal daddy-needs together with the extraordinary church-needs I couldn't fulfill. The only difference was that at home I could get away with expressing my anger-at least that's what I believed.
Toward my wife, however, my anger took another form: Passivity.
On one occasion, Suzi and I mistakenly asked a counselor friend what he thought of us as a couple.
"Really?" Larry asked.
"Well, okay. Jim, you're a passive wimp. And Suzi, you're a piranha."
I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Maybe you're right."
Suzi snapped, "I hate your guts."
With an impish grin, Larry said, "Am I right?"
Suzi and I laughed about it later.
Larry was right, at least on one account. I was passionless. At church I could initiate, react, and pour my energies into the ministry. I'd spend hour after hour laboring over the church budget but leave our personal finances looking like a five-car pile-up. I would take my day off to paint a room at the church but never finish any project at home.
When Suzi confronted me, I replied, "Fine, I'll do it." I would never say no, but my standard line became sort of a twisted joke. My passivity was a quiet refusal to meet her needs, a refusal to get emotionally involved in her life. Home was a place where I didn't have to play a role. And it almost cost me my marriage.
The leak was slow. Suzi and I had enough good moments together that we never got to the point of desperation. As a result, we never worked on the problem. But still I was afraid Suzi would eventually see me as I really was, and then she would want out. Our marriage slowly sagged.
I was tired, weary of people running my life. Little things bothered me. One parishioner told me I offended him because I crossed my legs too informally on the platform. Even the familiar joke took its toll: "Hey, Jimbo, how does it fee to work one day a week?"
And when things got tough at church, I heard, "You deal with it, Jim. That's why we pay you the big bucks."
Right, I thought angrily, if the bucks are so big, then why does my wife have to work? And why is there never enough money to go around?
When the church grew, I moped. It just meant more people to service. In my eight years as pastor, the congregation had doubled. We added staff. Our giving to missions tripled. But it didn't move me.
I was prepared, though, to answer all the right questions. If you had asked me how my ministry was going, I would have replied, "Great. God is blessing in tremendous ways." And if you asked me about last Sunday, I could say, "Our giving is up, and the attendance just keeps climbing."
What more was there?
But there were other questions I was terrified someone would ask: How are you doing? Are you loving God more this week? How are you loving your wife? Your daughters?
In just a few years, I had switched from feeling like a king to preferring the honey and red ants. I yearned for a way out. Then three years ago, adrift in ministry, I found one; I finagled a two-month sabbatical. After thirteen years at the church-five as youth pastor and eight as senior pastor-I decided I had to get away. I was exhausted. The pressure was destroying my family.
I told the board about my two month get-away (not asking for their permission) and handed them a plan to tide them over until I returned. I was prepared for every possible "What about . . ." To me, the thought of time away from the church was like someone telling a delinquent taxpayer he no longer owed the IRS.
When the board rubber-stamped my proposal, I headed for a January in Colorado.
I chose Colorado because I knew of a Christian counselor who specialized in ministering to church burnouts like myself. Blowing off steam to a counselor will be good for me, I thought. He'll be sympathetic to the pressures and frustrations of local church ministry.
I wanted my giftedness to be affirmed. I wanted ten easy steps to master my ministry, a formula that would allow me to perform, both at church and home.
Colorado didn't turn out to be a hiding place, however. My counselor confronted me with my belief system-what originally propelled me into the ministry and what had kept me afloat for so many years?
"We need to focus on you, first," he said. "We'll talk about the ministry later."
That began a painful journey into the dark recesses of my soul, a probing beneath my smooth exterior. In the following days, anger and hurt spewed forth. Emotions I wanted to keep buried suddenly erupted.
I was forced to face myself and admit that I had developed sinful patterns of defensive behavior. I was consumed with trying to protect my image and taking care of myself. I thought if I could please my congregation, they, in turn, would meet my needs for approval. What I wanted most was acceptance. If I performed well at church, I thought, then I would be liked. Ultimately I secretly hoped that would translate into God's acceptance.
I refused to allow God to be responsible for my life and to meet my needs. Frankly, I had no need of him-mostly, I suspect, because I didn't trust him.
As my counselor confronted me in love, God began a new work in me. Later Suzi flew out to be with me, and our marriage turned a corner. We returned home several weeks later, spending the rest of my sabbatical coming to grips with the fine print of my new lease on ministry and family life.
But the healing process proved to be painful. When I returned to Charlotte, I was anxious to share with friends what God had shown me. Over lunch one afternoon, I met with three close friends and relayed my new discoveries. I confessed that I had been preoccupied with how the ministry appeared and apologized for manipulating them to make me feel good. I asked for the chance to change.
"Now that you mention it," one of them replied, "I always felt you were more interested in how I performed in ministry than about me personally."
The other two nodded.
With two of them, I didn't get a second chance. One whom I considered a close friend distanced himself from me. When I'd ask if something was wrong, he'd reply, "Nope, everything's fine on this end." But every gentle probe produced a polite but walled response. I tried calling him to set up another breakfast or lunch, but he didn't return my phone calls. He vanished from my circle of friends.
I told myself, I don't care about this relationship. I don't need you. But it wasn't true. I was more angry than ever.
After my time in Colorado, I hoped others would appreciate my newfound revelations and be quick to help me work on them. I couldn't understand his brick-wall response.
Losing that friendship drove home to me the shallowness of my church relationships. I had let people get only so close to me. I drew them in when I serviced their needs. When I stopped trying to please, many of these relationships ended.
Slowly and painfully, God opened my eyes to these new signs of my sin of self-protection. I had to relearn a basic principle of ministry: give without thought of receiving. That's ministry. I'd have to trust God for my own security.
Part of my metamorphosis allowed me to let God examine my motives for ministry. Jeremiah 31:3-6 took on new meaning for me: "The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: 'I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with lovingkindness.' "
For so many years, I viewed God as a strict and critical father who didn't like the way his son cleaned the family car, wore his hair or lived his life. Nothing I did was good enough. As a result, I served my church people in an attempt to receive the affirmation and strokes my twisted relationship with God could never supply.
Part of my healing helped me come to grips with God's perfect and permanent relationship with me. I'm still in process. Looking back, I can now admit I entered the ministry for wrong reasons.
Two years ago, Suzi and I rented the movie, "Field of Dreams." After viewing it, I began sobbing uncontrollably. My outburst of tears bothered me. Why am I crying? I thought, annoyed. It wasn't that great a movie.
Then it hit me: I was wishing I had pursued my love for baseball. Years earlier, I quit hurling fastballs and sliders so I could attend a Christian college and pursue a vocation in ministry. I realized my original call to ministry wasn't a burning passion to advance God's kingdom, but instead was an attempt to please God by giving up something I enjoyed for what I believed was a higher calling. I hoped my sacrifice would finally give me the "Great job, Jim" I'd always longed for.
That revelation gave me the liberty to reexamine my motives to minister. In doing so, I had to say, "I am free to leave the ministry. God is okay with that, and so am I."
But I didn't handle that revelation wisely. In an unguarded moment, I shared my new freedom with my church board. Their return stares communicated clearly what they were thinking: We spent all that money on your sabbatical so you could discover you don't have to be our pastor?
I quickly reassured them of my commitment to them and the church.
Instead of weakening my resolve to minister, allowing God to search my motives has made what I do all the more satisfying. Jeremiah says, "I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful."
I see a parallel to my own calling. And though ministry hasn't changed-I still struggle to set limits and trust God to meet my needs-God is rebuilding my call to ministry for the second half of my life. I now see my call in four ways.
It includes God's love for me. I have a clearer understanding of God's committed love for me. Consequently, I have a clearer sense of my call, which helps me to sort out my tasks from the tasks of others. Recently in a board meeting, when tempted to accept another responsibility I knew I couldn't fulfill, I replied, "Let's find someone who is gifted to organize that event. My plate is full." I'm making strides to do what fulfills God's calling rather than reacting to each brush fire in the church. This often means saying no to others' requests and yes to what I perceive to be the most important.
It provides new energy. A serendipity of my journey has been a fresh passion to serve. Determined not to dodge my fears by filling my life with busyness, I've curtailed some areas of my ministry while plunging myself into others. For the first time in fifteen years of ministry, I'm actually focusing on my areas of giftedness.
Shortly after my sabbatical, I began meeting with ten men on Saturday mornings. Initially, I desired to communicate to them what God was doing in my heart. Out of my willingness to bare my soul has grown a ministry to men who are learning to confess their secrets to each other. God has given me the passion and giftedness to relate to these men. Without a doubt it is the most satisfying part of what I do.
It provides contentment. My friend who once described me as a wimp visited last October. "Jim," he said, "you look more settled than I've ever seen you before."
And I am. My days are not cloudless, but God has granted me his peace. My inner turmoil is losing its power. I don't need to know whether or not I could have stepped to the pitcher's mound at Yankee Stadium. I am content with my life's work as a pastor.
It encourages a more committed life. For years, Suzi complained about our personal finances. I was consistently late paying our bills and never worked from a budget. My neglect put us into a deep hole. I finally decided that if I ever wanted the problem solved, I would have to take responsibility for my own actions. Recently I enrolled for financial counseling.
My new understanding of my calling means renewing my commitment to all aspects of my home life, including the women in my life-Suzi and our three girls. Now when my daughters participate in a school event, for example, I've determined to be there. Often that means saying no to someone else. But servicing my daughters' needs is also my business.
Throughout my difficult journey, I have tasted of God's goodness. In my moments of greatest doubt, God has created a new passion to preach his Word. And unless God uses honey and red ants to persuade me otherwise, I'll be promoting my Father's kingdom through my vocation as pastor.
Copyright © 1993 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
Click here for reprint information on Leadership Journal.