Even though I expected this question, my heart felt as if it would beat right out of my chest. I stood before the group who would either affirm or confirm my "outer call" to ministry, as we Reformed-tradition folks say. Based on the essays I wrote and upon how they experienced me that day, these fine people would determine whether I could become a candidate for Minister of Word and Sacrament. I prayed that God would help me not to see them as gatekeepers or judges to impress, only people who loved God, the church, and me enough to examine my fitness for ministry. Nonetheless, I wriggled with anxiety.
Giddy with idealism, and seeing ministry through rose-colored glasses, I gushed my answer to the question.
"I love God, I love God's people, and I want to serve, love, and do mission with God's people in Christ's name."
The biggest smile ever to cross my face took control of my mouth. I struck a confident-yet-humble pose. A passerby seeing my nonverbals may have mistaken me for a Miss America contestant. I dug into the people's eyes and searched for approval.
They smiled, nodded, and went on to the next question.
Looking back, I wish they would have done more. I wish they would have told me about the great paradox of ministry: that those who follow God's call into it are those with a heart for people, and conversely, that the pastoral leader is often the loneliest person in her congregation.
Author and pastor M. Craig Barnes confirms this in a recent article. He writes about a "holy distance" that the church creates when it ordains a person to ministry. The elders who lay hands upon a pastor at her or his ordination are led by the Holy Spirit to push the reverend away, says Barnes. "They [are] essentially saying, ‘We are setting you apart to serve us. So you can't be just one of the gang anymore. Now you have to love us enough to no longer expect mutuality.'"
I would argue that the same is true for all pastoral leaders, clergy and lay. Ministry is a demanding vocation. Ministers, like the Hebrew prophets of old, carry the weight of the presence and word of the Lord and the cares of their people with them at all times. Sometimes nights are restless because ministers do not lay down these holy burdens as they lay themselves down to sleep and pray the Lord their souls to keep. There are few who truly "get" the life and plight of the minister. As much as church members want to "get it" (and maybe believe that they do) and be there for their pastors, they don't and they cannot.