Two years ago I stood on the church steps in a small town in Illinois and watched uncertainly as the big yellow moving van pulled away from the curb. Inside, the movers had stowed my books, my files, and most of the other belongings I had accumulated in twenty years of preaching, the last ten in this sleepy little country town of 7,000 souls. Now, largely on my doctor’s advice, I was not moving to another congregation but actually “leaving the ministry.” It was the same old story played to the same tune that every minister knows by heart: an inherited problem, a tremendous growth rate, a new building, a couple of men with personal ambitions, and resulting factionalism. The stresses of removing the spiritual cancer took their toll, and after two trips to the hospital I heard the doctor’s recommendation.

He had suggested a temporary change of occupation. But as I walked back into that empty office and heard the echo of my footsteps mocking me from the gaping tiers of vacant bookshelves, it might as well have been the end of the world. I sat down in the quarter-oak chair, leaned back, and looked around. The office, though small, had been adequate during those early, hectic years. As attendance and program grew, a larger office was planned for the new building.

As I looked at the office, I thought of those who had crossed its threshold. Most of them had been honest, sincere people who had come for help, for strength, and for advice. They had looked to their minister for an explanation of the things that perplexed them, for an answer to questions they could not answer, for a solution to problems they could not solve. Arising from my chair, I walked past the bare-topped desk and out through the door. To whom do ex-ministers go at times like these?

Less than six months later I sat in my study in the beautiful home that we were able to afford on a more ample secular salary and agreed to return to the preaching ministry. It meant a considerable salary cut. It meant turning in the keys of the expensive company car I was permitted to drive as my own. It meant relinquishing an almost unlimited expense account. It meant giving up a promised promotion that would have brought prestige and financial security in my new profession. It meant returning to a schedule of work every night and every weekend.

Why did I do it? Why did I return to the ministry? Some have guessed that the ministry is easier than other vocations, but they are wrong. Some have supposed that the surroundings in a secular job might be unpleasant or distasteful, but mine were not. Others have tried to assign this and that motive to my decision. But here is my own evaluation of it. Behind all the sentimental drive and the thin veneer of superstition that have been associated with the decision to enter the Christian ministry, there lies a pulsing sense of urgency. It is that inner compulsion that keeps you working long hours and doing a job that might make you a first-class executive in the business world. It is that constant appeal that whispers just above the call of family, friends, country, and even life. You knew its call when the telephone’s shrill voice demanded that you stumble into your clothes and hurry to the hospital to be with a family facing the imminent death of a loved one. How many times have you heard it in your office, as you sat between the halves of what was once a marriage of love? You beheld the beckoning finger of this motivation each time you stood before a man and woman glowing with hope and declared them one in the Master’s name and service. You knew it each time you looked across a casket into the eyes of those who were clinging to your every syllable for some hint of hope.

Article continues below

We all know the neurotics and the hypocrites who cluster around the church—the frightened, the blustering, the insecure and cunning, the unloved and rejected. These are among the sick that Jesus came to heal. No more unlovely human being lives than the ambitious neurotic who mistakes your kindness for weakness, your patience for indecision, and your love for groveling. How easy to forget that he feels inferior, rejected, and threatened by his world and searches you out as a vulnerable target for his hostility, certain that you will not retaliate. And what joy you know as you turn the other cheek, praying that he will find in Christ the emotional balance you enjoy in your Lord. These frustrated misfits think of the world outside the church as filled with cold-eyed, dangerous predators. Although they may be emotionally treacherous and even consider you “the enemy,” they know that you will not prey on them but will pray for them. And you find your reward in loving the unlovely, in returning good for evil.

The alcoholic—despised by society, forsaken by his friends, misunderstood by his family, avoided by the moral and upright—comes to you as a last resort. He knows he can trust you. You may not understand, but he sees in you a little of the love of God that will not condemn him. He recognizes in you the meaning of the word “friend” as Jesus used it. And, though you may hide a natural revulsion mixed with pity behind your patience and kindness, you stand a little taller where God does the measuring when you try to lead the human derelict to safety from himself.

Article continues below

Or a frightened girl is led into your office by a tearful mother and an indignant father. No one has to tell you that she is another statistic on the illegitimacy tables. She has come to confide in you. You are the only man on earth, besides her doctor, who will hear her fears, answer her questions, and help her through her Gethsemane without prying, accusing, or lecturing. She instinctively knows that you will offer her the healing love of him who stood before another of her kind one day and said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” No one ever knows—that is, no one but you—the minor chord of fulfillment that sounds in your heart as she returns home from her ordeal to thank God through you for reaching out to her and helping her find solid ground in the security of faith.

The consuming fire of the ministry warms you again as you stand before a congregation waiting to be fed the realities of life. They come, wandering through a modern wilderness, often alone, eager and hungry for the bread of life that satisfies the inner man. And they come to you. You feel a deep, solid satisfaction when you reach far into the Word of life and know that your sermonic creation is meeting a vital congregational need. It fulfills your destiny to see the light of new understanding break over listening faces, to see taut muscles relax, to watch the spark of eager hope kindle into a warm flame of faith, and to behold lives that have been jarred awake by your impassioned plea.

These, then, are some of the signs along your road that tell you yours is a high calling. It is a road that not only struggles through low and sordid places but also soars atop windswept peaks of inspiration. Again and again you rise from the shadows and tears to walk with God in the cool of the evening in Eden’s new relationship.

As you follow your high calling, you find a hundred fathers and a hundred mothers who love you, weep over your sorrows and disappointments, and rejoice in your victories and your growth. You find a hundred brothers and sisters whose loyalty often exceeds that of your own flesh and blood. Thus your high calling comes to fruition.

Article continues below

Surely these must be some of the things the inspired writer had in mind when he declared: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him.” Your high calling is the very call of love. It is the motivation of the good Samaritan, the evangelist, the counselor, the pastor who goes about doing good. It is the catalyst that breaks down a hostile, anger-charged situation, finds the motive, makes forgiveness an ennobling experience that you would not miss. It is the touchstone of your relationship with Deity, the common ground from which, with God, you can view your bruises with objectivity and understanding. This is what enables you to understand the Saviour’s intercessory plea for his tormentors: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

We make such a fetish of proclaiming our humanity as ministers that we often obscure the larger fact that we have been with Jesus. We have walked with him and imbibed his spirit. We have talked with him and plumbed his mind. We have suffered with him, rejoiced with him, and worked with him to share his grace. Though we may not ask for his respect of our persons, he will not deny us our heritage as men who have loved him with our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. If it is true that heaven is to be enjoyed in direct proportion to the depth of our relationship with our Saviour here on earth, then the slings and arrows of our calling will find their greatest recompense in our having walked with him through Gethsemane, through the valley of the shadow of death, and to Calvary if need be—and it must needs be. If it is true that the greatest among the children of God is the one serving the most unselfishly, then greatness is selfless humility—received as if undeserved, worn as if it did not exist, and lost when vainly displayed. Like happiness, this greatness is only the by-product of our participation in a cause higher than ourselves without thought of personal gain.

Yes, I returned to the ministry. I have wept a few bitter tears for the slow and hard of heart, and I have lost sleep in prayer for the selfish, the indifferent, and the neurotic. But I am home again—facing the problems and wounds of a sure and certain battle with our oldest enemy, but not facing them alone. The simple declaration of Jesus, “Lo, I am with you always,” is like the promise spoken by the prophet for the Lord: “Fear thou not, for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.”

Love your calling as a ministry sent to you by the Lord himself. It is the highest calling on earth. It is an invitation and challenge to walk with God where God walked when he visited our planet as our loving, serving, suffering Saviour.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.