The phone rang at 3:00 a.m. one Saturday morning. "Pauline is dying," her niece said. "Can you come?" I dressed quickly, told my wife I didn't know when I would return, and headed out the door. I drove to the nursing home ten miles away, where the oldest member of our congregation lay dying. At 105, Pauline had outlived her husband, her nearest relatives, her friends, and her neighbors. Now her time had come, too. I was Pauline's pastor. It was my duty to be there with her as she crossed from this life into the next. But I knew it was more than just my job; it was my calling.
If you are a pastor, you probably have had a similar experience. In a time of crisis, you know why you go. You represent God's presence, God's comfort, and God's grace to those passing through their own dark night of the soul. Sitting in a hospital with anxious parents whose child is in surgery, or standing with a widow as she identifies the body of her husband—you know you make a difference. In those times, it is not difficult to remember why we said "yes" to God's call to pastoral ministry. Unfortunately, there are other times in a pastor's life when the clarity of our call fades, discouragement clouds our memory, and we wonder, "Why did I ever want to be a pastor?"
I experienced a period of doubt and discouragement in 1990, and I forgot why I had become a pastor. And when I forgot why I had become a pastor, the next question I asked myself was, "Why don't you quit?" And I did. I resigned from the church I started and left pastoral ministry. I thought I had nothing more to say. I thought my years of ministry hadn't made a difference. I was tired emotionally and spiritually, and I quit because I couldn't remember why I had begun.
Fortunately, my story doesn't end there. In 2003, I stood in the pulpit for the first time in thirteen years. I had remembered again why I said "yes."
The Myths of Ministry
Looking back on my own struggle with God's call, I realized that three "myths of ministry" contributed to my difficulty. This is not an exhaustive list, but these myths played a key role in my experience:
- The myth of inexhaustible energy. In my early ministry, I was a "get-it-done" type of guy. I wanted higher attendance, more baptisms, a bigger budget, and new buildings. I juggled multiple tasks, worked long hours, pushed my staff and volunteers hard, and accomplished a lot. In the churches I served, we set new attendance records, began additional worship services, bought more property, built and remodeled buildings, and added a record number of new members. I ran on adrenaline, coffee, and praise, but when those ran out, I did too.
- The myth of the indispensable pastor. As my ministry grew, I began to think that no one knew more, could do it better, or had the vision I had. I thought I was indispensable to my church and probably the Kingdom of God, too. Rather than let lay leaders practice their own gifts in ministry, I did it all. Instead of delegating tasks, I gathered them to myself. When something needed to be done, I did it—from changing light bulbs to picking out toys for the nursery. I did it with enthusiasm, I did it with confidence, and I thought no one could replace me.
- The myth of the inspired visionary. As I studied growing churches, I discovered outstanding examples led by visionary pastors who challenged their congregations "to attempt great things for God and expect great things from God." We reached new high attendance goals. We adopted multi-phase building programs. We increased our budgets, gave more to missions, and sent members on global mission trips. I saw the vision, cast it before the church, and rallied our members to it. I took our success as validation of my dreams and pressed ahead with newer and bigger goals.
You may be able to add to this list of ministry myths, but for me, those were the big three. Obviously, they all revolved around me—my energy, my ability, my vision. I must confess I enjoyed it for several years. Denominational leaders love a success story, and they asked me to speak at national conferences. I wrote articles about church programs from "how to grow a Sunday School" to "how to start a prayer ministry." But with each achievement, I forgot a little more about why I had said "yes" to God's call years before. My own success had become the reason for my ministry.
Of course, I didn't see it at the time. I told myself we were building the Kingdom, that our church was an example to others, and that God was blessing us tremendously. My self-talk contained enough truth to keep me going for a few more years. Then one day, in February 1990, I couldn't make sense of my life. I had forgotten why I was doing all the stuff I was doing. It no longer mattered to me. I felt drained and empty. I had forgotten why I said "yes."
The Fog of Ministry
Military commanders describe the failure of communication and the loss of perspective in battle as the "fog of war." Pastoral ministry has its own fog, too. In the midst of the stresses and rewards of everyday life, many pastors find it difficult to maintain an unwavering sense of call. We can confuse our success with our call, which is exactly what I did. I told myself that my success in ministry validated my call. But, when pastors believe performance validates their call, then ministry failure invalidates their call. In other words, if I succeed, it's because God has called me; but if I fail, then maybe God didn't call me. We need to separate our performance from our call. God called us before we succeeded or failed in ministry. His call does not depend upon our achievement.