Just a Little Bit Longer
Why We Stay in Ministry
Eugene Peterson once noted that the pastoral calling
. . . is a kind of messiness, a lot of stumbling around, fumbling the ball, losing my way, and then finding it again.
As one who is quite skilled at this “ball fumbling” thing, I appreciate hearing such words.
Some pastors, however, find themselves in churches less tolerant of honest “stumbling around,” and that can be a problem. When the critics start in and when people leave the church it is the pastor who feels personally targeted and at fault. We internalize the critics and an inner voice tells us we are frauds who really ought to just quit and do something else.
So why do we stay at a job that may at best baffle us, and at worst batter us?
Let me preface my answers by saying a few things.
First, some pastors should leave. Those who mistreat the sheep for whatever reasons should not be shepherds at all.
I don’t write the words that follow for those abusing the sheep. Rather I write to encourage decent, albeit imperfect, pastors to stay. We may not have the numbers, and our pay may be minimal. We are not getting famous. But we are graced with the opportunity to bear witness to Christ to people shaken and shattered by a hard and difficult world. You are doing that, and I want you to continue doing it.
Certainly there are times when we need to move on. I’ll address that in the next post. But when I reflect on why pastors stay, several thoughts come to mind.
Because We Promised
First we stay because most of us took vows that bind us to the task. At my ordination I vowed, however naïvely, to be faithful to my ministry “whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account.” To be honest, I don’t often think about this. But our predecessors in ministry, taking note of the hardship of the task, saw the wisdom of our being bound to it by vows. Revisiting this occasionally can recenter us in the reality that this was never meant to be an easy gig.
Because We Are Called
Secondly, the pastor’s sense of calling bears consideration. This work is something we believe God has led us to do. In ending up in this place, I believe I followed God’s leading. Others confirmed and encouraged this and so here I am. There is something to be said about being where we are because God was and continues to be in it. I came home one day and asked my wife, “Why did I become a pastor?” It had been one of those days. We really could come up with no concrete answer other than calling. Revisiting that now and then can anchor us.
Because We Preach
Thirdly, we stay because this work gives us a unique opportunity to point to Jesus, to proclaim his gospel. During a time of uncertainty, I flirted with joining a respected parachurch ministry. I had the occasion to ask some of the former pastors working for that ministry what they missed most. Without exception they said they missed the preaching.
I understand. I can’t imagine not being able to preach. Is that because I love telling people what to do and think? I don’t believe so. What energizes preaching for me and others is the fact that we get to say things about Jesus. We get to point to him as the way, the truth, and the life. Is this a Jeremiah-like burning in our bones? Sometimes. I can’t imagine life without it. I think many pastors are compelled by the same heart.
Because of Joy
Fourthly, all hardship aside, many stay because they find joy in the work. I once was asked by a class of seminary students what delight, if any, I found in ministry. I immediately thought of the young woman whom I had baptized as a child, whose teenage life I tried to redirect when it was taking a southward turn, and who later returned to the church and then to me as the one she wanted to officiate her marriage. All pastors could tell similar stories. And they bring delight.
Of course, my inner voice of doubt is sometimes so loud and relentless that it drowns out the good stories. It tells me I’m inconsequential and that I am wasting my time. That voice never shuts up.
I just have to ignore it and go do the next thing
Till those lights come up and we hear that crowd
And we remember why we came.
That’s Jackson Browne again.
To remember why I came, why I’m here, encourages the chorus.
Oh, won't you stay
Just a little bit longer?
And so I pick up the ball I’ve fumbled and I stay.
Perhaps just a little bit longer.
I hope you will, too.
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Eugene Peterson, The Pastor (United States: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011), p. 314, 315.
My reflections here are idiosyncratic and anecdotal. More deeply studied and quantified insight on pastoral sustainability can be found in the superb books Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving by Bob Burns, et. al. and Michael E. Osborne’s Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership.
These lines appear in the songs “Stay” and “The Load-Out” which conclude Browne’s album “Running on Empty,” the title of which, ironically, is resonant of pastoral experience.