Without wishing to demean or diminish the value of the plethora of lawful and necessary vocations in the world, I would insist that being called into pastoral ministry is the highest calling a man may receive in this life. To be called by God to spend a life laboring to see Christ formed in His people, pouring yourself out to see lives transformed by the Gospel and participating in the ingathering of Christ’s lost sheep is a glorious calling, to say the least. This is not to exalt one man over against another. It is the office that is exalted. Nor is it to put a stamp of approval on any man who is called a “minister.” Legion are the numbers of charlatans, frauds and self-aggrandizers bearing the title “Pastor.” After all, the Apostle Paul told the church in Corinth that, there were and always would be “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ…for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:13-15). The Apostle Peter also warned that “false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). In fact, the whole of the New Testament is set against the backdrop of false teaching and false teachers.
That being said, there is a danger for men who are pursuing ministry to fall into what some have called “a romantic view of ministry.” Recognizing the high call of the pastorate, and knowing that God is doing His greatest work in the world through His ministers in the church (Eph. 3:10), many have come to embrace faulty views of the ministry. During the early days in seminary, I had foolishly developed something of “a romantic view of ministry.” I had a burning desire to preach and longed to have a Spurgeon-esque type ministry to multitudes who needed the unadulterated preaching of the word and Gospel. During the first year of my studies, one of my professors said to the students in our class, “Get every wrong view of ministry out of your head. Get rid of every romantic view of ministry.” What I didn’t want to hear then, I now tell every man at New Covenant who express interest in pursuing a call to ministry. While the ministry is a most glorious calling, it is anything but romantic. Here are five things that foster “a romantic view of ministry:”
1. Benefits without Burdens. Many men preparing for ministry are protected from difficulties in a church while enjoying, what we may call, “the delightful parts of ministry.” This often comes in the form of a man teaching a Sunday school class the size of most local churches in America. Everyone in the class praises his teaching. He may have even been actively involved in the lives of the people in that class, visited them and poured out his energy, time and prayers for the members of that class. Still, he was protected from the mess of ministry. He had a pastor(s) on the front line–taking all the bullets. In most Presbyterian and Reformed churches, there is a session acting as a defense line to protect the congregation from having to witness much of the infelicitous parts of ministry. In short, such men have all the privileges without the responsibilities and challenges–the benefits without the burdens. I had that experience during my time in seminary. It helped foster in me a romantic, rather than a realistic view of ministry. The preaching, teaching and visitation are often the sweet and blessed parts of ministry. It’s everything else that helps strip away the romance. It is necessary for men to come to terms with this prior to entering ministry.
2. Historical Hero Worship. This is usually fueled by idealistic hagiography. Men preparing for ministry are spending time reading biographies of the great ministers in church history. They are speaking with friends about Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Owen, Spurgeon, Warfield, Murray et al as if they were gods. It is right for us to admire the theological genius and diligent labors of these men. It is right for us to sit at their feet and strive to emulate them where they were strongest. But, there is often the danger of putting them and their ministries on a pedestal, and so failing to realize that these men had spiritual, physical and ministerial weaknesses and burdens just like everyone else. It is partly the fault of biographers, who have often failed to paint them in all of their fallenness and humanness. Most of want a Spurgeon-esque ministry (preaching to 10,000 people and publishing vast numbers of books) without the emotional and physical duress experienced by Spurgeon throughout his ministry. While we want to learn from the great company of theologians who have gone before us and upon whose shoulders we stand, and while we should seek to follow their example of faith and the diligence of their labors for Christ, we must remember that thy were men with clay feet and often plagued with difficulties and challenges in ministry. Doing so, will help us get rid of a romantic view of ministry.
3. Contemporary Hero Worship. This is fueled by Conferences and media. Many have come to terms with the fact that the modern phenomenon of the theological Conference circuits is both a blessing and a snare. It is not the fault of the men who speak at these Conferences–after all, they are doing a great service to the church by using their gifts to help better equip ministers and congregants. The fault lies with those who have often imperceptibly shifted into hero worship mode. It is easy to see the crowds and to have the conversations about the great men of our day without realize that they too often have great challenges, burdens, trials and afflictions in their own ministries. The glory of the Conference scene often veils the bitterness of life and ministry in this fallen world. We need to guard our hearts against seeking after the glory, even as we gratefully receive the ministry of these men. After the stages are broken down, the banner rolled up and the book tables put away, we and they return to the day-in and day-out ministry to people whose lives have been wrecked by sin, who don’t care what Conference you just spoke at and to some who may even cause you great harm in ministry. Coming to terms with this helps get rid of a romantic view of ministry.
4. Faulty Views of Success. One of the hardest challenges a pastor faces in ministry is that of assessing his ministerial success. By success, I do not mean the idea of “soaring achievement” that we so often attach to the word in our modern context. What I mean is how a minister determines whether or not he is effective in the role in which he finds himself and in the place in which he ministers. In every other line of work, there are measurements by which individuals may determine whether they are succeeding in their calling. Within the realm of Gospel ministry, however, we must be firmly convinced that “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:8). We must never fall into the trap of thinking that being a successful minister means the steady and upward accumulation of numbers and resources. It doesn’t mean that every minister becomes a movement leader who has planted or overseen the planting of x number of churches; and, it certainly doesn’t mean that you have developed a successful ministry platform. God may choose to bless a man’s ministry in all those ways, but that, in itself, is no sure litmus test of being faithful and effective as a pastor. Too many churches have adopted that as the standard by which we measure success. God may (and often does), in fact, call a man to minister in the fallow ground of a particular congregation or city. If he is gifted, diligent and faithful to minister the word and preach the Gospel, he will be effectively used by God in ministry whether he sees much or little-to-no fruit. If we consider the ministries of the prophets and Apostles, we begin to form proper views of measuring success in ministry. Stoned, sawn in two, rejected (even by churches they planted), crucified–these are some of the verbs that describe “successful ministries” in the Bible. Jesus let a potential mega-church of 20,000 walk away from Him, while taking 11 on with Him (John 6:66-71). This was success in ministry. Forming biblical standards for assessing effectiveness in ministry is paramount for getting rid of romantic views of ministry.
5. Delusions of Fulfillment. Whenever I meet with men to talk about their desire to pursue seminary, I ask them why they want to pursue ministry. They are usually very bright and have already done very well in their respective secular callings. There is no doubt that they could excel in their studies in seminary and in teaching God’s word in some capacity in the church. However, as I listen to them, I sometimes get the sense that they believe that studying Scripture and theology, laboring to see lives changed and God’s kingdom advance will bring them personal fulfillment. Tim Keller helpfully explains why this has become a problem in our society:
Whereas traditional societies said that you got your meaning in life through your family…we’re the first culture in history that says, ‘You define yourself by defining what you want to be and by attaining it—and then you have significance.’ There’s never been more psychological and social and emotional pressure on work to be either fulfilling or at least lucrative. There’s never been a culture like that.
Many mistakenly convince themselves that they will find fulfillment in the ministry, rather than in Christ. It only takes a few years on the front line as a senior or solo pastor to get rid of such notions. When the trials and challenges of ministry come, the romantic views flees away.
Getting rid of romantic views of ministry in favor of realistic views views doesn’t mean that we must become hardened and bitter. Burk Parson has helpfully noted that “pastors need to have thick skin but not calloused skin.” Having a healthy assessment of the joys and challenges of ministry helps us abandon every romantic view in favor of a realistic one.