There was a saying, often repeated in the farming community of my youth, that structured the perceived values of work life simply and decisively:
If you can’t farm, you can always teach;
if you can’t teach, you can always preach;
if you can’t preach, you can always teach preachers!
When I recite this to my seminary students, I tell them that I have finally risen to my level of incompetency!
While the world, including our vocational investments, is much more complicated than the Minnesota farmers, mostly without college educations, perceived, we like the cleanness of ordered hierarchies and defined job descriptions. Life in church leadership is certainly neither of these. For instance:
- Church leaders have as many “bosses” as there are people involved in their ministries. Although you may have experience and training, there will be many who assume they know much more about your work and what you should be doing than you do!
- There are no defined time commitments in church leadership, even if you have planned office hours. Moreover, church work has an insidious creep about it that constantly takes a bit more here and there, left to its own. Without strong personal initiative and management, church life can gradually usurp all of a church leader’s identity.
- Repetition can sap vision. Because there is a clear yearly cycle of repeated church activities and liturgical seasons, the process of church leadership can begin to devolve into maintenance recycling of plans and teachings. Over time, long-range developments and new goals can erode or get back-paged.
But every job has its challenges, and these hurdles should never become cataracts that dim keen leadership sight. After all, in what other calling could you also find these enormous riches?
- Church leadership always involves deep meaning and large purpose. Several generations ago, when the Dutch “ruled” Indonesia and controlled its commerce, Shell Oil Company needed a field representative who understood the language and culture of people in a certain area. The only European who lived there and had such insights was a missionary pastor. Four times company representatives met with him, offering ever larger salaries, seeking his employment. Each time he refused. Finally they told him, “Name your price!” He responded: “The money offer is plenty big, but the job is too small.” He knew what was important in life, as does every good church leader. Nothing is larger than communicating and applying the gospel again and again, day after day.
- There is also an immediate intimacy between church leaders and those with whom they minister. We are valued and welcomed before we have had to earn trust. This can certainly be misused and abused, but it is a tremendous gift. Families call on pastors when death or illnesses strike, and want them around at births and marriages and graduations and all of the other big events. Women who are wrestling with relationships confide and seek prayer and direction. Men who wouldn’t admit needs and unhealthy cravings to their best friends break down and confess to us. And even children assume the best about church leaders. I was walking up a staircase when a young boy dashed around me and reached first for the door handle at the landing. He looked up at me, recognized me as the pastor, and said, “You talk to God, don’t you?!”
- Care. When Paul was imprisoned in Rome, his former Philippian congregation sent their most trusted leader Epaphroditus with a care package. The writer of Hebrews noted how much these Christians cared about what happened to their leaders. And Peter encouraged congregations to honor well their leaders. While we often give and give and give, as if our emotional and spiritual resources are limitless, when we have needs (as I have powerfully experienced), our ministry family explodes with the best of divine blessings.
Farming in Minnesota is a noble occupation. All vocations, when lived out of response to God’s good calling, are exactly what we should be doing, and church leadership is no higher or lower in significance. And yet, no job has quite the same ability to connect heaven and earth in the immediate experience of people as does church leadership, tough and demanding and thankless as it can be at times.