If you’ve just begun your journey through seminary, I want to congratulate you on making one of the most awesome, wonderful, and terrifying decisions a Christ-follower can make—that of submitting to a life of service and a very close walk of faith with your Master.
In seminary orientations there are experienced faculty who provide insights into what you can expect in the educational process. They will tell you of the wonderful work you’ll be doing for his kingdom. They’ll extol the virtues of in-depth study, provide incredible tales of archaeological digs in Israel, and talk about the wonder of a life spent preaching the gospel. They’re all true and possible, if that is where God leads.
I also want to offer you some insights about what to expect in ministry. But my observations are a bit more somber. They are hard truths. These insights are only Dr. Tomlin’s observations—you can take them or leave them—but I, and those I know as close friends in the ministry, have all walked a few of these steep and rocky roads.
What can you expect in ministry?
First, financial hardship is part of the deal. When I first told my father I was planning to go into the ministry, I didn’t exactly know what to expect. I told him I had decided to go to seminary in Texas, and his words were honest and profound. “You know you’re never going to make any money,” he said. I didn’t fault him for it. He’d grown up the hardscrabble way in rural Arkansas, and he’d seen his fair share of poor and struggling preachers. He was concerned I wouldn’t be able to provide for a family. At many times over the course of my career, I have had my fair share of moments where I wondered if he might be right.
For the past 27 years, there has been, more often than not, more month than money. At times we’ve done without. There have been many times where we’ve thought we were finally coming out of it; then something has happened to remind us to turn our focus away from our financial surety to the Father who provides what we need, when we need it. When there seems there is no way out, God has provided it.
That financial lesson is one we have all learned (I hope) and become content with. Those of us in the ministry have “counted the cost.” We have left houses, homes, and family to follow Him. And these momentary and light afflictions of hardship really don’t mean anything in the long run (our treasure is Christ, and we will enjoy Him in his fullness later, when our faith is made sight). I willingly accepted that when I said “yes.” I hope you did, too.
Second, be prepared for criticism. It has been said, “A preacher never gave a sermon he didn’t like.” That is true. We tend to view whatever we produce (especially our sermons or, in my case, lectures) as something we’ve delivered as if straight from the Almighty’s lips through our mouths to the congregation’s ears and, if we’re lucky, their hearts. But not everyone is going to like what we have to say. Believe me, I have delivered some clunkers. I’ve struggled to articulate what I’ve wanted to say. I’ve seen students look at me like they were calves in front of a new gate—just plain confused. A good minister realizes he or she is not perfect. A good professor realizes he or she may sometimes misstep. And in all cases, we have to be prepared to deal with the criticism honestly. Take the criticism and adjust. Be humble. Revisit the topic if you have to. If you really messed things up, take another run at it.
Third, accept that you will be hurt. I remember the first time I heard a very sobering phrase: “The Christian army is the only army that shoots its wounded.” How profound is that? While they shouldn’t be, I can tell you church people are generally like everyone else. They can be sweet on Sunday and sting like hornets on Monday. They are people, and people are people no matter if they are saved or lost. Again, they’re not supposed to be like the world, but they many times are. So are we. If (when) you are hurt by the people in your congregation, you’ll need to take a step back. More often than not, we don’t do this. We begin to marshal our forces to fight the other faction. But being like Jesus means taking those abuses in and letting them dissolve in the light of who you are in Christ. It means forgiving others. It means moving on from the hurt and seeking restoration.
Fourth, accept that you will likely someday be fired. If you are able, as a minister of the gospel, to serve in one church your whole life, you are truly blessed. That is not the case for most, however. The average tenure of a pastor is normally 3-5 years. They either move on to “bigger and better”—I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pastor receive a call to a smaller church—or they make lateral moves. Often times, the reasons they move are because they have been pummeled by the people in the church, especially by the deacons or a church board. If not fired, you might find it so uncomfortable you will want to leave on your own. But I encourage you to gather with the “unhappies” in your midst in the spirit of peace. Get on your faces before God. Pray out loud. Pour your heart out to God. Seek restoration with your brothers and sisters. If you are fired after that, at least you can leave with a clean conscience.
Fifth, brace yourself for pain. You will see, hear, and experience things no man or woman should ever see, hear, or experience. You will watch as a man or woman slips into eternity without Christ. You will listen as a father confesses from his jail cell the sexual abuse of his daughter. You will weep with his daughter as she tries to make sense of the abuse suffered at the hands of the one who was supposed to protect her. You will be the second on scene when a young man has taken his own life (and you may be asked to clean up). You are going to experience pain like few people have before. It won’t only be your pain. As a minister of the gospel, you take on everyone else’s pain. I pray you never develop a tolerance for it. I pray it always drives you to the protection of the Father. I pray it keeps you empathetic with those you serve. I pray you will be able to share it as Scripture commands us, with all compassion. If you find yourself without compassion in such circumstances, it is time to review your call.
A sixth lesson is much harder to take in: you are not always right. This requires little explanation. There may be times when you are entrenched. You, however, are going to have to become accustomed to people not seeing eye-to-eye with you. Your view on the End Times may not be their view. Your view on how the church budget should look may not be your deacons’ view. Don’t let your desire to be right dominate your relationships. Learn to agree on essentials and allow latitude on non-essentials. If the matter is an indifferent matter, learn to be indifferent about the views others hold.
Finally, you will have to make a choice. Today and every day is a time for choosing. Are you going to follow the world, or are you going to follow Christ? These choices are mutually exclusive. It is time to parse what is being said in culture with clear and level heads. If you are unwilling to choose in order to avoid being controversial, unwilling to choose for fear of offending, unwilling to choose because you are concerned what people will think of you (God’s instrument for declaring the gospel), and unwilling to choose and suffer for it, you are in the wrong business.
I hope what I’ve written here helps you in some way. At least you will now not be able to say, “No one ever told me it would be like this.” And lest I leave you depressed, entangled in your own “dark night of the soul,” know I will offer better news in just a few days.