This year marks my silver jubilee as a Pastor. The space-time continuum has clearly warped. Somehow I have clocked up a quarter of a century in church leadership.
Back at the start, newly graduated and sporting a pretty decent mullet, I sort of stumbled into the way of life that has become my life. A staff vacancy had suddenly and unexpectedly appeared at church and, without a second thought, I quit my job and stumbled into this thing they call 'full-time ministry'. The ensuing twenty-five years have been the most arduous, the most marvellous and peculiar of adventures.
People used to want to be pastors. Not so much any more. These days they want to be abolitionists, or human rights lawyers, or 'creatives', or tech-entrepreneurs, or Youtubers, or coffee-roasters, or ethical bankers (if such a thing is even possible).
And who can blame them? People are leaving the church in droves. There isn't a lot of kudos in church leadership any more. The country parson of Trollope's England, the square-jawed evangelist of post-war America, these men are relics of dead Christendom. When I rock up at parties in my half-crappy car and my cheap shoes and tell sophisticated millennials what I actually do, they change the subject or compulsively describe their Great Aunt's funeral arrangements. It's all a bit #awkward.
And I haven't even mentioned the money...
The greatest commission
And yet I'm convinced that this call to care for Christ's church is the most challenging, the most rewarding, the most meaningful vocation - the greatest commission which can possibly be bestowed upon any man or any woman by God himself.
I see this more clearly today than I did back at the start, when I was all gung-ho and idealistic, unbruised and fired-up to change the world. Which is why, I suppose, I'm writing this piece now. It's a sort of love-song to my vocation. I want people to aspire to pastoral ministry once again. I'd even like to provoke a little healthy envy amongst mere bankers and barristers and baristas - those 'unlucky' enough to have been called elsewhere into other, lesser vocations!
And then there are my fellow pastors; those just starting out in ministry and those who've been at it longer than me. I know it's not an easy job. Rick Warren says it takes a few years of practice to become a good preacher but decades of pain to become a wise pastor! He's probably right. Leadership can break your heart. It can be lonely. I know the crazy hours. I know the feeling of being 'left-behind' when others begin to get bigger houses and better cars and nicer holidays and can pay for their kids to have opportunities you can't afford. I also know the secret temptation to quit - to become a banker or a barrister or a barista with your own chain of independent, ethical coffee shops.
We all want to be Joan of Arc
Westerners who believe in reincarnation and past-life regression have always been remarkable people in their previous lives. They were Joan of Arc, they were a Saxon King, they were a bejewelled courtier for Henry VIII, they were an archer in the battle of Agincourt. No-one was ever a housewife with piles, or the underachieving son of a muck-spreading serf.
Disgruntled pastors suffer from a similar dillusion. We kid ourselves that if we weren't doing this form of ministry we would be successful elsewhere - entrepreneurs, executives, medical consultants, freedom fighters, millionaires with happier kids, better kitchen appliances and perfectly balanced lives. The vocational grass is always greener. No one ever imagines themself a middle-manager in a company making orthopaedic insoles in a warehouse near Biggleswade.
The apostle Peter reminds us in the verse above that shepherding is a privilege, not a chore. And then he offers a pretty large carrot: 'When the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.' (1 Peter 5:4) Let's face it, the pay may be lousy but this is quite an impressive incentive scheme.
The great Pentecostal theologian George Eldon Ladd said that the church is the primary agency of the Kingdom. Whilst all Christians everywhere are called to advance the Kingdom wherever they can - in their workplaces and their families - only a few are granted this privilege of nurturing and serving its primary agency, the gathered congregation. As pastors we get to prepare the Bride of Christ for her wedding day!
It's a wonderful life
In a single week a pastor might marry a couple on Saturday, welcome a baby into the family of God on Sunday, pray with a dying church member on Monday, and lead someone to Jesus on Tuesday. It takes some beating. Surveys tell us that we actually enjoy some of the highest rates of job satisfaction in the world.
I can honestly say that there hasn't been a single boring day in 25 years of church leadership. Frustrating days, yes. Arse-achingly boring meetings, for sure. Painful months of failure and misunderstanding, absolutely. Entire seasons of soul-searching, yep, that too. But along the way I have been released from the routine to sow the minutes of my days into the lives of others. It a wonderful way to live.
Pastors also get to preach, of course. And preaching never loses its thrill. It remains an unspeakable privilege to open hearts and heads to the timeless truths, the provocations, the comforts, and the razor offences of God's eternal Word.
Like thousands of my peers, over the years I have had the privilege of baptising new believers in swimming pools, and dirty, freezing rivers, in yellow builders skips, and half-inflated paddling pools, in baths (tricky with the taps) and sometimes too in the sparkling sea..
Over this quarter century, Sammy and I have planted four churches (plus a fifth by accident). One of the five failed miserably after a few years of hard graft. One quarter of our planting team was using, or had recently been using, drugs. I do not advise this approach. That church was a disaster and I nearly burned out.
But then, last Sunday, I bumped into a vicar at an event and he told me he'd first encountered Christ as a student way back in that particular little failure of a community. Go figure.
Today, as I type this, we are praying like mad for someone who is critically ill and undergoing terrifying surgery. She is constantly on my mind as I write. Meanwhile Sammy is away leading an Alpha Holy Spirit day. Soon she will get home. She will be exhausted. But she will tell me stories of new Christians and non-Christians encountering God supernaturally and we will smile and then later, when I climb into bed tonight, I will probably whisper 'thank you, Lord'.
This then is the way of things. The way in which weeks become years on this long road of vocational ministry. We do our best to cultivate hope, to create home, to throw parties and to make some small part of our world a bit less ugly, a little more known.
"Be shepherds of God’s flock in your care. Watch over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” ~ 1 Peter 5:1-4