The Pain of Ministry

“The Kingdom of God is like this,” He said.  “A man scatters seed on the ground; he sleeps and rises–night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows–he doesn’t know how.  The soil produces a crop by itself–first the blade, then the head, and then the ripe grain on the head.  But as soon as the crop is ready, he sends for the sickle, because the harvest has come.”–Mark 4:26-29

The Kingdom of God is like a seed.  It begins small and grows gradually, mysteriously, and outside of human control.  Ministry in the Kingdom does not operate according the predictable patterns of the world or the free market.  If we ever perceive that the growth of the Kingdom of God is predictable, laid out for us on a market projection, and completely under our control as we manipulate various factors, then what we have is not really the Kingdom of God but a man-made substitute.

The Kingdom of God overthrows conventional wisdom.  Once in a meeting with fellow ministers I heard this comment: “The definition of insanity is to continue to do the same thing and expect different results.”  His point was that churches have to reinvent themselves continually in order to produce fruit.  But that is to assume that the church is basically a business with a commercial product that must be continually repackaged in order to appeal to a wider consumer base.  Yes, this conventional wisdom works in the business world, but the gospel is not for sale.  To assume that we have to reinvent ourselves constantly is to deny the mysterious, sovereign power of God to work when, where, and how he pleases.  Yes, we are responsible for our efforts as those who work for the spread of the Kingdom.  But the mindset that places all hope on our techniques is short-sighted, earthly, and devoid of faith. 

Ministry is not about marketing techniques.  It is about the gospel, the Scriptures, prayer, love, people, and a subversive spiritual army that infiltrates enemy territory largely under the radar.  And it is about pain.  Not being able to manipulate the results can be painful.  Not being able to hold up a graph that maps out growth over the last quarter as a vindication of your leadership can be painful.  Opening yourself up to people, praying for them, investing yourself into them, pouring energy into their growth in Christ, only to see them foolishly walk down a path toward sin can be very painful.  Ministry is never done. 

In some ways, I envy the man who mows our church’s lawn (which is our lawn too, since we live in the parsonage).  He has a job, he does it, and it’s done.  He can step back and look at it as an accomplishment.  Pastors don’t get to do that.  Never will I be able to step back, look at my church, and say, “Now, there’s a completed task!”  The task will go on until Jesus returns, and it will always contain a healthy dose of failure, messiness, and forgiveness.  It will grow in a mysterious way, beyond my ability to comprehend, beyond my ability to control, like a seed that sprouts up out of the ground.  But even here the analogy breaks down.  Farmers, though they do not manipulate their crops directly, do have some level of predictability based on yearly cycles.  The Kingdom of God is not that kind of crop.  It grows by God’s power and God’s decision, according to God’s mysterious will, not according to regular climate patterns. 

I strongly believe that what God has been showing me over the last eight years of unimpressive ministry (in terms of numbers, I mean) is that I am an expendable component of his plan.  He does not need me.  I am not God’s gift to the world.  I used to harbor naive illusions about the kind of impact I might have for the Kingdom.  Just the other night I preached a sermon at a community gathering of four churches, and one of the old ladies told me at the back of the sanctuary afterward, “I know you’ll go far.”  I appreciated the compliment, and I know she meant well.  But I have to say that trying to predict “how far I will go” based on hearing a sermon is just plain wrong.  An effective ministry cannot be guaged by the talent (or lack thereof) of the minister.  God does as he pleases.  If he wants to use me to impact millions, then I am thrilled to be his servant.  If he wants to use me to impact a handful of people in rural northern Kentucky, then I am thrilled to be his servant.  I am not the key factor here.  He could dispense with me at any moment, and he would be no worse off for it.  The Kingdom grows apart from me and outside my control and understanding.  I am utterly expendable.

And that may be the deepest cut of all in ministry.  The wound of an ego hurts the most.  But once it is cut down to size, no amount of pain in the world can ultimately derail a servant of Christ.  When I get myself out of the way, I have better clarity of vision to see the incredible God I serve.  And so, whatever he decides, I will serve him gladly.    

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2 Responses to “The Pain of Ministry”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    Aaron – great new site, and I’m glad I can leave a comment here. I could sense in our conversation last night some of the seeds of this post. From all I can tell, you are being faithful to tend your flock, and that is what a good shepherd does. Hang in there. By God’s grace and in His timing you will see fruit, perhaps in ways you never expected.

  2. fenderpooh Says:

    Thanks, Jeremy. I’m glad to see you commenting now.

    To my vast multitude of readers (I know there must be millions of you), I want to introduce you to my friend Jeremy. He has been a covert reader of my blog for a while now (like 99.99% of you), primarily because my comments at blogspot were, for a long while, restricted to blogspot ID’s only.

    They don’t make ’em better than this guy. He’s my best good friend.

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