The Shape of Ministry

This is a speech I imagine giving at a seminary chapel. Nobody — for reasons that will become obvious — has invited me to actually give this address, so I’m gonna just publish it as a blog post.

As I look out across this auditorium, I see eager, bright people. I see the makings of a corps of intelligent, upwardly-mobile ministry professionals. And I’m afraid I have some very bad news for you. I have some good news for you too, but unfortunately the bad news has to come first. If you will stick with me through the bad news, then the good news will be — for some of you, at least — profoundly liberating.

So, the bad news. Secure corporate jobs are a thing of the past. It’s a gig economy now, and it really shows no signs of changing anytime soon. What does that have to do with you? Well, the same thing is true in the ministry world, albeit for slightly different reasons. The pool of ministry jobs that pay a decent full-time salary is shrinking. There are tons of bright, motivated, qualified people who — despite papering the country with their resumes — haven’t even gotten so much as a call back in the last year. There’s a bunch more who have done a ton of interviews, but someone always just seems like a slightly better fit.

Some of you — a very few of you — will land good ministry jobs out of school, and stay in that world for your entire careers. I wish you well, and you can probably tune me out now, because the rest of what I have to say won’t really apply to you.

The problem is, most of you who think I just gave you permission to tune me out — you’re wrong. You will spend at least some — and maybe most or all — of your career outside that glorious, enchanted, nigh-mythical land that is paying full-time ministry. So unless you have a crystal ball telling you otherwise, just assume that at some point, what I’m about to say will be relevant to you.

So much for the bad news. Let’s move on to the good news, which is that you don’t need the permission of some paycheck-issuing body to do ministry. I know a bunch of folks in the full-time, fully-paid ministry world, but let me tell you about the other folks I know for a minute.

Gabe started a handful of drop-in youth centers around Denver, and supports himself by working at a brewery. Heather runs a cafe, which she uses as the site for a very fruitful ministry. Dave started a day center for the homeless. He’s also the world’s leading expert on Victorian trade cards — you don’t know what that is, and I’m not going to try to explain it now, but he’s written a half-dozen books on the subject, edited a magazine for the field, and supports himself buying and selling these things on eBay. Bob is a full-time missionary now, but for years he supported his ministry projects by working 10 days a month for a marketing firm. Jenny is an itinerant prayer warrior who splits her time between here and Africa; she supports herself as a massage therapist.

Let me tell you about how this has worked out for me. I got hired out of seminary to teach. I was half-time as an adjunct faculty member, and half-time associate pastor at a local church. After a year, the seminary brought me on full-time. I quit the pastor gig, but then got another, very part-time gig with a little church plant (that turned out to be a counter-cult exit ministry disguised as a church plant, but that’s a story for another time.) I was full-time at the seminary for four years. That was the last time I had a stable, full-time paycheck from ministry — more than 10 years ago now.

You know what? I really liked being a professional geek. But life’s been a lot more interesting since I got dynamited out of that comfortable gig.  Since then, I’ve worked for another seminary part-time, and a couple more churches. I’ve started a nonprofit, done youth work, written Bible curriculum, driven a school bus. Presently, I’m a pastor-at-large ministering in the gaps between churches. I’ve baptized people in the Platte and served communion in shot glasses off the tailgate of my car. I’m also a massage therapist, because pastor-at-large is not the sort of job that comes with a fat paycheck.

Or any paycheck, most of the time.

You may not want this kind of life for yourself. You’re investing in a good education, and why shouldn’t you have a solid career, just like if you went into medicine, finance, education, or some other well-educated profession?

By way of an answer to that, let me tell you about another guy. He was a professional theologian; good education, pretty secure gig, and then he got mugged by spiritual reality. He spent the next 14 years trying to figure out what happened to him. After that, he traveled around sharing with anybody who would listen. Sometimes he planted churches. Sometimes he was fully supported; other times he supported himself while he did the work. He even wrote a few books, but they weren’t really theology books. They were mostly compilations of good pastoral advice to other people who had been mugged by the same spiritual realities, teaching them how to live with what had happened to them. For those of you who haven’t caught on, I’m describing Saint Paul. If he wasn’t too good to support himself, then what makes you so special?

God has a destiny for you, and if you step into it, He will supply what you need. You certainly will have needs, and here are some of them.

  • You need a useful trade. If you have no marketable skills, I advise you to get some, and soon.
  • You need a team. Anything really worth doing is big enough that it won’t be sustainable to tackle it by yourself. And we’re Christians — we’re the image of the Trinity; we’re not meant to do anything alone.
  • You need oversight. It is not healthy to have nobody who can tell you no. You need open-minded, experienced people who believe in what you’re doing — even if they don’t quite understand it — and are willing to help you do it. That last bit is important. Don’t trust people who are not invested in your success to give you directional guidance.
  • You need excellent self-care skills. That means you need a regular sabbath, you need retreat time, you need to clear margin for your relationships, and build a good support network.
  • You need to be able to say no without feeling guilty. The more you divide your time between different places, the more people will feel that it’s reasonable for you to give them just a little more — and you can’t give “just a couple more hours” to 4 different places in the same week.

If this sounds daunting, it is, but remember the examples we’re following. Paul faced some daunting prospects himself: go out into an overwhelmingly pagan world with virtually no support and plant churches. (And be quick, because you’re going to have to skip town before they kill you.) The good news, again, is that you do not need anybody’s permission to have a powerful and fulfilling ministry. If you are willing to go outside the shiny, professional box, it’s a big world out there, and the opportunities really are endless. I wish you well. 

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