Another Letter to a New Pastor

I wrote this several years ago to a friend who was being promoted from deacon to priest. May it be an encouragement, especially to my bivocational brothers. As always, names, places, and such have been altered to protect identities.

Dear Walter, 

I don’t know if you recall it, but in the charge to you at your diaconal ordination, you were told that that when your time in the diaconate is through, and the time comes to engage in the ministry of the Word and prayer, it is an obsession that deserves a man’s full-time attention. So the Twelve Apostles judged it, and speaking from my 7 years of experience as a full-time laborer in the Word, I agree: this testimony is true. 

It is not, however, the whole truth.

There was another apostle, born out of due time, who—although possessed of a right to full-time support in his ministry of the Word—had a different obsession: to take the Word wherever God called him, whether that would provide him with a living or not. In that mission, he was sometimes supported; many times he made tents instead of making a living from his ministry. Paul’s bivocational life was a matter of economic necessity, but it also had a pastoral effect. Paul challenged the Thessalonians, who had a problem with laziness, to follow his example. He reminded them that when he was with them he ate no one’s food free of charge, and earned his keep with his own hands. Paul could not have made that point so solidly, had he been in “full-time ministry” (as we call it) during his stay in that city. We don’t know whether Paul’s bivocational life in Thessalonike was a deliberate pastoral choice or a providential necessity, but in either case, God used it for the good of the Thessalonians. 

And so I write to you on the occasion of your ordination to the priesthood to offer you this reminder of Paul’s life, taught to us by the Scriptures and attested by my own experience. I have served as a full-time seminary professor and pastor. I have also found myself selling fabric, painting houses, installing bathtubs, driving busses, hawking curriculum like a Lebanese rug merchant, and more, in order to finance my ministry.

So I speak—from a certain perspective—-as a ministerial failure. There is an upwardly mobile, slick corps of professionals that fill the full time salaried spots in our churches. I spent 7 of the 14 years of my ministry in those exalted ranks. Of late, I have fallen from them, and do not appear to be in any danger of recovering. 

You may find yourself called to serve in that corps of polished professionals. I’ve been there, have many faithful friends there, and am happy to affirm that there’s plenty of good work to do there. If God calls you to it, then serve there without shame. But on the occasion of your ordination to the priesthood, I want to remind you—for whatever my unsolicited counsel may be worth—that such a calling is by no means inevitable. 

You may be called to the “failure” that was Paul’s life, and if you are, you must leap into your calling without shame. That might be relatively easy at the beginning, but as time wears on, you will begin to see the costs of your expensive ministry hobby. I want you to know, from someone further down that path, that it is worth it. God will provide. I do not understand His ways, and I yell at Him sometimes. I have had sleepless nights when I didn’t know how I was going to pay the rent, or afford a desperately needed dental operation for Kimberly. It has not been easy, not by any stretch. But it has been good. God is good; all His ways are good. He will carry you when, by every earthly calculation, you should fall down. 

What sustains me in my service now is not the memory of the “glory years” when I was a paid, full-time worker in the Word, or some hope of getting back to that station eventually. What sustains me now is the character that was formed in me long before I was ever ordained, during my years as the hands and feet of Christ serving the Body in whatever capacity was needed. 

By the time they ordained me, I knew I wasn’t getting a coveted appointment to an indoor job with no heavy lifting. I was getting a license to serve, as I had always served — only more so. It might not be fitting to leave the ministry of the Word and prayer to serve tables, but it is sometimes necessary. You might have every right to make a living from the ministry, but in God’s providence, you might not have the ability to do so. In the context of the American church, you will be made to feel like a second-class citizen for that, and you will be tempted to scratch and claw for a “better” post with better pay. 

But no. Labor in the calling God has given you, secure in the knowledge that if you have to pay your own way, you are not the first. God will care for you, and your treasure is invested in heaven, which holds up surprisingly well when the bottom falls out of the earthly markets.

I wish you every success in your ministry. May Christ the Sun of Righteousness shine on you, and scatter the darkness from your path, and may the blessing of God Almighty—-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—abide in you and rest upon you always. 

Blessings, 

Tim Nichols

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