What pastor enters the ministry with dreams of smallness, shepherding a flock of a hundred in a blink-and-you miss-it town? We don’t desire Small Town, USA; we want DFW or New York or LA. Something of prominence that will get us noticed by those who are in the business of turning ordinary pastors into extraordinary pastors—a pastor of pastors.
Speaking as a minister in Utah, I understand the desire to be part of the in-crowd. Living in a state that is 3% Evangelical doesn’t exactly put you on the list of destinations for Christian conferences – Together for the Gospel isn’t scheduling in Salt Lake. Rarely does a major name land here; we get passed by, flown over, and driven through. It’s easy to look out upon the landscape of Christianity with doe-eyed romanticism and sighs of only if—only if I had a fully staffed church then I could make an impact, only if I lived in the Bible-belt then people would notice me, only if I knew those people who make people known, only if.
I was a part of the only if once. Being a part of a church plant booming from 8 to 250 people in two years; we had mass baptisms and more salvations than we could handle. That is what church planting is supposed to look like right? Well, not in Utah. In Utah this is the equivalent of a camel going through the eye of a needle. The growth made our pastor a wanted commodity. He was looked upon as a church planting mastermind; book offers, conference invitations, and budding friendships with movers and shakers all poured in.
Then the affair happened.
Unchecked idols and unrepentant sin brought it all to a stop. In the wake people left; the church shrunk from 250 to barely over a hundred. There was strife amongst the elders and hurt amongst the people. The church was like an open wound festering in the unrelenting desert heat that wouldn’t let it heal. All excitement and joy had been sucked out of the church (which should’ve told me what I was actually worshiping). I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consider dropping out. This wasn’t what I signed up for. I signed up for fireworks, not dressing wounds.
How had my heart grown so cold to the ordinary everyday manna of God? I was like Israel complaining about the free food in an otherwise barren desert. I see now what I didn’t see then, that ministry idolatry is ministry adultery. It can turn a pastor into a cheating husband gazing out onto the horizon looking for his next place—a “better” place.
The Pulpit Isn’t a Placeholder
Ministry adultery begins as any sin does: unbelief. Being dissatisfied with the ordinary graces of God you start having eyes for another man’s ministry and reorient it from a selfless service, to ministry with benefits—I’ll pastor because I’ll be rewarded. The pulpit becomes a placeholder for something better.
Ministry lust sours your taste to the food God’s provided. With a hardened heart you no longer appreciate the slight sanctification the men are showing or the growth of the youth or the repentance of the long held sin. Your heart isn’t content with slight; you want fireworks—salvations that spark revivals and growth that makes headlines.
I can hear the questions because I’ve asked them myself.
But couldn’t God do a great work if my ministry were big? Not if you’re stealing his glory.
But doesn’t God bless faithful ministers with success? First of all, lusting after a larger platform isn’t faithfulness, and, also, size doesn’t always equal success.
You have to stop it with all the, “but if only someone recognized my potential…” You have no potential outside of being the tool Jesus created you to be. You may not be in the city you want. Your calling may be challenging. But pastor, is God not there? Is He not moving? Can He not save? Is His gospel insufficient for crowds of 50 or 100?
We must stop aggrandizing our ministries to publishers, followers, conference organizers, and Christian celebrities, and start submitting them to Christ.
What about the life and ministry of Jesus makes us believe that being his under-shepherd is about our fame? Self-denial, carrying your cross, and slavery, aren’t exactly phrases of man-centered exaltation. They’re phrases meant to get us low, to remind us that we’re not the point—Jesus is. You’re a shepherd pointing people to the Chief Shepherd.
Jesus levels the ground that men build up for pomp and position; he doesn’t grade on a curve or consider pedigree. He shows us that to kneel is to stand, to give is to get, to be enslaved is to be free, and to die is to live.
If you’re finding the ordinariness of ministry distasteful, it’s because you’ve lost your taste for Jesus’s ministry; the sweet simplicity of word, sacrament, and prayer. Jesus never asks you to be catalytic or dynamic–whatever that even is. The title of pastor, as Eugene Peterson says, should remain a naked noun.
In the three years since the affair, life at the church has been dotted with trials. Margins are tight, salvations are slower, and the baptismal waters are calmer, but in the void of excitement something sweet is being formed: a delight in daily bread. We no longer feast from the table of Pharaoh, but the bread of the Carpenter is proving sufficient. We’re learning to be content with his gifts without glancing at our brother’s ministry. He’s teaching us the tenderness of his daily grace, to rejoice in the mundane, to celebrate the slight.