The Fog of Ministry
Military commanders describe the failure of communication and the loss of perspective in battle as the “fog of war.” Pastoral ministry has its own fog, too. In the midst of the stresses and rewards of everyday life, many pastors find it difficult to maintain an unwavering sense of call. We can confuse our success with our call, which is exactly what I did. I told myself that my success in ministry validated my call. But, when pastors believe performance validates their call, then ministry failure invalidates their call. In other words, if I succeed, it’s because God has called me; but if I fail, then maybe God didn’t call me. We need to separate our performance from our call. God called us before we succeeded or failed in ministry. His call does not depend upon our achievement.
Another fog of ministry is confusing church problems with our call. Congregational conflict can cause pastors to think, “If I’m called by God to do this, why am I facing so much opposition? Maybe God hasn’t really called me.” Doubting one’s call because of conflict is not unusual or abnormal. The Bible contains examples of God-chosen leaders who doubted their calling when faced with opposition. Moses, David, Elijah, Jonah, Peter and others all faced moments of doubt when opposition arose. Separate your problems from your call, because they are not the same.
Finally, in the heat of ministry, pastors can confuse praise or criticism with their call. All of us enjoy hearing, “That was a great sermon, Pastor,” but few of us enjoy the criticism of others. Praise is like success in ministry: It does not prove God has called us any more than criticism indicates He has not. We need to separate both praise and criticism from our call.
Remembering God’s Call Again
How did I remember God’s call in my own life? Fast forward 13 years from 1990 to 2003. Through a providential series of events, a small country church asked me to serve as their interim pastor. Then, in 2004, Chatham Baptist Church called me to serve as their pastor. In my years between pastorates, I came to a new sense of vocation by reflecting on three aspects of my original call. If you are struggling with your call, maybe these three memories will help you recall why you said “yes.”
- Remember when. I remembered I was 15 years old when I was called to “full-time Christian service” at a youth revival in my home church in Nashville, Tennessee. During the invitation hymn, I felt God’s call to pastoral ministry. I walked down the aisle to share that calling with my pastor and the congregation. I can still feel the handshakes and hugs as my church family embraced my call and encouraged my obedience to God. The memory is as fresh for me now as it was then, and it provides a touch-point in my spiritual journey.
- Remember what. I remembered that what I had to offer God was my obedience. As a 15-year-old, I didn’t bring success in ministry because I hadn’t had any. I didn’t bring an impressive academic record because I was still in high school. I didn’t bring resources, maturity or skill. I just brought myself. When I remembered that God called me as a teenager whose hands were empty but whose heart was full, then I remembered again why I had said “yes.” In Romans 12:1, Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual act of worship.” All God wants is you. He supplies the rest.
- Remember who. I remembered I had not answered the call of my denomination, my parents or even my church. I had answered God’s call. I was to be obedient to God, and God would guide me. Even during years away from pastoral ministry, I knew God’s call was still upon me. I came to a point in my journey where I was willing do anything God wanted, even if it meant I would never pastor again. So, I served in Sunday School, on church committees and in the church outreach program. I came to see ministry not as my income, but as my calling again. I remembered why I said “yes” because I remembered who called me.
Remembering Why Each Day
Remembering is an important practice of our faith. On the first Sunday of each month, our church gathers around the Lord’s Table, where we share the bread and cup of Christian communion. Carved on the front of the communion table are the words, “In remembrance of me.” Our faith is built on remembering Christ’s love for us. The observance of communion is built on the ancient practice of Passover, when Jews remember each year that God brought them out of slavery into the land of promise. Memory is powerful in shaping our faith story and in holding fast the call of God in our own lives.
In my own life, I had discovered two inadequate reasons to be in ministry. First, a call to ministry cannot be a call to success. Many followers of Christ have been considered failures by the standards of popular culture. Second, a call to ministry cannot be based on our own cleverness, intellect or personality. Paul reminds us that “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” Our calling cannot be centered upon who we are; it must be centered on God.
When the Jews remember the Passover, the youngest child in the family asks, “Why is this night different from all others?” Then the family tells the story of the Exodus experience. Just as retelling the Exodus account is to remember that God brought Israel out of bondage and into the land of promise, recalling why you said “yes” is to remember the work of God in your own life.
Jorgen Moltmann describes the Bible as the book of “remembered hopes.” That phrase captures what I sense now about my call. Remembering when I said “yes” gives me hope for the future. Remembering who called me gives me confidence that though circumstances change, God does not. God is the One who called me, He is the One to whom I am obedient, He is the One who directs my life, and He is the One who provides for me. That is why I said “yes” to His call as teenager, and that is why I am still saying “yes” today.