Last Fall, I passed my thirtieth anniversary in pastoral ministry. At one of its meetings around that time, our presbytery recognized those of us who were marking anniversaries in multiples of five –tenth, fifteenth, twentieth, etc. They started with the smaller anniversaries and worked up. It took them a little while to get to me. Thirty years is a pretty long time, after all. But what was also rather remarkable was the fact that after they called me and others with thirty years in, they kept going…and going. If my memory of the event is correct, there was at least one colleague present who was marking the sixty-fifth anniversary of his ordination! That man, though now of a great old age, is still somewhat involved in ministry activities. Obviously, pastoral ministry is not a profession in which people typically put in twenty-five years and then retire.
Although my sixty-five year colleague does put my thirty years into some perspective, I do find myself, three decades in, reflecting some on the nature and meaning of pastoral ministry. The ministry of pastoral work is both joyful and humbling, and I find that joy and humility are woven into each other.
I am humbled by my own on-going struggle with sin and by God’s inexhaustibly generous provision of grace to cover my sin. I am preserved from pride by my constant encounters with my fallibility and personal limitations. Whenever God grants me a glimpse of his glory and splendor, my pride evaporates, and I marvel that this majestic God notices me, cares for me.
The work of ministry itself is the means God uses to creatively and fruitfully humble me. Genuine ministry is by its very nature a humbling experience. Ministry that is Spirit-empowered and Spirit-led takes us beyond ourselves. Of course, that does not happen if I limit my ministry to only that which I can do in my own human strength and abilities. Was Peter proud of himself for those few steps he took on the water? I think not. He knew that those steps he took on the surface of the water were an expression of the power of God, not the power of Peter. Was Joshua proud of himself when the walls of Jericho fell? I think not. He knew that it was the power of God, not the power of Joshua that brought those walls down.
I sit down from preaching and think, “Well, that was a real dud of a sermon.” Then after worship, a nominally involved member of the congregation comes to me with tears in her eyes and says, “Pastor, your sermon really touched me. Thank you.” Am I proud? No, I am humbled. This is not my skill or eloquence. This is a work of the Holy Spirit, making use of my faltering efforts to accomplish more than my feeble abilities could ever hope to accomplish.
When I surrender obediently to the leading of God’s Spirit and venture into ministry that is beyond the capacity of my own human abilities, then I begin to see the power of God’s Spirit moving and working through me. In those moments there is no place for pride, no place for self. I am humbled and grateful. More and more, as the years have gone by, I find myself longing to live in ministry out beyond the limits of human ability, out in the realm where I can see the Spirit of God accomplish more than I can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).
My greatest joys in ministry come from the process I was just describing. There can scarcely be any greater joy in ministry than that of experiencing the power of God working through you. And what I’m referring to here is not an experience that is or ever should be thought of as available solely to those called to pastoral ministry. The great privilege and joy of partnering with the Holy Spirit is something that can and should be part of all Christians’ lives. There is no joy, no rich fulfillment like living and serving in cooperation and partnership with God’s Spirit in the work of redeeming a fallen and broken world.
Struggles and temptations are myriad in this sin-sick and troubled life. That is especially true of the calling to pastoral ministry. It can be a bruising life in which one’s weaknesses and frailties are ever before one’s eyes…and the eyes of others. In the past couple of years in particular, God has been showing me my tendency toward self-reliance. Ironically, American culture touts self-reliance as a great virtue. But God’s people need to resist our culture on this matter. An attitude of self-reliance is rooted in the soil of pride and unbelief. Self-reliance keeps the focus on me, asserting that whatever ministry happens will be the result of MY skills, MY talents, MY energies.
Self-reliance is also an expression of unbelief. We rely on ourselves because we don’t believe that God can or will intervene in the world through us to do “more than we can ask or imagine.” Unbelief erodes our hopes and aspirations until we no longer expect anything from God and aim only at what we in our limited abilities can do by ourselves.
It is my sense that most “old-line/main line” churches and pastors have sunk into an unbelieving self-reliance. Their goals and aspirations are small, based only on what they as human beings can do in their own abilities. Self-reliance results in a small ministry that ends in exhaustion, discouragement, and depression.
I am well-familiar with that personally. God has been teaching me a new way. I pray constantly for God to preserve me from relying on myself. I continually ask God to lead me to lean into him and to base my ministry on the power, the purpose, and the vision that come from him to me and to the others alongside whom I serve. That is a way of ministry that glorifies God and goes far beyond what merely human means can dream of doing.
So, if I thought of ministry as something that I will do in and of myself, I could not bear the thought of doing it for another week much less another thirty-five years. But as one who is learning to joy of being in humbled partnership with the Spirit of God, I press on knowing that the future that God is creating is bigger and more astonishing than my limited mind can think or image.
© 2013 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.