You should hug your minister today, because ministry’s hard. It’s baked into the very nature of the endeavor. Think about the various angles of pressure. A minister represents the living God. Talk about pressure. I know there are people who talk about their relationship with God like it’s a cardigan sweater, warm and comfy. I find this a view too lightly considered. A cardigan God is not a holy God, not a God that would invite us into the awful business of tending to all the tragically broken places of the world. Like Jeremiah, God is as likely to be my troubler as my comforter.
A minister represents the living God, to people. I don’t want to talk out of school, but some people are not kind. More, there are people who think I’m unkind! I tell my students that one of the hardest things about ministry is that each Sunday someone is miserable at church because you’re the preacher. I had a member who for eleven years I could count on to give me the head-toss-eye-roll every Sunday. Every Sunday. I can say this here because I know there’s no way this person would darken the door of my blog.
As a rule, ministers are people pleasers. We get into it in part because we want to feel loved and needed. At the very least we carry the pressure to be appreciated, if not loved. Our sermons are often juggling acts on unicycles designed to secure our audience’s admiration. And this can only kill you in the end. It’s a high-wire act with no net.
And then there’s the work itself, the business of inviting people into change they don’t want. I find Heifetz and Linski to be on the mark when they write, “Generally people do not authorize people to make them face what they don’t want to face…” (Leading in Dangerous Times, p 20). I think seminarians should be required to write that on the board a thousand times before they receive ordination.
I think, however, that Paul describes a place to stand in ministry that is realistic about the dangers while still making ministry sustainable, and in the end, rewarding. In 2 Cor 4:1-2, Paul provides my creedo for ministry: “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God”
Three things worth noting. First, it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry. While there’s no way around ministry as a wrestling with God, it proceeds only in God’s mercy. I am reminded of Jesus’ statement, “Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.” If we can stay in the sweet spot of God’s tender mercies, the burden is light. Which leads to two other observations.
Paul is not interested in securing an audience by being entertaining. He’s commending himself here to those who admire sophistry, who like speakers who flatter and demonstrate rhetorical flourish. Paul will not resort to what amounts to in his estimation to cunning or to falsifying God’s word. Rather, by the open statement of the truth, he appeals to the conscience of everyone. This is the place to aim with people–the conscience–without lapsing into the temptations associated with pleasing. The conscience, for Paul, is like a muscle of judgement or discernment, a place to be formed for the sake of becoming fully adult in Christ. It’s potentially the best place in people. Aim for that.
While standing in the presence of God. Here’s the audience. Not the congregation. And because we do this ministry only by the mercy of God, there’s no audience to secure. I decided long ago that ministry was only survivable within a vivid sense of calling. It’s too damn hard otherwise. To be called is to know what you’re called to and to whom you’re responsible. If people have expectations beyond that, they can do the head-toss-eye-roll until they need a neck brace. It can’t be my problem. This might not keep you from getting fired, but it will keep you from getting crushed.
By God’s mercy. In the conscience of everyone. In the sight of God.
Go hug your minister.