A bible college student recently interviewed me for a school assignment. She asked me to reflect on my time in college and ministry. She didn't give me any details about the purpose of the assignment, but she did ask me quite a few questions. I thought I'd post my thoughts.
Q: Do you feel like college prepared you for your ministry in the Church?
Yes and no.
In the affirmative, I learned a lot of valuable information in college that I wouldn't trade for anything. I went to Bible College and the amount of time I spent studying the Bible was a real gift. I don't think college students realize how important studying the Bible is when they have the chance. Students in Bible College have more time to seriously study the Bible than at any other stage of life. Also, I preached at a small country church while in college. That experience was very helpful for learning how much I didn't know about pastoral ministry and for honing skills like preaching, teaching and pastoral visits.
On the other hand, there is a lot about ministry that you cannot learn in a classroom. As a disclaimer let me say that I hate when people act as though the classroom is a waste of time and all anyone really needs is to get to work and "do" ministry. That's garbage. I am of the opinion that many of the problems we face in local ministry situations and even structures are a result of a lack of continued critical reflection on the "how" of ministry based on sound theology. But I digress . . .
The truth is, you cannot truly learn to love people from a book. Certainly, you've got to learn that you should love people, and you've got to reflect on what that means in practice. Yet, until you're running on less sleep than you need, spending time with someone when you can't think of a hundred things you'd rather be doing and forcing yourself to listen and care about their problems . . . (Problems, by the way, which wouldn't exist if this person had listened to your sermon last week.) Until you've spent time with suffering people and prayed with them and cried with them you're not fully "prepared for ministry."
There is a very real sense in which no one is ever "prepared for ministry." I remember when I first started preaching and I would regularly correspond with my preaching professor asking questions and sharing struggles. I remember basically telling him that I wasn't sure if I could do it. He said, "Of course you can't do it. This is something that God is going to have to do. You be faithful and trust him, he'll do it." It's simple, but it really helped. It took the pressure off. It wasn't up to me to succeed.
I felt like Bible College was an imperative step in preparation for ministry. Still, the practical side of ministry required time at task rather than just theories and principles. That doesn't mean I want to give up on theories and principles as useless or irrelevant, it just means I need both the theoretical and practical.
Q: How does having a ministry position affect your family life?
Let me count the ways . . . First, ministry is a job that is somewhat unique in that you're always "on call" and you never really stop working. When I go home at night, my brain can't leave work at the office. Ministry isn't the only job that is like this, though ministers sometimes act as though it is. Second, living away from both mine and my wife's family is difficult. Both Margo (my wife) and I would love to live closer to family, but part of ministry is following God's calling regardless of where it might take you (or how cold it is when you get there). Third, my schedule is very different. Since I work in student ministry, my schedule revolves around high school students. That means that I'm often at games, shows or student events in the evenings. The time I have to spend with students is when most people are at home with their families. While this is specific to student ministry, it is an important principle. You're schedule revolves around the people you serve. In order to be effective, a good minister has to be able to adjust his family's schedule in healthy ways. For example, if I know I'm going to a student's event in the evening, then I might go home in the afternoon to spend time with Margo.
Q: What is the greatest challenge of working in a church?
There are lots of challenges, but for me the most difficult is probably seeing all the ways in which the church fails to live up to its calling. Church people can be selfish, unfaithful, immoral and downright wicked at times. When I see the life of Jesus and the kind of life he calls us to it scares me to think how much we sometimes completely miss the point.
Despite the sadness that comes from seeing the church unfaithful, I also get a front row seat for all the times when people are conformed into the image of Christ. I get to watch people selflessly serve the poor, care for orphans (literally), and sacrifice for the kingdom of God. So, the greatest difficulties are far outweighed by the greatest joys.
Q: What is the best experience you've had in ministry?
There are so many rewarding experiences in ministry that it's too difficult to pin-point one. I will share two that have been most profound. First, when a young woman in the congregation where I served tragically died, I ended up doing the funeral service and spending a lot of time with the family. That was years ago and we still have contact. I know that it sounds terribly depressing, but being able to serve those hurting people was one of the best things I've ever done with my life. Helping hurting people is an indescribable joy.
Second, I remember being a conference and they had some students on stage with cardboard signs. On one side of the sign students wrote what they had dealt with in their past. There were serious issues scrawled in black marker‒ drug addictions, abuse, sexual immorality, self-mutilation, suicide attempts and kids losing their parents. Then, after letting the despair sink in, they flipped the signs over and wrote how following Jesus has changed or is changing their lives. When I saw some of the students I knew, their stories and God had done, I literally started to cry. Seeing the transformation and healing that God brings about through his church is an incredible joy.
Q: Do you think your spiritual life is growing while in ministry? If so, how do you keep a strong spiritual life?
Ministry is a job. One of the unique dangers of this job, as one of my undergraduate professors used to say, is that "the things of God become common." It is easy to lose the sense of wonder, and mystery when you're the religious guy with the answers about God. I don't see myself that way, but sometimes that's what people expect. I don't know any secrets or having any amazing insights about pursuing Jesus. I try to be disciplined about engaging God in worship, study, prayer, service, generosity and the like. Ministry doesn't "keep you on track." Growing in Christ requires pursuing him.