During the unholy hours of morning on June 6, 1944, U.S. Army paratroopers jumped from their airplanes into the occupied countryside of northern France, miles inland from the beaches at Normandy. My father was one of those soldiers. As a member of the rough and ready 101st Airborne, my dad had the best combat training available in the free world. He had studied in vivid detail the topographical features of the French countryside. Basic training and AIT had coached him on the deadly perils of anti-aircraft fire, the shock and unique challenges of jumping out of an airplane into the yawning darkness, the proper way to land, roll to avoid injury, gather oneself and set about engaging the enemy, along with hundreds of other battlefield eventualities. Dad had undergone enough drills on weapons and tactics that he could repeat the steps in his sleep for decades to come.
But this was not a drill; it was war. He was not quite prepared for the relentless ferocity of the German machine guns, the exploding mortar shells, the omnipresence of deadly Bouncing Betty mines. Basic training had given him wonderful training, but they could not have simulated the sights, sounds, smells and overall horrors of war. Only one thing could cause him to grow as comfortable as a loving man can on the battlefield: engagement in war itself.
Ministry is like that. It is war. Only war can prepare you to man up in the heat of battle. Will you fight or will you run in the face of the menacing realities of ministry? Only the front lines of Christian ministry called the local church will answer that question for you.
My father’s son attended one of the finest theological seminaries in the world, the theological-ministerial equivalent of Army Ranger school or Navy Seals school. They taught his boy great theology. By God’s grace, they lashed his heart and ministry to an inspired, inerrant Bible and centered his eyes on the story of redemption which beats intensely at the Bible’s heart. It was a rigorous and wonderful preparatory agent for war. But it was not war.
Two years ago, I left that great theological training camp. In the months since, it has been my choice privilege to serve as pastor of a wonderful, patient group of godly people in Birmingham, Alabama. Together we are learning the difference between life and ministry in theory and life and ministry in reality. I have learned much, and I have much, much yet to learn. Here are 10 things no theological seminary, no matter how faithful and competent, could have prepared me for in real-world ministry:
1. Ministry is war. The analogy this article centers around is a perfect fit for ministry. There are two theatres of war in ministry: one within and another without. There is an ever-present enemy within, the flesh, which tempts us to run from the battle. I cannot take a minute off from this war or I will surely perish.
There are also enemies on the outside that operate diligently to defeat me and that sing to me the alluring siren song of finding, by whatever means necessary, a place where a peacetime mentality fits and brings me into a life of ease and earthly prosperity, far from the bad deacons meeting, the church member whose marriage is collapsing, the family who thinks I am killing the church by teaching sound doctrine. John Newton knew this all too well, but saw this war as the best place for fallen ministers to exist:
The people of God are sure to meet with enemies—but especially the ministers. Satan bears them a double grudge. The world watches for their halting, and the Lord will allow them to be afflicted, that they may be kept humble, that they may acquire a sympathy with the sufferings of others, that they may be experimentally qualified to advise and help them, and to comfort them with the comforts with which they themselves have been comforted of God. But the Captain of our salvation is with us. His eye is upon us; his everlasting arm beneath us. In his name therefore may we go on, lift up our banners, and say, “If God be for us—who can be against us? Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors, through him who has loved us!” The time is short. In a little while—he will wipe all tears from our eyes, and put a crown of life upon our heads with his own gracious hand!
2. My fictional church was a fictional church. In seminary, my fictional church adored me. Every person loved the teaching. They loved my personality. They spoke often and gratefully of “all the things I bring to the table.” On Monday, they spoke pondered next Sunday’s sermon with the giddy anxiousness of a four-year-old on Christmas Eve. They were ready to carry me out of the pulpit on their shoulders as a theological hero. That was my fictional church, but my pastoral ministry now plays out in the non-fiction section and they don’t look at me that way. They see my flaws. They feel my inexperience. And rightly so. Most of them love me anyway, and over time, I will come to see how misguided was my desire for that fictional church and how good God is for humbling me through the ministry of his local church.
3. Theological knowledge does not equal pastoral maturity. My command of Greek or Hebrew or all those Puritans I can quote from memory will not be enough to keep me from blowing my stack when an angry member brings false charges against me to my face. Those things won’t provide wise leadership decisions when a deacon meets with me and tells me that the church is rapidly running out of money. Sure, my theological knowledge will go a long way towards helping me make wise decisions, but they won’t give me the seasoning I need that keeps me from having to learn many leadership lessons the hard way. I have been trained well on how the right weapon works, but using it accurately will come only with locking, loading, aiming and firing accurately on the battlefield.
4. Love surpasses knowledge. This is a necessary logical conclusion to No. 3. The inspired writer warned me about this: “If I have all knowledge and have not love…I am nothing.” If I do not exhibit love for my people, they will not care how much theological talk comes from the pulpit. They will be drawn to follow me only when I prove that I love them and can be trusted as a mature teacher and under-shepherd.
5. If I am to become an effective instrument in God’s hand, I must suffer. Sure, I have read lots of books about suffering and they have taught me how to think well in and through suffering. But I must suffer if I am to truly understand Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians: it’s not about me. A pastor will suffer and he will suffer for two reasons: first, for his own sanctification and second, so that he is positioned to provide comfort for his suffering congregation (See 2 Cor. 1). Reading about war and preparing for war are not the same as the experience of being at war. So it is with ministry.
6. Because my Western default definition of success is worldly, it will bother me when attendance is low or they don’t respond well to my teaching. Because I am deeply prideful and filled with self-love, I am often offended when church members see weekends at the beach/lake/mountains as a vastly more compelling attraction than hearing me talk about the things of God. Or because I sometimes subtly exchange my confidence in God’s Word as the transforming agent for my own ability to change people, I will consider adjusting the message or the methods to make the people happy. But if I love them, I must not give in to this desire. I will dance dangerously close to this razor’s edge far too often and must rely on Christ to rescue me every time.
7. I will often exhibit an acute fear of man. See No. 6. All the bravado about others “giving in to man-centeredness” that I spouted to my buddies at the seminary has mysteriously dissipated in the face of real people who harbor real issues. Sure, I was correct in saying those things, but only God’s grace is able to create in me a habit of faithfulness even when the stink has hit the fan and has then fallen on me.
8. Some in my church will not like me, no matter how much I love them or treat them with kindness. The reasons they do not like me will have nothing to do with anything that is substantive and this will frustrate me. They will not like my personality because I am too extroverted/introverted and therefore, not like them. Or they will not like me because I talk too fast/too slow. Or they will not like me because I am a fan of the wrong sports team or attended the wrong university. But even their distaste for me, valid or not, is a part of God’s good design to cultivate humility in the garden of my foolish, self-loving heart. This is also good for me because, by God’s grace, it will provide a ready remedy, over time, the deadly disease of No. 7 above. My Lord promised that if they hated him, they would hate His disciples. This is an opportunity for God to teach me the truth of 1 Peter 2:23 pertaining to our Lord who, when he was reviled, did not revile in return, but kept on entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly. I will be set free by grace to love them anyway.
9. I will often be mystified and frustrated that my ministerial labors do not yield “product.” This will bother me because in my arrogance, I have forgotten that I am not the Holy Spirit and that only a sovereign, all-powerful God can renovate a broken down human heart. Yes, I realize that my theology of sovereign grace has always taught me this, but my functional theology of self will tell me that all my knowledge, training and gifts should at least lead to some change in the lives of my people. If I yearn for visible, finished “product,” then I must be content to cut my lawn, build a Lincoln Log home with my boys or write an article for the Gospel Coalition and let God be God in His church.
10. My theological heroes didn’t have it easy either. From the distance of time, geography and advances in culture, it is easy to romanticize our heroes. It is easy to think John Calvin snapped his brilliant fingers and transformed Geneva or that Bunyan leisurely wrote Pilgrim’s Progress for a leading evangelical publisher on his laptop while watching cable television in an air-conditioned jail cell or that Jonathan Edwards spent much of his time talking theology over coffee with David Brainerd. But they preached and taught and wrote with such profound depth of knowledge because they were soldiers who had been to war. Their writings bristled with the sinfulness of the human heart and the holiness of God because they wrote from the battlefield and from a wartime perspective. My heroes had it hard in the ministry and so will I because God is determined to demonstrate his power and glory through the powerlessness of pathetic clay pots like me—it says so in 2 Corinthians 4:7. And I will learn its truthfulness, as did my heroes, in the intense war that is the Christian ministry.