Keeping Faith in Your Ministry
When you become a pastor of a local church, you come to realize that your work depends almost entirely upon your self-motivation. There is no one watching over you every day to fix your schedule or guide your work. You have to develop your own regular habits of ordering your work and being faithful in it. Being disciplined as a professional is simply a requirement of society from which no one is exempt. The real question for a pastor is not how to organize yourself as a responsible person with a job to do, but it is how to maintain a faith in the ministry you have been called and ordained to practice.
It is easy for a pastor to become somewhat numbed by the routine of pastoral life. The life of a pastor is rigidly controlled by the liturgical life of the church. Sunday services come every week, and the shape of a whole year is determined by the dates of Christmas and Easter. Then there is that other annual institutional schedule of nominating officers, setting budgets, having stewardship programs, launching a new year of the church school, developing the staff, and accomplishing the goals set by the church council. Paradoxically, in the context of this routine the life of a pastor is generally chaotic because there are always crises happening which require his or her immediate response, and these crises include deaths, illnesses, marital crises, parental crises, personal depressions, domestic violence, unemployment, spiritual crises, and so on. And these are just the crises in members' personal lives; there are also the institutional crises in the local church which are on-going in the life of any church that is active.
I have always kept in my mind the warning of George Macdonald--Nothing is so deadening to the divine as an habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things. Going through the routine and playing the role of the pastor can become a matter of just "dealing with the outsides of holy things." That feeling will come to every pastor at some point to some degree if for no other reason than that of human weariness. However, for someone who is called of God to this service, it is not acceptable to allow oneself to succumb to a work of "dealing with the outsides of holy things." You have to maintain your faith in the ministry as a calling of God instead of just a job.
How do we do that? One thing that is essential is having a prayer life fit for a pastor. I have always needed some help with this, and the most helpful resource I ever had was the Minister's Prayer Book edited by John W, Doberstein and published by Fortress Press. While it was designed by and for Lutherans, I had no problem translating the Lutheran concepts and ways into a Methodist idiom. My experience using this book for decades taught me that every pastor really should have some daily time of prayer and reflection aided by some guidebook designed for clergy. The readings in the Minister's Prayer Book are reflections on the life and work of a minister, and I could find my frustrations and joys reflected in its readings, and they continually gave me perspective and encouragement.
If you have a mentor, then you are even more blessed. I yearned for a mentor as a young pastor, but I was never able to find anyone willing to provide this kind of relationship. Mentoring was just not on the radar of most clergy of the generation older than myself. Things have changed, and many of the best pastors are eager to be mentors to others.
You are also blessed if you have a covenant group. One of the first things I did whenever I was appointed to a church in a new community was to begin looking for clergy to form a group. In the Florida Conference, there is a culture of expectation that any competent and healthy minister will be a part of a covenant group with other clergy. I know that these groups can degenerate into gripe and gossip sessions, but they can usually be rescued from such a fate by its members who expect more from them and sense a need to discuss with others how they are struggling to fulfill their call from God and to be what God has created and called them to be..
I do not think that there is any substitute for serious biblical and theological study. A pastor should always be engaged in a study of a book of the Bible or a doctrine of the church or some other related issue. The church is a theological community at the end of the day. That means that it cannot be understood or nurtured by mere sociological approaches. I am convinced that any pastor who has stopped studying deeply the meaning of God's revelation to Israel and Jesus Christ is destined to become somebody who only "deals with the outsides of holy things." If this happens, then there will be inner discontent and cynicism because we will know in our hearts that we are not fulfilling the spiritual call of God. Studying the scriptures and becoming better educated in the doctrines of the church keeps before us the question of the truth which is the foundation of the church's life and protects us from reducing the church to a mere institution subject to human manipulation.
Other persons also play a major role in keeping your faith in your ministry. The father of pastoral care, Antoine Boisen, used to say that every person is "a living document." That is, you can learn so much from each person because each person is a mystery created in the image of God in whose life amazing truths are being played out. Of course, a pastor is privileged to be with persons in the most intense experiences. I cannot say how often my own faith was strengthened and shaped for the rest of my life by the persons I was privileged to know. Often we may feel mediocre or worse in our institutional accomplishments, but then we have those experiences with persons in which the Spirit of God is working and we are being of service, and we remember that God is using us wherever we are.