The Easy Way Out?

August 13th, 2012

My husband and a good friend were deep in conversation: should our friend return to his home conference to pursue ordination, or should he transfer to another one, in which he’d lived as a young adult? He had long felt a strong affinity for the region of the second conference, but he felt that perhaps he was just taking “the easy way out” by choosing a place he loved, and, out of loyalty, should continue with his home conference in spite of considerable obstacles. My husband laughed. In his experience as the spouse of a pastor, he knew that there are obstacles enough in ministry – he assured our friend that simply entering pastoral ministry was ensuring that he was not taking “the easy way out” of anything.

The road Jesus calls us to travel may be narrow, but it is not unmarked. Very often, pastors miss the directional signs in their life because it would be much more difficult to go off-roading – and isn’t ministry supposed to be difficult? Ministry is indeed difficult, but that doesn’t mean pastors are called to self-sabotage. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die…” may be an aphorism turned Dave Matthews lyric – but it is clearly rooted in scripture. Ecclesiastes repeatedly insists that finding enjoyment in our work is a great good. Especially for those of us whose work is serving God through serving the church, we would do well to remember the Westminster Larger Catechism – “Question 1: What is the chief and highest end of man? A: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever.” Does our work increase or decrease our enjoyment of God?

Challenges and disappointments can arise even when we are doing the very things we enjoy. I remember how excited I was to be teaching a workshop on Christian clowning, in preparation for Vacation Bible School at a rural church in North Carolina. I had been clowning for more than 15 years, and had always loved it. I had found a fantastic clowning and magic supply shop and bought professional makeup and other supplies, and done a great deal of research. I had pulled the costume my mother made me in high school out of my closet, modified a few skits, and practiced making balloon animals.

The night of the workshop, I was perfectly prepared with all of my props and worksheets carefully arranged on the tables, and with each segment of my detailed agenda timed in five minute increments. With a few minutes left before the scheduled starting time, I found myself in the bathroom praying, “Lord, this is your workshop, not mine. Use me to your glory. Let me be an instrument in your hand and give me the courage to follow the promptings of the Spirit.” I soon discovered that the Spirit was already at work leading me in this prayer – giving me words to remember when the evening went off the rails.

Nothing went quite according to my elaborate plans. Of the ten people who showed up, only two teenagers were going to be able to help with Vacation Bible School. There were four kids who were much younger than my intended audience, and who were going to require a lot of assistance. There was an adult woman who was going to be out of town during VBS, and an adult man who did not attend the church, but had heard about it from a family member – he clowned at area nursing homes, and wanted to see if he could pick up new tips. Finally there were two moms who talked nonstop through my presentation, as if none of the rest of us were in the room at all.

At first I was utterly deflated. More than a quarter of what I had prepared was not going to apply to this audience, and some of it was clearly too dense and boring for the children. I chucked my notes and ended up spending almost the entire time on makeup – talking about the history, meaning, and techniques, giving removal tips, inviting each individual to design their own unique face, and then applying the makeup, taking a bunch of photos, and cleaning up the kids before sending them home. Knee-deep in the mundane details of makeup, I was surprised to notice that I had hit my stride again, because I was doing so many things that I loved – I was teaching, I was clowning, I was working with teenagers and children, I was engaging my artistic side, I was meeting new people... and through it all, I was sharing God's love.

On the ride home, I reflected that it had been a good night, even though it was not the night I had planned. The young man volunteering in nursing homes found new ways to connect this service to his faith, the woman with grown children enjoyed the opportunity to help the children with their makeup, the teenagers became excited about helping at Vacation Bible School and recruited several more teenagers, and the children learned that church was a place where people of many generations could come together and make a mess and have a good time together. And the two moms in the back? I imagine they were ministered to as well, having a Sunday night support session in an air conditioned room, not having to do anything for anybody but pay attention to each other.

None of us ministers exactly like anyone else – God has given each of us different gifts, different affinities, different support networks, different experiences… and each of these makes us who we are. Discovering joy is what keeps pastors going year after year. There are enough sacrifices and discouragements in pastoral ministry – and God has more than enough surprises in store. Don’t sacrifice what gives you joy in the interest of avoiding “taking the easy way out.” Surrendering yourself to be an instrument in God’s hand and to follow the promptings of the Spirit is not easy! Embracing what gives you joy in ministry does not spare you difficulty – but it does allow you to become the instrument God made you to be.

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