The Difficulty with Difficulties

May 13th, 2013

Thirty years ago—when I entered pastoral ministry—I had no way of knowing how difficult the work would be. But my beginnings were eager, and passionate, and fraught with the idealisms of youth.

I began preaching when I was nineteen years old. At twenty I was leading a middle school youth ministry and conducting a weekly Bible study in the county jail. At twenty-one I was a seminarian. And by twenty-three I was serving two congregations full-time with a $13,800-a-year salary and an option to apply for food stamps.

These beginnings—more than thirty years ago—seem like a dream to me now. But those who have been engaged in pastoral work over the long haul of a lifetime will probably affirm these realities: namely, that God’s grace makes pastoral ministry possible and that ministry has become more difficult with each passing year.

I affirm this duality not because I have attended lectures or read the books written by famous pastors or even learned these truths in seminary—but because I have experienced them. And my history and relationship with other pastors—regardless of name or denomination—affirms that we experience ministry as increasingly difficult. Like most pastors who have stayed the course, I realize that pastoral ministry in these times bears little resemblance to the ministry as I inherited it, learned it, and practiced it thirty years ago. Not only have the times changed—but the church has, too. Most of the processes and practices, the methods and relationships, the intricacies and intimacies of the day-to-day—are no longer a given. A pastor must struggle now for even the smallest successes—forms and affirmations that, even a few decades back, were not so difficult to achieve.

This is not to say that these difficulties have led me down the path of cynicism or apathy. This is not a complaint against the church, or about changing mores and abandonment of traditions, or a diatribe against change itself. Quite the contrary. Rather, the difficulties have always been where the edges of ministry are sharpened. And the challenges themselves—because they are so numerous, varied, and expansive—frequently lead us back to God’s grace in the uncertainties of these times.

But for pastors, the difficulties themselves are in need of explanation. Or at least we need to affirm that pastoral ministry has changed—and continues to adapt to an ever-expanding landscape of expectation and need.

There are reasons for this.

Take, for example, the sermon itself. Time was (yes, there was a time) when a pastor could at least make a play to impact the faith community through the weekly message. Social problems, helping the poor, rallying the church for community events and service, and even growing stewardship for the budget—all of these and more could be addressed with a degree of effect through a sermon. Now . . . in a culture where all things are visual, quick and of gnat-like-brevity, a sermon’s auditory impact is, at best, momentary. Attention spans can no longer hold the spoken word, and, once heard, the sermon floats away on a soft, breezy pillow of boredom. Faster, bolder, more shocking stimulation is the requirement—and the preacher’s ability to hold an audience (or even gather one) is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve.

And yet, this difficulty is accompanied by a potential like no other. As Jesus said: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Indeed. But now the pastor’s arsenal of presentation styles (visual, social media, etc.) can’t seem to keep up with the flatulence of other voices and the latest technology that people clamor for. Difficulty is compounded by difficulty. The hard just got harder. And the field of harvest grows ever larger.

The pastor’s impact is also in flux. Most every congregation, in one form or another, has experienced some element of division in the past thirty years. Some of these differences have been woven from the fabric of society; others ecclesiological. One would be hard-pressed to find a congregation anywhere that does not have (at least lurking beneath the surface) a variety of opinions ranging far and wide on all things political, or economic, or social, or theological.

 As one pastor noted in a small group recently: “Even our congregational unity seems built of straw . . . and I find that I must avoid at all costs any hint of controversy that could bring the house of cards tumbling down.” Indeed, the church then is built on the grace of God, or how else could it withstand these times of deep division? Still, the pastor finds that the difficult work of casting a vision for, and growing up, a community of faith is made all the more difficult because there seems to be no center. Even the Bible and the traditions that once shaped our respective faith communities are interpreted in dozens of ways, or are no longer known. Often, the pastor feels that he/she must walk a narrow plank, and the richness that once graced our histories and our stories is all but lost.

Yet again, even this is cause for hope—as there have been other times when the people of God have lost their way, or disregarded the lessons of the past. And when the past is lost, one must look to the future, and claim the new path with vision and the assurance of God’s grace. But this element of pastoral work, for certain, is increasingly difficult to achieve—as the language of faith no longer seems to resonate, and the clouds of our own uncertainty obscure our sight.

Not long ago, another thirty-year pastor I know commented: “There was a time when some aspects of parish ministry were easy to me. Now . . . everything is difficult. I don’t want to admit it’s my age! But all of the expectations, needs, and even the demands of parish work are intrinsically different now. The old has passed away. The new has come.”

We could all read books about this reality. We could take the seminars. And, to be certain, there are some congregations and leaders who—at least from the external appearances—seem to have it figured out and are reaching the masses. Leadership is required. Leadership matters. But for most pastors the bright lights and slick staging is elusive, and the mastery and energies required to be or to become this effective is fraught with difficulty. Many give up. Others opt out. Or burn out.

 And yet . . . all things are possible with God.

The truth is, we now live in a time and a culture where no aspect of ministry can be taken for granted. How we relate to people, how we worship, how we conduct stewardship, or even how we pray and sing . . . the smallest of these now seems injected with enormous weight, and pastors can often feel the burden residing on their own narrow and slumping shoulders. Pastors are those who ask: “What will become of the church?” Indeed, some pastors have lost all ability to imagine the existence of the church—or at least the church as they once knew it.

Not long ago, sitting on the back deck of the parsonage—working up yet another sermon about Jesus, about stewardship, about faith and commitment and the extravagant generosity of the gospel—I felt the usual tug of doubt, the flirtations of uncertainty and defeat. I asked again: Why do I continue? Why do I bother?

Surrounded by blossoming redbuds and a soft, velvety breeze from the west, I was soon taken in—consumed—by all that I did not create. Glinting into the sun, I had the sensation that somebody up there liked me—loved me even. This was difficult to accept.

Perhaps that was the most difficult work of all.

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