There was a time when we were the only staff, besides a part time admin. How I longed to have a team of others that were passionate and gifted to reach the community that God had put us in. Now, many years later, we are blessed to work with a large team. And truly, it’s a blessing to not feel like we need to do everything from replacing ceiling tiles, to burping babies, to preaching. It’s a joy to see our team flourish in roles that God has gifted them to fill and for them to see His unmistakable power moving through their work.
But there is a wrestling that every person who enters this calling to vocational ministry in a church must engage. When we sign up to work in a church, we are giving God permission to pull back the curtain, to not only give us a closer look at what He is doing but to make a place where we must get down on our knees, roll up our sleeves and get into the messiness that, at times, is church ministry. And while we get to see Jesus reveal Himself to individuals in ways we never imagined, we also get to see the struggle that every human faces between following the voice of the Spirit or their own desires.
As we’ve brought on new staff over the last twenty-eight years of marriage, I’ve watched them engage this struggle up close. Some navigate it well and come out the other side, more intentional, more faith-filled and loving Jesus’ Bride more deeply. Others haven’t fared so well and have allowed disillusionment to have the final voice and bitterness to take hold.
Here are the *** changes in our perspective that come when we enter vocational church ministry and the realizations we must wrestle with and incorporate into how we understand our relationship with the Lord and His call to serve Him in this unique spot.
1. The Spiritual Battle
We see the spiritual battle from a different perspective, as part of an army on the front line. This means that I will get to regularly see Jesus redeeming lives. But I’ll also experience the attacks of the enemy personally as well as in my family.
This means that I must learn to celebrate victories regularly as I encounter them in my own life, the lives of those around me, my family, and in the ministry I contribute to. This is one of the primary ways I will combat discouragement. I must also learn how to recognize the attacks of the enemy, how to fight against them and what structures or disciplines are necessary so that these attacks don’t take me out. And because I am on the front lines of a spiritual battle for peoples’ souls, I need to remember that my family also will encounter these attacks and they need to be aware and trained to fight the battle in their lives.
2. People’s Fallenness and Redemption
I will see and experience people’s goodness as well as their sin in a deeper way. God will pull back the curtain and allow me to see His people becoming like Jesus, struggling to put off their old self and take on the new creation that they have become. Working for a church means that when people are in a tough spot, they may come to us for help. Whether you are a pastor, a Kid’s Director or a graphic designer, when people hear you work for a church, they assume you are able to help them with some of the difficult struggles of life. Being naïve of this makes us likely to be caught unaware and miss the opportunity to be Jesus’ hands to them.
Being ready to enter into another’s journey means that I need to nurture my own relationship with the Lord. This sounds so trite, but how many times have I seen the tanks of our church staff run dry, not because they were too busy, but because they neglected nurturing that relationship. We must remind our people that depending on Jesus doesn’t ensure we won’t grow tired. At the same time, not spending time with the Lord in His Word, in worship and with His people will unplug us from the crucial source of life that we are trying to give to others.
I will also need to constantly remind myself that everyone is at a different place along their journey to becoming like Jesus. There is often way more going on in someone’s backstory and their current situation than I’m aware of. So that when I’m the target of criticism or anger, my posture needs to be one of a shepherd rather than defending my own rightness. I need to ask, “How can I help them see Jesus and become more like Him through this hard situation?”
3. Conflict Invades My Place of Peace
Before we entered church ministry, the church was probably a place that caused us to feel loved, valued and sense the presence of God in a different way (I hope). But when church becomes our place of work, it becomes more complicated. Feelings of being loved by others may be replaced with conflict with those we work alongside. We might’ve been the celebrated volunteer that got to show up as the hero but now it’s “our job”- something that’s expected of us.
This means that I need to manage the tension between learning to not be easily offended, to let love overlook a bunch of wrongs and the command to not let the sun go down on my anger. I need to resist keeping a record. Navigating this tension is tough and can’t be done without the voice of the Spirit guiding us. But there is one sure thing… talking to others about my complaints is not helpful. Negativism spreads like a cancer and if I’m trying to stir up bitterness and discontent by building consensus, I need to do a heart check and do some repenting. So I need to go directly to the person I have a complaint against- or keep my mouth shut. (see Matthew 18 for more instructions on handling conflict)
4. My Need for Refreshment- on a soul level
Believe it or not, there is a huge difference between mowing the lawn and groundskeeping for a corporation and doing it for the church. As a part of the team that “equips God’s people for works of service”(see Ephesians 4:12), you are not only a target of the enemy as we’ve already talked about, but what you do takes on a spiritual Kingdom significance. You may find that sometimes putting in a ten hour day might feel a whole lot more taxing because of the emotional and spiritual demands that are put on you. You also might feel like it’s way less taxing, because there’s a constant reminder that God is working in the midst of all you are doing. Some of the more or less may depend on the season.
Regardless, the need to make sure that you are allowing God to refresh you (see Psalm 23:1, Romans 13:11). This means carving out time for refreshing all of you- body, mind and spirit. God designed our bodies to repair and replenish with healthy food and rest. Make sure you are finding rhythms that allow your body to do what God made it to do. Refreshing your mind means unplugging from the constant demands of people and programs that ministry involves. If you have a practice of always being accessible to everyone, anytime they need you, reconsider the wisdom of putting some boundaries around your time that will allow you to say yes to the things that are most important. And if you find that you are working every weekend and never able to attend a church service, I suggest re-evaluating the long-term wisdom of that – or at least finding a different way to truly enter the throne-room of worship on a regular basis. Pay attention to those things that bring life to you and make sure you have a rhythm of hitting them regularly. And pay attention to your physical, emotional and spiritual thermometers. Figure out what signals you that your tank is getting low – before it hits the “E”. And then make the necessary adjustments to replenish.
5. A Filter that sees “messy”
I wonder if the Levite priests in Old Testament times noticed the new crack in the marble or the dust that had gathered on the steps outside the Temple. I bet they did. We can see the fact that we notice things now when they are out of place, not done well, or just messed up as a downside of this vocational ministry gig. But I wonder if it’s a disguised blessing. It means that, along with being a part of the priesthood with all believers through the blood of Jesus, God has called you to pay special attention to His Church. To take care of His people, the house they gather in for worship, and to help them discover their unique ways of being on mission with Him. What a blessing it is to have that responsibility.
This means that the next time I notice words misspelled on the screen during worship, mud prints on the hallway carpet or see an event fall flat because someone dropped the ball, I need to thank God for allowing me to feel the responsibility for caring for His people. Then I need to thank Him for the people He has gathered to invest in His Kingdom. And last, I need to walk carefully in my desire to “give feedback”, always assuming complexity rather than laziness. If it is something that is in my area of responsibility, I will struggle through feeling bad about myself and then come to the place of allowing God to show me how to fix it and moving forward, wiser and more intentional.
So let us run with endurance, this race that is marked out for us! God has put you here, in this exact place, at this time, for a specific purpose. Let’s recognize that working in a church presents tensions that must be managed, not necessarily problems to be solved. And when we can wrestle through those, we can more authentically embrace all that this calling has for us, seeing Jesus move in the lives of those He has called us to serve.