When you talk to people in ministry, it seems that everybody’s got a story about how they got into it and why this work matters. As someone who appreciates the reason why people do what they do, these conversations are especially intriguing to me.
We have found a lot of interesting reasons that people move into mission-driven work. There is almost always a journey that led them there. A pretty high percentage will have trauma in their past. Yes, there are a few outliers out there that moved into this work simply because they love and care about people and they care about making a difference. But by and large, the overwhelming majority got into all of this because of pain.
It makes sense. Why would someone start an addiction recovery organization if there wasn’t some sort of experience that brought them to that place. We see this in pastors, executive directors, board members, and business leaders. These are not the typical conversations that people have every day, but the reality is these things from the past sometimes shape our perspective of reality now.
It’s these past situations that still hold power over us that can sometimes make us ineffective and possibly dangerous as we move into different roles in our ministry career.
Let me give a personal example. Growing up in a pastor’s family, you get to see the good and the bad of almost everything. And while my parents tried to shield us from some of the things that were happening in church, we could still see it. Seeing a prominent family in our church smile and present just fine the Sunday morning while seeing them in marriage counseling with my parents the following day told us there was more going on. Seeing a family like that sometimes brought great hope because we saw a reconciliation. Other times, we saw a family like that destroy themselves. The emotional toll that that it took on my parents, especially my dad, but even us as kids probably affected us more than we realized. I think the desire to see people do better as people, as leaders, and even as ministries had its roots in many of those observations I had as a kid.
As I got older, I got married and I moved into ministry myself. I became a pastor in a church plant. There’s some tremendous opportunities for growth and success. But as those things happened, many of the things I had observed as a child began happening in ministry that I was a part of. I was no longer an observer; I was a participant. The expectations that many leaders feel from your peers, those in authority over you, and even people in a congregation. Having to navigate the public side with things that were going on behind the scenes brought me back to those situations I observed as a child. And I think it made me really defensive and aggressive. As a leader, it can be easy to try to defend your position, especially in ministry. Over time, the frustration, stress, and hurt became a bit overwhelming and I left that ministry. I left well or at lease tried to. But I had a bad attitude. I felt like I was right and I hadn’t been heard. In the coming months, I transition into a new ministry – great opportunity and a fresh start. But I was a lot more bitter about the last situation than I realized. I took the new job not because of my ministry heart but because I wanted vindication from the last situation. I couldn’t see it in that moment but I’d be able to see it soon enough. The ministry I was walking into ultimately was for me to prove to myself and others that I knew what I was doing and that specific individuals in my last ministry were wrong. But I didn’t realize I was trying to get revenge. Not in a hurtful or malicious way, I wanted to be seen as right. I wanted to be seen as someone who knew what they were doing. I wanted the last ministry to struggle with me not there.
I think this is a natural reaction that many people have regardless of whether you’re in a ministry role, walked away from a relationship, had a business fail, etc. There’s a lot of scenarios that we can go through that would probably have a similar response. But the problem in ministry or with ministry situations like this is that we have to stand on stage and show people that we have the right heart. Ministries, more than any other place, require the stage presence to appear authentic and sincere. And I don’t think this is always the case.
In time I was able to come to this realization that I had done ministry for the wrong reasons. The baggage that we carry from one ministry into another, along with the trauma and pains, will begin to collide. We want to be right more than we want God to do His work. We want to be vindicated more than we’re willing to be humble.
We’ve seen this in countless ministries where the journey someone’s been on has led them to a place of bitterness or the things of the pas directly affecting their ability to be authentic and in it for the right reasons.
I was recently having a conversation with a retired pastor. The conversation was about what God had done in their ministries over the years. The conversation quickly spiraled into the pains of all of the wrongs that were done to this individual throughout the years and I could tell that each ministry experience he had had over the decades was trying to prove to the last ministry something about his competency, his skill, and his integrity. I found myself sad at the end of the conversation because I felt like we had discussed all the ways he was wronged far more than we had talked about what God had done.
So what do we do about this? Many of us have been in ministry for a long time. In the wounds and scars that we carry are a part of what make us who we are, and hopefully they give us better empathy for others who are going through difficult situations. There are four things that I have to remind myself on a pretty regular basis. I thought they were worth sharing here.
Forgiveness is not something that’s just for other people. Forgiveness has to be a part of how we do ministry. And it has to be bidirectional. We have to be willing to forgive and we have to be willing to ask for forgiveness. We serve a God who gives second, third, fourth, fifth, and so on chances. Over and over. Yet I can be so unwilling to forgive in these moments. The New Testament tells us over and over of what we been forgiven of and it’s far greater than how people have wronged us. In order for me to be effective, I have to be willing to forgive and to be forgiven.
Grace. Now this goes along with the first point. Giving grace to others is not something that comes naturally to most of us. It’s interesting how easy it is for us to teach, preach, and give direction to others on how important this concept is in our lives, yet for me personally I can become so stubborn here. I think for me, giving grace starts with giving someone the benefit of the doubt. Realizing that I don’t have all the information in any situation as well as understanding that I have probably been given grace by others and I may not know it.
Letting go of the past. The memories and nostalgia, both good and bad, of the past are a part of our memories yet we hold onto them as though they are defining our future. When we hold onto those things, especially around situations or an incident with another person, we remove our ability to see God’s hand in their life. The past is helpful to us in making wise decisions and being more cautious.
Remember that people will disappoint you and you will disappoint people. This is a hard reality for me to come to, and when I did it helped a lot.
You can’t change the past and you can’t “undo” the reason you got into the ministry you’re in. But you can ask God to help you change your heart posture and motivation. It won’t happen over night, but I think that’s a prayer request He’ll honor.