“What poor sap is going to take that call?”
That is what I said about a little church in Southern California that had only 18 members and whose average member age was 72. This church could only afford a half-time pastor willing to work without insurance or a pension. Because of this, the church had a pastoral vacancy for seven years. Throughout college and seminary, I knew this church was looking for a pastor. What I didn’t know was that I was the “poor sap” that would take that call.
More important than why I took the call was why I thought it was a bad call. The church was filled with elderly people. The building was in bad shape. They had no connection with the surrounding neighborhood. Did I mention the half-time salary with no pension and no insurance? Even worse, they had little savings in the bank. By all appearances, this was a call from which any smart pastor should run, but I found myself running toward it.
Developing a heart for leadership
In his book The Flourishing Pastor, Tom Nelson looks at the call of David from a shepherd boy in the wilderness to the shepherd of Israel. Reflecting on Psalm 78, Nelson writes, “David’s story reminds us that shepherding leaders are forged on the anvil of obscurity and refined in the crucible of visibility.” Working with rural pastors for the past three years, I have learned that many such pastors serve in obscure settings where they are underpaid, underappreciated, and underwhelmed about their future prospects. And yet, the Spirit continues to send pastors to obscure places. Why?
We get a clue from Psalm 78 as we hear of David’s call to become shepherd of Israel:
God chose His servant David
and took him from the sheepfolds:
from the care of the ewes with nursing lambs
God brought him to shepherd his people,
Jacob and Israel his inheritance.
So David shepherded them
according to the integrity of his heart,
and guided them with his skillful hands”
– Psalm 78:70-72
One important truth jumps out in this passage, namely, the very skills and heart David needed to shepherd a nation was first developed in the wilderness tending to ewes and nursing lambs. This is the same for pastors. It is in the obscure places where the Spirit develops within pastors the very skill and heart needed to minister for a lifetime. In other words, instead of getting discouraged by poor circumstances, one can lean into such calls knowing the Spirit is at work.
As the campus pastor at a church-related university, I am now in a more visible role than my first call. With this comes other challenges. And yet, my pastoral skill and heart were deeply formed in that first call. At that little church, I learned through trial and error how to preach, lead meetings, organize my calendar, officiate special services, balance a budget, and so much more.
I also learned how easy it is to lose heart and become isolated from God and others. All pastors run into this problem, but especially those in obscure calls because this is wilderness work and the tempter loves the wilderness.
The problem with isolation is that we cut ourselves off from the very one who called us into ministry in the first place. God placed a fire within us at our baptism. God tended the flame through sermons, prayers, service, and mentoring. All of this occurred among the communion of saints. To isolate ourselves from that communion is to cut ourselves off from the very source of our life and faith.
Thankfully, just as God sent angels to minister to Jesus in the wilderness, God sends saints to minister to us. My pastor was an angel to me by regularly checking in on me. Another angel was a seminary classmate who was serving in his own wilderness. And then there was “Old Sam,” a church member, who would take me out to lunch, as well as Jackie, another member, who prayed with me whenever possible.
My bishop asked me to stay at that church for at least 6 months to see if it might work out. I served there for ten years. Yes, the pay got better. More importantly, I learned how to pastor a flock. I learned that I could not do everything nor should I try. I learned to ask for help from other people who had better skills in leadership than I did. I learned the devil likes to make me doubt myself and my calling. I learned that I was more resilient than I realized. I learned that good sermons take a lot of work. I learned that an apology is better than an excuse. I learned there are good reasons to leave a call just as there are good reasons to work through a tough call.
Most importantly, I learned that ministry is much like sap: it moves slowly, it is sticky, and it is next to impossible to remove from you … kind of like God.
Sticky solutions for those in the wilderness
The longer you spend in the wilderness of ministry, the easier it is to lose heart. I have been there many times and have found a few practices to be life-giving to me. May they be life-giving to you.
Connect, connect, connect. It is easy to isolate. Have a regular check-in with friends, mentors, and colleagues. By keeping a regular connection, your people will know when you are hiding and will come looking for you. But be sure to do the same for them when they are isolating from others.
Keep the sabbath “rural-style.” God set aside a day of rest so humanity could be captivated by God and God’s creation. If you are a hiker, go hiking. If you are a painter, paint. In fact, there are a lot of hobbies that rural people do. Ask someone to teach you how to garden, carve wood, crochet, bird watch, fish, or something else that intrigues you.
Seek continuing education opportunities. At Grand View, we run The Moses Project (www.mosesproject.org) for rural pastors in their first 10 years of ministry. There are many amazing programs out there. Attend them. Even better, call a friend to join you.
Find a prayer partner. Having people pray with and for you is a beautiful gift. The best prayer partner I have ever had was a church member. If you do not know who to pray with, then pray about that. God will bring someone to pray with you. Bound together in Christ, these saints blessed me in that call. As in the well-worn hymn:
Blest be the tie that binds
our hearts in Christian love;
the unity of heart and mind
is like to that above.
We share our mutual woes,
our mutual burdens bear,
and often for each other flows
the sympathizing tear.