By Heidi Goehmann
You’ve got a Divine Call. It’s a big deal.
You’ve worked hard for quite a while. You’ve endured report cards and all-nighters. You’ve paid tuition and signed on the dotted line for student loans. You’ve eaten ramen. You’ve dreamed what big plans you’ll implement to change the world for Jesus.
Now it’s time to hit the road and do ministry work.
Then, suddenly, you make contact with your first angry church member, get your first paycheck and sign it over to the student loan rep, or have your first youth night that falls flat.
Ministry is wonderful, and ministry is hard.
Like any vocation, there are good days and bad days, and there are ho-hum days filled with the rhythm of everyday life.
At times, ministry is breathtaking.
You are invited into someone’s marriage struggle. You baptize a tiny human surrounded by people who love them. You offer a tissue and, more importantly, words of hope for a new widow or a child whose heart or home has been broken.
At other times, ministry is infuriating or deeply saddening.
You see the apathy of the people of God. You hear criticism from the world. You encounter broken homes and broken hearts.
There are a few things I wish I had known as a wee church worker, bright and smiling, out of Concordia.
Not that I would have been able to follow the advice, though. As a sinful human being, I, like most of us, am apt to think we’re different, less susceptible to ministry pitfalls, and yet claim the combined energy of 27 church workers.
But burnout happens. Depression happens. Anxiety happens. Relationship struggles enter our own homes through back doors when we aren’t looking.
Being aware of what is hard or what to expect in ministry won’t necessarily keep those things from happening, but they will keep us healthier.
We’ll be able to walk through the hard parts — and the sad parts — with the support and hope we need and the people our Lord Jesus Christ gives to us.
Here are a few things I learned about the first few years in ministry:
You will need an epic support system.
In most cases, ministry work involves a lot of moves.
There is a lot of saying goodbye to family and really, really good friends.
One gift of college and seminary life is that they can be an incubator for lifelong friendships.
In college and graduate school, after the first semester of awkwardness wears off, you can generally walk out your door and right into the path of people who have time to gather regularly to sit and contemplate life.
These same people have likely either served as your DJ on more than one road trip, took you to a clinic when you had influenza, walked down the aisle in your wedding party, or held your babies.
One of the most shocking parts of the first year of ministry can be the losses we forgot to mourn or didn’t recognize.
Life transitions are a challenge to begin with, but, coupled with a change in our support system, it is more important than ever to gather new people around you who build you up, who speak in familiar terminology, who can answer questions and concerns, and who provide a listening ear or a word of accountability.
Long-distance phone calls are good, but so are face-to-face conversations and community relationships. You will need both types of relationships, and you will need to seek them both out intentionally.
Your paycheck will seem like such a gift, and it will not go as far as you think.
Getting your first paycheck after being in school for so long can be invigorating, whether you are a first- or second- career church worker.
Fifteen years into ministry, every single time my email alerts me that a paycheck has been deposited into my bank account, my first thought is, “Wow, I get paid to do this!”
It’s still a wild and wonderful thing to me. The reality of life also quickly comes crashing in. Every month the bills need to be paid, and when tax time rolls around it’s like money flies out of my bank account into an envelope marked IRS.
Budgeting is essential. Studying stewardship for your own benefit — and your bank account — is vital.
No matter how much we make, as sinners we will always want just a little bit more. Sometimes, churches cannot afford a pay raise, even when they are absolutely faithful to God’s call to care for their worker.
Live entirely grateful for the paycheck, and be honest about what you need.
Also, take responsibility to tend to financial well-being issues like emergency savings, retirement, and health care costs as soon as you receive that first paycheck.
I think it’s a weird financial and stewardship reality that habits are harder to start, and it’s harder to save when you make more money than when you make less.
There are a fair amount of people who are angry within the church or angry with the church.
My first experience with an angry person at church didn’t come with flashing red lights or a fire-breathing dragon, but it was with someone who seemed unequivocally angry with me.
They might have been angry with my running late for a meeting, my child’s behavior during worship, or my opinion on the confirmation curriculum. I don’t remember.
I do remember when I finally figured out there are people who are just angry. This anger likely results from some trauma they suffered or some deep internal struggle between them and God.
It was helpful for me to understand that I was just at the brunt end of that anger; it wasn’t really about me. It still feels junky when someone puts their anger on me, but it helps me mold my response appropriately.
There are also people who are angry with the church in this world.
There are backstories for every person who has become disconnected from the church. One of the kindest things we can do in ministry for those who are lost or inactive is to listen to those stories, rather than return their hurtful words or disconnecting actions.
Forgiveness — spoken and lived out in Jesus Christ, the one who has forgiven us so very much — is never more important in ministry than towards those who mock, spit, jeer, or maintain a hurtful tongue.
Boundaries are also important, and God, in giving us His Word, is with us to discern when either or both are necessary.
Eating and sleeping are as important now as ever.
Remember when you were 6 years old and your mom or dad told you that you needed to eat your green vegetables and go to bed even though you didn’t feel tired?
Yes, truer words have never been spoken. Becoming an adult gives us the freedom to make choices about food, physical activity, and bedtime.
Work, including ministry, can quickly become one of those places where we get caught up in so much important adult stuff that we forget about the internal kid inside all of us who needs a few things to stay healthy.
- nutrients and healthy foods,
- a sleep cycle that lets our bodies recuperate,
- stretching and exercise to let out stress and keep the ticker in tip-top shape, and
- a time for flat-out silliness or time to do nothing that is at all serious in ministry and in this world.
The Holy Spirit can and will do mighty things through you. Creating good habits for yourself isn’t apart from the Spirit’s work in you. He is sanctifying your body in Christ, and He is also helping you care for that body as His temple.
Relationships take time, and they take more time than you think.
Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, you got into ministry because you loved Jesus and Jesus loves people.
It can be hard, especially in the first years of ministry, to be somewhere where you feel like you are the person standing on the outside looking in.
Particularly in congregational life, you can feel like relationships are deep and meaningful one minute, and then be shocked by something someone says or does that reminds you that some people have been in that church or town their whole lives while you’re still the newbie on the block.
In our world of instant gratification, we often want instant friendship, instant team synergy, and instant friends that feel like family. It takes time.
It seems to me that it takes about two years into ministry for someone to feel like you didn’t just get there yesterday. It seems to take seven to 10 years somewhere to feel like you have even begun to have a handle on how people and the community interact and to understand what they need from you and from the church.
That doesn’t mean you won’t have meaningful relationships immediately in ministry. It does mean that it shouldn’t be shocking when you feel excluded, unheard, or uninvited.
Jesus knows us intimately when we feel the weight of wanting more from our relationships.
Praise God for ministry, and praise God for His people. What a joy it is to serve.
Ministry work will be wonderful, and it will be hard. But, because Jesus is our Lord and Savior, may it always be about Him.