Yes, There are ‘Thorns’ in Vocational Ministry Too

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

March 4, 2019

Last week, The New York Times published an insightful and intriguing article by Charles Duhigg entitled, “Wealthy, Successful, and Miserable.”

Duhigg, himself a graduate of Harvard’s Business School, explores the level of job satisfaction attained by America’s highest achievers.  These individuals, on the surface, look like they have it all. Impressive degrees, high-power jobs, and lots of money.

Surely, if anyone would be happy, it would be these folks.  And yet, Duhigg discovers, most of these folks are profoundly miserable.

It turns out that our modern era’s unprecedented economic success is matched only by the unprecedented amount of job dissatisfaction that has come with it. Professional disappointment is at an all-time high.

Duhigg interviewed one individual who captured the sentiment of much of corporate America: “I feel like I’m wasting my life.”

While the results of this study will be shocking to many in the modern day, it is not all that surprising from a biblical perspective. Not only do worldly riches fail to satisfy, but we live in a fallen world where our labors are regularly frustrated.  Due to the fall of Adam, God said, “cursed is the ground because of you . . . thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (Gen 3:17-18).

But here’s what is surprising. Many Christians, who feel just this sense of meaninglessness and frustration in the corporate world, will turn to vocational ministry as the cure.

Surely, if I am preaching the gospel and building the Kingdom of God, one might think, then I will finally find the job satisfaction I am longing for. Right?

Not so much.

Here’s where we realize there are some profound misconceptions circulating about the nature of vocational ministry, the biggest of which might be the idea that ministry will (finally) bring vocational fulfillment.

In a world where everything is bent towards existential satisfaction, it’s not hard to see why vocational ministry is viewed this way.  Like everything else, ministry can quickly become about what it can do for us—how it can give us happiness, a sense of purpose, etc.

Needless to say, this ministry-will-make-me-happy approach runs into some serious obstacles.

First, ministry jobs are not  immune to the “curse of the ground” in Gen 3:17.  Even ministry jobs exist in a fallen, broken world. And there are parts of those jobs that are difficult, frustrating, and can sometimes appear to lack meaning.

One does not have to be a lawyer or stock analyst to get pricked by thorns.  Pastors get pricked too.

Second, some ministry callings are very, very difficult. Think for a moment about the ministry of the prophet Jeremiah. He preached to a hard-hearted people who hated, despised, and persecuted him. He was the “weeping prophet.”

If ministry were about “job satisfaction” he would never have stayed faithful to his calling. Indeed, I fear this is the reason many pastors eventually end up leaving the ministry. They mistake a hard calling for a non-calling.

If we are on the right track here, then a few suggestions for those in ministry or considering ministry:

1. Adjust your expectations. Although we know in our hearts that ministry is hard, we sometimes refuse to let it in.  We are like the soldier who enlists in the military after seeing a glitzy television commercial, while pretending he hasn’t seen double-amputee vets in a wheelchair.  “I’m the exception,” we tell ourselves.

And the world of “celebrity” pastors hasn’t helped this problem.  They look happy, fulfilled and successful–like the Harvard MBA grads of Duhigg’s article. But, I suspect they would also tell us ministry is hard, if we ever had a chance to ask.

2. Adjust your questions.  When we evaluate our callings, we typically ask existential questions: “Am I happy?” “Do I love my job?”  I understand these questions and they’re not bad ones.  But, they are limiting.  They may unintentionally communicate that how I feel about my job is the best indicator of whether I should stay in it.

We should remember there are other questions to ask besides existential ones: “Is God at work in my ministry?” “Is this ministry a good fit or my gifts and abilities?”

3. Adjust your time frame.  In prior generations, it was not uncommon for a person to work in the same job for 30-40 years—even jobs modern folks would regard as “unfulfilling,” like working in a factory.  Now job-hopping is on the rise.  And unfortunately it’s happening in ministry too.

I am not suggesting there’s never a time to leave a ministry job; nor am I suggesting that any tenure under 30 years is a failure.  But, I am suggesting that we may be willing to stay longer in the same place if we rethink the role of “job satisfaction” in ministry.

To be clear, this does not mean vocational ministry is a cold, joyless enterprise. Not at all. We find freedom and joy when we serve Christ faithfully, even in hard places.

But, that’s not the same thing as saying we are doing ministry merely for the personal satisfaction it brings.  We find our life only after we first lose it.

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