Thinking about ordination? Think again.

Dear person who is feeling a call to pastor,

If you’re seriously considering becoming a pastor, think again.

Entering this ministry will be one of the hardest things you will ever do. You are signing up for the possibility of working incredibly long hours and will need to develop and maintain safe boundaries both for yourself and your community. If you’re lucky you’ll be paid. If you’re really lucky you’ll be paid enough to support yourself and your family (if you have one). You will have to manage unrealistic expectations from every direction, including within, and you will have to say “no” sometimes. You will encounter incredibly difficult personalities who will project onto you every grievance they have towards God. You will think about quitting once a month and at some point it might become a weekly consideration. You’ll encounter the shadow side of the Church – the place where sexism, classism, racism, homophobia, and general human brokenness lurk (to varying degrees depending on where you serve). You’ll be tempted towards snark over vulnerability and stubbornness over conversion. You will have your strength and patience tested far beyond anything you have faced. You will have the button of your deepest insecurity pressed over and over again. You’ll be made to feel insignificant by the shear size of it all. You will feel a deep sense of loneliness sometimes. You will have friends who will walk away from you… and it will hurt. You will disappoint people. You will disappoint yourself. You will feel constrained by the vows you take upon yourself. You will give your life to it and wonder if it makes any difference at all. You will encounter unspeakable pain and you will cry many tears.

If you’re considering ordination as a pastor, think again…

…and then, for the love of God, say “yes.”

We may see humanity, even ourselves, at our worst, but we also get to see God at God’s absolute best. Sure, there are great difficulties ahead and no amount of seminary or mentoring can prepare you for most of it, but you are also entering that beautiful journey with God where every difficult moment is accompanied by God’s grace. You will be entering a vocation where the very foundation of your calling is to rely on the strength of God to navigate difficult relationships, heart-breaking pastoral encounters, strained-budgets, general angst and anxiety, and your very own weary soul. Just when you have reached the end of your strength, God’s strength takes over. God’s strength is made perfect even in our weakness.

At the end of the day, God doesn’t call us because we are wonderful, or smart, or gifted, or worthy. Ordination as pastors and priests isn’t about us. It is about reflecting the image of Christ into our communities in ways that bear witness to the power and love of God in our midst. We are called to love everyone we encounter – those who love us, those who hate us, and those who are indifferent to our presence. All the while we point beyond ourselves to the God to whom all things journey.

The role of the priest and pastor is to model what every single Christian is called into – a life of total surrender. Like Peter, we will go places where never wanted to go. Like Paul, we will be changed in dramatic ways. Like Jesus himself, we will bear a cross that will cause us to stumble. This ministry is a cross that leaves its redeeming mark on our shoulders as we follow the pilgrim’s path to salvation and abundant life and God’s grace is sufficient even in our stumbling.

The ordained life is a beautiful life, one of great challenge and greater joy and we get to see both, up close and personal.

If you’re considering ordination as a pastor, think about it long and hard. Like the man who builds a tower or the king who leads an army, consider the cost.

And then say yes to God who calls you and promises to go with you even in the most unclear places. 

Maybe you can’t do this. That’s okay. Because God can.

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28 thoughts on “Thinking about ordination? Think again.

    1. Thank you. I am a priest. And I know what is written is true in every respect. Especially today …..

      1. As an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church I can assent to everything that has been said about our journey as pastors and priests. Blessings to all.

  1. I find this article to be right on. I have just retired from 42 years. Of continuous active ministry. I spent the last 34 years as senior pastor of the same church .I. retired due y.to failing health brought on by stress, long work hours and little time off It was a rewarding journey with many blessings. I would do it all again.

      1. God willing, you will inquire when we begin our search😇! This came as I completed my letter to the Bishop requesting a meeting to discuss my calling!!! God sends us everything we need in His perfect timing!!!

  2. Back, during my college years, I considered ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church. I think I made the correct decision.

  3. Whilst I agree with some of the individual points made here, ministry is a challenge and those considering vocation to ordained ministry should have a realistic expectation of what it involves, I’m afraid I find this piece unhelpful because it raises an expectation of the minister as a martyr for God, sacrificing everything. I don’t believe that God calls us to work every hour he sends, that’s not what Jesus modelled and I would go as far as to say that to do so is a sin. I don’t believe that God calls us to be lonely and miserable. That’s an outdated model of ministry set by a church formed in a different era.

    Ministry is wonderful not just because we are called and equipped to deal with all of the hard things we face, though that is also true, but because it gives us a huge degree of flexibility, because I can be a minister and still parent my young children, because I am surrounded by colleagues and friends (that I work very hard to maintain contact with) who love and support me. I face barriers, yes, but it is a small minority of the time.

    I worry that if this is what we tell people discerning a call to ministry that we are doing them a disservice, propagating the unhelpful culture that has broken so many ministers, rather than challenging it and reassuring people coming in that is possible to serve God and be a fulfilled, happy human being, most of the time at least, and helping them to achieve that.

    1. Thanks for your feedback. I guess we differ on the idea that I actually do believe that God asks us to be “martyrs”, not necessarily in the sense of dying or being killed, in the sense of the original meaning of the word – our lives being a witness to Christ. That requires total sacrifice, but not misery. I believe there to be profound joy as we give ourselves over to conversion. By saying “work long hours” I was referring to the fact that this is not a 9-5 where we can clock in and clock out. Barriers are necessary to maintaining healthy relationships, and then there is the call to go to the hospital at midnight or the unexpected (sometimes unwanted) pastoral encounter.

      I wrote this piece after talking with no-a-few pastors who face barriers a majority of the time. Consider yourself quite lucky if that’s not your experience. Also, reach out to others and show them a better way since so many need to different model you suggest.

      The real of the piece was to reflect on the reality that this isn’t about us. It’s about God working in and on us in the midst of great gladness and deep pain.

      1. What about “the People” who are also responsible for evaluating, training, supporting, and advocating for those called to the stony road of ministry?

        We are ordained “by the Grace of G-d and the Consent of the People.” As we ask of all in attendance in other Sacramental rites, “will you support (this person) in this ministry?”

        Once, I had a member of the congregation ask if anyone ever prayed for me.

        I have been told that I am the only clergy they ever had who wasn’t in recovery for something. Indeed, in a Family Systems clergy group at the time, I constructed a genogram of the 30-year history of the congregation. The pattern repeated itself with every clergy person.

        Have you been accused of not responding, of not being present, when in each case you had spent hours over several weeks visiting, calling to check in, and helping find professional help when your level of training was not sufficient? Then, not being able to counter the accusations because of confidentiality?

        The Church has done a poor job of raising up people in the pews who understand the weight of responsibility and expectations of the congregation. A leader in the congregation said “clergy are not allowed to have boundaries.”

        This has happened too frequently in my 20+ years of service. Judicatory leaders have said “you are in the right here. You will win this.” I chose a negotiated leave taking because the level of anxiety in the congregation was too high.

        It is appropriate to speak of G-d’s call, and G-d working in and among us. Something is very wrong when the congregation (“The Body of Christ”) does not participate in the work G-d has for the people of G-d in this place to do.

        My practice still is to begin the first meeting of each year reviewing my Letter of Agreement, discussing planned time for retreat and vacation and work in the larger church. I show how tax law affects my stipend and results in much lower compensation than it sounds like. And I teach each meeting.

        I am now seeking a call that will not severely reduce my pension – I am over a certain age and full time jobs are still preferring men. And women doing the same job, like in the world, make $.72 on the dollar of what men make.

        A professor who had actually spent years working in the church and counseling clergy before being called to teach in the seminar setting advised my class not to expect the Church to take care of you and your family. He was very wise.

      2. I have been told a time or two that I have a martyr complex and that has been true at times. However, I have been more blessed than any person deserved to be.

  4. Very well put! And much more accurate than the advice I received during my first year in seminary. I was told, “if you think you could possibly do anything else with your life, then do it. Don’t choose ministry.” I never did choose; God chose me. And yes, it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s also been the most rewarding and has brought me closer to God in ways that a secular career never would have done.

  5. You could substitute the words “professional church musician” for “pastor” and it would ring equally true.

  6. Father Marcus,

    I was ordained in 1976. I am about to retire. In so many ways, you describe realities of the pastoral vocation. I have known times that have been difficult, lonely, exhausting, and painful, that have undermined my faith. And yet … there is also another reality.

    We may well, as you say, see humanity at its worst; I have seen some of this. We may also see humanity at its best. I have encountered people persevering through dark experiences, who give generously from gratitude and don’t hold back in fear, who courageous care for the uncared, who give witness to the beauty in a torn, lonely, violent and fearful world. Among those I have served have been people who are hard to serve. There have also been unsung angels, and a Francis or two who go unnoticed even in their own parish newsletters. They have blessed me with glimpses of God at God’s best.

    I confess, however, that — for the most part — I perceive this with hindsight, not during a budget planning process, an outburst of angry criticism, or falling into bed after a series of too-long days. Even in a time of chronic illness and pain, I was blessed by those who, through their own caring, gave me such glimpses of God.

    And yes, we are called by God and God sustains us, even in our dark nights. We may, however, also discover those who pastor to us. Now and again, someone has offered me a sharp word of insight, a healing touch, patience, forgiveness, a gentle presence, a gift of a coffee or lunch at the right moment. And I was lifted from my self-pity, freed from my need to be in control or to be appreciated or to justify my salary with long hours. Free to surrender, again, to God’s love and wisdom. The presence and acts of these people witness, as you say, to “the power and love of God in our midst.”

    By such gifts from those among whom we minister, we may find ourselves set loose to be again what we are all called to be – human beings in relationships with God, with others, with all creation, and with ourselves. Called into relationships where we may be at our worst and most vulnerable . . . and also at our best and most thankful. Modelling in our relationships, in full view of the pain of the cross, and in all the living colours of grace, what it is be beloved and loving bearers of God’s best image.

    I am retiring now from the work of an ordained minister. Which is to say, I am moving into another leg of my vocation’s journey. Before I post them, I will copy these words I’ve just written into my journal. To remind myself of what I’ve said in those moments when I will need to.

  7. I am currently a licensed assistant pastor (with a General license). Thank you for your article. So far, I have spent 15 years in ministry leadership. 12 of those years I have been one of the pastors for a local church. I can say your article is spot on. The Lord led me into the ministry. I can honestly say it was not my own idea. But it was the best, most amazing thing to happen to me and yes…. It has cost me much. It is indeed a cross to bear. But God gives me strength to bear it! I love humbly serving the flock, despite all the setbacks and personal sacrifices I have had to make. God bless you.

  8. Thank you Father for the great words of encouragement ,I just ordained last Match 2015 as Permanent Deacon and trust me Father I never thought about this before the people who used to be your close friend will hate me this much but as you said God has his own way of helping you.Now I am doing what God called me to do ,love them as much has you can,pray for them.Once again thank you Father,God called to serve him .GB

  9. Thanks for the thoughts of everyone on this. I am beginning my 19th year in retirement following 35 years of “credited” (active) service, blessed with the opportunity to minister in three way different diocese and in very different situations. In retirement I have done locum tenens work in five congregations (because I am not a certified Interim) and dozens of Sunday supply opportunities. Oddly, I agree with just about all said above. Looking at being a pastor is a lot like looking at Scripture. I define the latter as looking at a diamond. It is the same Gem, but depending on how you hold it and look at the Light shining through the various facets, you see something new every time. It’s like a friend of mind used to say, “Wait! Who put THAT in my Bible?” Such is Scripture, and so it is in ministry. Being a pastor, priest, or minster (or all) is demanding. It is hard and frustrating work. Often we do get discouraged. Other times we find ourselves blessed. So often people thank us for a lovely funeral service, for instance. But most often, the people we bury were friends also and our grief is just as deep. If, as said above, you don’t want to get up in the middle of the night and sit at the bedside of one dying (even though that person may have been a pain in the ass sometimes), think again. If you don’t want to bury children, think again. If you don’t want to see marriages die, think again. I could go on, but you get the point. I have loved this work. I have been humbled by the love and acceptance of those whom I have known. I have been blessed and healed by those who called me into their midst.
    Now I sit on the bench, occasionally being called to play for a minute or two, but I always know that I am in the midst of a worshiping community, taking part in the Eucharist that will not end until it is fulfilled in Heaven. May you always see the Light no matter how fogged the window may seem to be.

  10. Since I don’t serve as a deacon, I chose not to speak for one. I was also told by a deacon who read this two days ago explicitly not to speak for deacons. All I can do is speak my experience.

  11. As a seniors ministry pastor and working a full time job and many days by the time l leave and return home are 11 and 12 hour days. I also work two weekends a month so l do not face what a full time pastor must deal with as my ministry is twice a month at a nursing home and my duties at church.

    I know for many ministry can be a burden and very little free time. But Jesus said his burden was light. You may face challenging days but put your faith in Jesus and you will see its not your strength but the Lord that makes you an overcomer.

  12. Wonderful reflection and comments. I am an ordained minister in the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches and I pastor a small 20+ something community. Before I was ordained I worked as a lay minister in the Roman Catholic Church. All of this has been true in both these situations but the truth is I would not change it for anything. I find that I discover God most profoundly when I am ministering to and with others. To empty yourself of “you” and allow God to be present through you is a humbling miracle that only God can produce in the men and women who accept his call. If you are considering ordained ministry try this. Run away at least three times. If you find you can’t and keep returning to it than allow the Holy Spirit to transform you to be an ordained minister for God. – http://www.dominickhankle.com

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