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Reflection May 14, 2017
To All Aspiring Ministers: A Letter of Affection and Affirmation
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
On Thursday, May 4, I met with a class at the University of Chicago Divinity School (which by the way, began a short distance away from our beloved church). The class was studying Morgan Park Baptist Church as part of a course in practical pastoral theology. I was delighted to meet with these new and aspiring clergy.
To choose ministry as a life-path is not an easy choice. Having personally walked this road for 43 years has graced me with a unique perspective on the joys and the sorrows associated with this path. I’d like to share a few thoughts in this week’s Advance to those who are new to this ancient road.
Let me first make a critically important caveat: no one speaks for God except God alone. The quickest way into a ministerial minefield is the common delusion that you or anyone else can speak for the Almighty.
Read Isaiah 55: 8-9 and Romans 11:33-34 to be scripturally dissuaded from imagining you (or anyone else) speaks for God. These two passages would be well-served by being included in every ordination service!
As the pastor Alan Jones notes in his wonderful 1992 book, Sacrifice and Delight: Spirituality for Ministry: “On some level, clergy cannot possibly practice what they preach. Those who think they do are a menace to themselves and others. Yet God works through us, people are touched, lives are changed.”
In a true sense, ministry is not a choice. While this may sound theologically trite (and, in a sense, it is!), I’ve come to believe: You do not CHOOSE ministry, ministry CHOOSES you!
My two beloved brothers choose the work path of corporate life. They were quite successful in this path. But I knew very early on that something in me could not long endure such a path. That “something” could have been a grace, a psychological imbalance, a spiritual defect, a spiritual gift. An old - and potentially dangerous - notion is that ministry is a “call” from God, a vocation from “above.”
The danger inherent in this idea is that one is “set apart.” None of us is ever “set apart” from the mass of humanity. We are all eternally human, with all this implies. We’re all gifted in our own ways but clergy are not gifted more than our sisters and brothers. We are not intermediaries between the awesomeness of the Almighty and the brokenness of human life.
Again some thoughts from Jones: “Ordination is not a pathway to self-fulfillment, still less the prescribed way to be a real Christian. Avoid it if you can! And if you can’t avoid it, say ‘Yes!’ to it with a clear eye and open heart. It should be embraced only as a passion and not undertaken as a meal ticket or a career.”
The life of a minister is not meant to be an easy life. My beloved Beth quickly came to see that being the spouse of a pastor was filled with serious challenges. She loved our life together and - as I’ve said more than once - I considered Beth to be my co-pastor at Morgan Park Baptist Church. But it was not always easy for her.
What I’m saying here is: as an aspiring minister, if you have not yet chosen a beloved companion - choose carefully! Don’t bring a beloved into the rough-and-tumble world of ministry without having some idea of what you’re asking your beloved to endure for the sake of your shared life!
A truth I’ve come to know: if a minister is doing or saying anything of significance, he or she will be attacked for it. Ministers are like lightning-rods. Attacks come with the territory. I’d, however, caution: choose one’s battles carefully! Not everything is worth going to the wall over!
A minister needs not to take everything too personally. This awareness comes not only from my long life as a minister but also from many years spent in the martial arts becoming a third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and teaching this art.
In the martial arts, one must very early on understand not to take it personally when your opponent kicks you or punches you. They are showing you where you are vulnerable. Every sparring match is a learning experience. So it is with the endless meetings that serve as the foundation of church life. So it is with every comment given after every sermon. So it is with every affirmation and every assault.
It’s easy becoming discouraged as a minister. Often there’s little feedback. Often there’s little affirmation. Often the salary is underwhelming. Often one hears unkind remarks as a matter of course. Often one wonders if some other path would be better chosen.
This is why I recommend every “new” minister find a “seasoned” clergy person to serve as a mentor. Those of us who have traveled the path of ministry for many years have a deep obligation to assist and affirm those who have recently embraced the way of ministry. Let me offer my own services in this regard to any and all - without cost.
Having said this, let me also add that if one finds ministry eating away at the fabric of one’s soul, then feel no obligation to remain in ministry. Think of ministry in terms of five or ten-year commitments. Feel no shame if you are led away after five or ten years. Only God and love lasts forever!
Let me end these thoughts by stating without hesitation that ministerial life is a rich and rewarding life. No other path would have served my soul better than the path I’ve walked these many years. It has not been easy but who wants an easy life? Have I made mistakes? More than I care to admit! But I’m immensely proud of my sisters and brothers who have embraced the path of ministry. God bless you and keep you!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor