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Why Vocational Ministry is So Difficult Early On and God’s Hand In It

Greg E. Gifford, PhD, CBC



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church-581069_640Some of the most invigorating times of my life have all been connected to preparation for vocational ministry. And some of the most difficult have been ministry. Perhaps you can relate? God leads some of us into a full-time, vocational ministry and for the first few years that call can be very challenging to pursue. Vocational ministry is a challenge, especially to start, because best-case scenario (i.e., school) meets the real-world of ministry. Yet, among the difficulties we have a merciful God who is working His plans. Let’s sketch why the first few years are difficult for some of us and then reorient what God may be doing in those difficulties.

First of all, vocational ministry is so challenging because we came a bit green to the ministry, maybe even a little idealistic? We hoped that in pursuing ministry, we would find that ministry and invest everything in it as we watched fruit develop from those efforts. We imagined late night Bible studies, missions trips, and biblical friendships. Most of us came with an, ‘all-in’ perspective in that ministry was not a vocation for us, but a means of living out our callings. And we don’t leave ministry to go home at night; ministry comes home too.

Ministry is part of our composition. Challenges in ministry rock us because they rock the essence of our vocational purpose in life (as unbiblical as it is to articulate this!). Pastors, missionaries, teachers, counselors, and so many more have no dichotomy of work and personal life—it is all personal life for them. It’s all why we believe God has kept us on this earth. Consequently, we don’t question our jobs, we question our callings if ministry hurts badly enough. And this, my friends, is very painful.

Next, we knew that people would not like us, but we didn’t think it would be our friends or those close to us. We thought it would be some pseudo Anti-Christ type and we would be ‘rejecting’ him in the Lord’s work. But when a dear brother leaves our ministry over a disagreement, it hurts. It hurts in a weird, you’re-gone-but-not-really, how do I not make this awkward capacity. They didn’t die. They are not incarcerated. They just left the ministry and your life; no one prepared us for the knot in our stomachs that this would bring.

Ministry is a challenge in our early years because we have a grandiose view of our functions. As a pastor, I wanted to be at key events in people’s lives, studying well for sermons, visiting shut-ins and hospitals, discipling men, teaching my family, and being available 24/7–oh, and having two-hour devotions everyday. I made myself crazy to certain degrees thinking I needed to be everywhere. Now combine my desire to be omnipresent with peoples desire to have a pastor present. It makes for a trying time as we grow in our understanding of our limitations, and how to graciously tell someone that we are “not available.”

One of the biggest trials of early vocational ministry is the education/remunerative gap. Most of us in early ministry have massive school debt and little income. We look at our peers who are beginning stellar internships or entering competitive fields and we wonder, “Should I have gone full-time with this gig? Should I do what everyone else has seemingly done and land a well-paying job and do ministry in my free time?” No one prepared me for the fact that I hold two degrees and need a part-time job to help make ends meet. And that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.

Here is one of my favorite counseling questions: what is God doing in all of this? Let me propose a few things. The heat of our initial years of ministry helps reveal something very interesting about ourselves. Did we want to pursue ministry or our vision of ministry? Because in real ministry, friends leave the mission field; families leave our church; donors withdraw from supporting us.

God graciously exposes some of our motivations by ‘turning the heat’ up. Did we pursue ministry to have friends? Will we only stay if we do have robust, biblical friendships? Did I come to ministry for a comfortable salary and benefits package? Think about this, what if God graciously brings difficulties into our early years of ministry to help us evaluate our heart’s motivations? Remember, 1 Timothy 3 says, “Whoever desires the office of an overseer desires a good thing,” not “whoever desires their vision of an overseer desires a good thing.” God uses early ministry years to winnow out the flaky ministers, missionaries, and non-profit workers pursuing their vision of ministry. Thank you, Lord, for this winnowing process.

Next, God is solidifying in our souls the vocational callings that we have received from Him. When we face a difficulty in our early years of ministry, we grow just a little bit more sturdy—not calloused—but sturdy. Next, time it doesn’t rock us as much—all to His praise. This is the idea of an enduring and bearing love (1 Cor. 13:7). We bear through the hurts that come, and keep moving forward in ministry. Before long we stop asking if this ministry is what God wants from us, but how does He want us to respond to this situation.

Lastly, the early years of ministry have a compounding effect. Here is what I mean. Most of my peers are on an unspoken trajectory towards retirement, at which point they can do what they ‘really want.’ Not true for me. I am doing what I want and hope that God doesn’t make me retire too long before He takes me home. The results of these early years keep compounding. We see lives changed, we see people saved, and we see families restored. And 30 years from now there will be a group of people who were thankful that we didn’t wimp out in the early years.

Brothers and sisters, let’s be faithful. Our vocations are preparing us for eternity, not retirement. Don’t settle for less. Let’s sacrifice what others won’t so we can reach people that others can’t. And may the harvest bring glory to God as we faithfully display our desire to make our lives matter in His sight.

"God may be looked upon in an absolute consideration, as he is in himself the best and most excellent being, wherein we behold the concurrence of all perfections, the most amiable and beauteous excellences, to an intellectual eye, that it can have an apprehension of." --John Howe, On Delighting in God
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