One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is counseling young adults who are interested in exploring the world of full-time ministry. I love the conversations with bright-eyed college seniors who have served as lay leaders and are eager to know what it’s like to “do ministry full-time.” I’m challenged and humbled by young professionals who sense the desire to leave their jobs in the marketplace and follow a call into vocational ministry. These conversations are ones to which I always say yes.
That being said, I am probably one of the worst examples of how to enter into vocational ministry. I never planned on it, never wanted it, never charted out a course for myself in this kind of role. I had firm plans to attend graduate school to eventually teach, or, as a privileged college grad with minimal real-world experience, take a gap year and figure out life.
Instead, the Lord led me to take a position at City Church that could barely be considered part-time, which I supplemented by working at the mall and as an office manager for a private company in town. That role eventually became a position as a ministry assistant for four years, which grew into a director-level role I have occupied for about a year-and-a-half.
I didn’t take a straight shot into full-time ministry. When I joined the City Church staff, I had no idea you could listen to pastors on podcasts and I’d never read a John Piper blog post. Leadership pipelines meant nothing, and my first real dip into theology was when a friend walked me through the meaning of TULIP at a Jimmy Johns near Florida State’s campus when I was 22.
So when I get asked what it looks like to work “in the church world,” I have to keep a light perspective, because I believe God calls the most unlikely of people. Serving full-time on a church staff is, in the words of Dr. Albert Mohler, “the worst profession but the best calling.” I feel a deep conviction to give young adults an encouraging, yet brutally honest, look at what it means to follow a call into ministry. This will certainly not be an exhaustive delivery of wisdom, but it will share practical advice learned the hard way that should be kept in mind when considering a transition into vocational ministry.
If there are any selfish ambitions in your motives, don’t do it.
Please know that this is not to say that I was a humble servant entering consciously into ministry. In fact, if ministry has done anything to me in five years, it has exposed many of my weaknesses and not just humbled, but crushed me many times. I simply mean that if you’re looking to climb some kind of ladder or become a professional guru, a church staff is not the place to do that. When I was about a year into my role as a pastoral assistant, I read a quote from a blog post written by Rich Hawkins, who now serves at The Village Church with Pastor Matt Chandler: “This is not about you getting any credit for your good work. Your role is about the gospel going forward.” That’s it. Is your greatest desire to see the gospel go forward in the place where God has you? I’d urge anyone considering ministry to search his or her heart and ask the honest question, “Do I understand that this is not about me?” There is nothing wrong with taking the time to serve as a volunteer leader to further explore your interests and passions within the local church. There’s also nothing wrong with striving to achieve your goals professionally. But if your personal goals rise and fall on ministry success, you’re going to be let down because ministry is long, hard work.
Your worldly concerns are going to be challenged.
This is a tough one. We’re currently in a place at City Church where we’re implementing a new concept of bringing on staff who fundraise part, or all, of their own financial support. It’s difficult to sit down with a 20-something who could get a full-time job at a tech company or a PR firm making $50,000+ a year and ask him or her to forego that to serve in the local church. I can read all of the thoughts and questions passing across his or her face- about salary, health benefits, taxes, what parents will think – I’ve thought about all of those things too (and in full disclosure, I do not fundraise). There’s nothing wrong with wanting security in your job, and we strive as a church to provide excellent compensation packages and take care of our staff. However, at the end of the day, you’re going to sacrifice something by going into ministry. Maybe it’s taking longer to earn the salary you want – or never earning it. Maybe it’s being challenged in generosity beyond what your heart wants to give because you’re asking your entire church to practice the same spirit of generosity. Maybe it’s not about money, but about living up to standards set by a family who has seen generations of professional accolades. No matter what, entering into vocational ministry is going to put pressure on our tendency to prioritize worldly concerns. I’m not saying that you should be careless, but you should know that if God calls you to ministry, He will provide a way for you to live, even if it’s not the plan your career coach gave you in college.
You need to really love the gospel, and really love your church.
Before we get anywhere with this point, it needs to be said that hopefully your church really loves the gospel. If not, you might want to reconsider your prospective ministry role. If you sometimes second-guess your own church membership because of gospel or theological reasons, then you probably shouldn’t be pursuing a ministry role where you are. If that’s all squared away, then again, you need to really love your church. You need to be a part of the life of your church – in community, practicing good membership, submitting to the preaching, serving, trusting the leadership, and participating in corporate worship.
A large part of your role, no matter your organizational title, is probably going to involve helping people assimilate into these various aspects of your church. If you don’t love the body that you’re asking people to grow into, then how can you expect them to love it, serve it, and belong to it? Before applying for a position or pursuing a path of vocational ministry, ask yourself if you really love your church, and if you’d still continue to do everything you’re already doing if you knew that you’d never get a paycheck for it. Any professional “achievement” I’ve ever had could quickly be brought back down to Earth by the simple reminder that there are individuals at City Church who work 50+ hour work weeks in the marketplace and show up at 6:30am on Sunday mornings, simply because they love the Lord and want to connect others to the gospel through a local church experience.
A couple years ago I started praying a prayer that God would let me love my church and love serving here, even if the only thing I ever got to do at City Church was take out the trash. That sounds a little superfluous because I currently serve full-time in a senior-level role, but the intent was that God would keep my role fully dependent upon Him for any function. So far, He has been faithful, but there have been times where in my sin I’ve depended on my own strength and idolized my own talents. I’ve spent too much time worrying, “What am I doing well? How am I moving us forward? How am I holding us back?” When I talk to young adults who are interested in pursuing full-time ministry, I look for those attitudes. A professional church member is an exhausting thing to be, but a real one is life-giving.
Ministry exposes all of your weaknesses and pulls stuff out of you that you never knew was there, so I’d advise any person going into ministry to find a good mentor and a good counselor. At the same time, it also can give you some of the best friends and co-laborers you could ever dream up, showing God’s gracious hand for those whom He calls. More than that, you get a front row seat to watching the gospel of Jesus Christ radically change lives and turn the world upside down. These are only a few points, but I hope they give a tiny look into the heart of local church ministry, and I pray that God raises up many more laborers willing to walk unknowingly into the fight, like me, and that He sustains us.