Church planting, church pastoring - these things are hard.
Nobody reading this blog finds this surprising. It surely came as no surprise to me, mainly because I spent the last few years swimming in church planting resources and literature. And in every book I read on church planting, there was the quintessential paragraph, page, or chapter about how hard church planting is. You have probably read that blog already.
The reasons usually listed are as follows: the hours are long, friends will turn on you, members will leave you, wolves will come for you. These things do happen. They do make church planting hard and I don’t mean to make light of them, and the conclusion is actually true: people will hurt you.
But what has made pastoral work hard work for me is mostly the opposite: how many people I have hurt.
My first year of lead pastoral ministry shattered the illusion that what makes ministry hard are external things rather than internal things. This should not have been jarring given what Christ teaches in the gospels about the human heart. But still, I have been surprised by the hurt that has been caused by innocent little remarks in my sermons, strategic decisions for the direction of our church, and failures in general. To say it a different way, what has been most difficult has not been the late nights or early mornings, but the emotional demands.
I wanted to leave a trail of paper behind to help me remember this first year. Early on, journaling just didn’t seem to capture the emotional energy of my internal experiences of learning to trust Jesus as a pastor. So, I decided to write a poem for each month of year one. These poems became evidence of this blog’s main thesis: pastoral work is hard work not just because people hurt you, but also because you will (accidentally, unexpectedly, naively) hurt them.
For instance, the poem I wrote for the month November in 2016 was about counseling. When I returned to read it, the heartbeat of the poem wasn’t about how difficult it is to counsel people, but was about how difficult it was for me to prioritize the gospel in the midst of counseling. Consider this stanza:
Violent is the pull’s push that we feel
across from the wounds that we long to heal
Because we want it to stop at time’s very place
the pain of the guts that’s swelled up to her face
Strategy, what lure then, seems so concise:
sometimes good news is swapped for good advice.
This confession, that it’s hard to trust the supernatural power of the gospel rather than the carnal power of novelty, somehow blossomed at the poem’s end into a helpful reminder:
Rage, more times than not, against the urge to impress
gently opting to tell what they already know best
The story of His body soaking up sin as a sponge
of His blood like a fleece clothing their grunge
It’s redundant, they’ve heard it, it fails to inspire
but faintly, a heart’s flicker sparks a slow-blooming fire.
Or in December of 2016, I began to write about the experience of letting people down with my leadership:
A funnel forged for disappointment
into this glorious shape the pastor is bent
A vessel to pour into, to be upended
when another’s dream is suspended.
Often I am discouraged by the slow pace of my growth as a pastor. These poems have helped my soul, because when it seems otherwise, they show me that sometimes, God seemed to mature me throughout the course of a single poem or month, like from the stanza above to the one below:
Soaking up the cup of his people’s displeasure
lowered into the Lord’s very own measure
for pastoral happiness, what upturned treasure!
a funnel forged for God’s own pleasure.
In May of 2017, I even captured in words something moving around in my extroverted self that I never expected. With love, I began to fall into silence and sabbath:
Here I find my soul finally weaned by a flood of awe
and wonder if God prefers silence as Jacob to Esau
He furiously unfurls noiselessness from himself like a grace,
like a space where conversion occurs, a redemptive place
where questions sink to the watery grave of his presence
and my thinking is born again into God’s pleasence.
But mostly, and unsurprisingly, throughout the year, I wrote a lot about learning to preach faithfully. Three of my poems were battles with the feeling that my preaching seemed fruitless. Here’s a stanza from a poem in January of 2017:
But ten months of preaching now spilled behind me
awkward efforts of rhetoric to set captives free
I fear that from me they have taken more internally
than what little sight they granted the blind to see.
And here’s another from April of 2017:
Early sunday the sermon begins to waver its breath
and later that night the preacher mourns her death
Racking, racking! for things to have differently done
Now comfort can only come from none but the Son.
And it seems that the conflict in January’s preaching poem was answered by this one in April:
And monday, or three days later, a miracle unmeasured:
a preached word resurrected softly in a member
The sermon, counted once vain, is briefly remembered
born again in a moment of Christ truly treasured.
As a young pastor, here’s what this year of penning poetry has done for me and what I think it might be able to do for you: the Spirit used it to force my attention to focus on the details of his sanctifying work in my life.
I confess, I penned this article with first-year pastors in mind, not poets. If you seek to put this article to work in your life, the takeaway does not need to be: I need to capture my ministry experience in poems! But my encouragement is to leave some trail behind you: journaling, notes, voice memos, or something. Writing about the difficulty of pastoral ministry probably won’t ease the difficulty of pastoral ministry, but it will remind us that God has matured us more than we have measured.
It’s like this: a few years ago, I was visiting my hometown and bumped into one of my high school coaches. When he asked what I was doing with my life, I told him I was “getting into pastoral ministry.” He laughed, and said: “Well, I'll be darned, I didn’t see that coming.” I rejoiced in the Lord, because that comment was evidence that I had forgotten how much God had sanctified me since high school.
Pastors, as you minister your way through the years, don’t forget to leave reminders of how God has probably grown you more than you have recognized.