His words rang in my ears for days and triggered more than a few nights of nocturnal unrest.
What were you expecting in the pastorate? You’re not in seminary anymore, and this church isn’t filled with your seminary buddies. You’re in the real world now, son.
I’d been on the job exactly five days when a man who’d been in ministry for five decades struck down my beautiful and peaceful—and yes, fictional—church with the impact of an F-5 tornado.
I’m not certain what my expectations for ministry were as a rookie pastor. But it didn’t take me long to realize that, prior to arriving on the battleground known as the local church, I had unwittingly constructed in my mind a church that was nothing like the congregation who now called me “Pastor Jeff.” And I suspect I’m not alone.
Poison Ivy of Expectations
I had built a ministerial Shire that doesn’t exist in this fallen world. It was long on success, as some who analyze churches reckon success, but it was decidedly slim on tribulation, anxiety, and pain. It was a church who loved everything I “brought to the table.” It was populated by those who delighted in my preaching, my family, even my personality. I simply showed up, preached, and watched it grow spiritually and numerically. My “honeymoon period” would endure indefinitely.
But it was pure fiction, ministerial Disneyland. Given the number of times I’ve read Genesis 3, I should have known better.
And if you’re not careful, you may construct a variation of this church, too—whether you’re in seminary or in a difficult ministry context fantasizing about your “next” congregation.
After a few years in the pastorate—and in the wake of too many foolish pastoral missteps on my part—I realize this fiction plagued the early days of my non-fictional pastorate. It even grew into sinful (but thankfully, temporary) disillusionment. In his excellent mercy, God has used it to teach me lessons about the glories of ministry as well as the poison ivy of self-centered expectations that tend to grow along the walls of my heart.
So why does a fictional church bear such lethal potential? Here are six reasons:
1. Your fictional church might make it difficult to adjust to your real church.
Failure is inevitable if you arrive with false expectations of your congregation, of staff members, of yourself. And it won’t take long.
Ministry is difficult, after all. If you’re preparing to be at ease in Zion, the first appearance of the Philistine giant on the hill will send you running for cover.
2. Your fictional church might leave you disappointed with your real church.
You may be trying to reach an artificial—perhaps even unbiblical—standard that neither you nor those under your care are able (or should be striving) to meet. You will be frustrated with them, and they will be frustrated with you.
But you are called to love the congregation you have, not the one you desire. Yes, it’s easier to be orthodox than loving (see 1 Cor. 13). But God has called you to love and shepherd these flawed sheep, not the you-centered sycophants who populated that fictional church. Remember, you are deeply flawed too.
3. Your fictional church might unleash your inner Pharisee on your real church.
As the next step down the path from danger number two, you may be tempted to hold them in contempt due to the barrenness of their theological knowledge, their lack of zeal for your ministry heroes, or their disinterest in talking about the things of God. Your inner Pharisee will tempt you to be proud that you’re not like them, that you possess deep theological knowledge, that it’s far more spiritual to talk about divine decrees than the NBA Finals.
But you are called to be a shepherd, and it is your privilege to lead them—slowly, patiently, and humbly—to the green pastures of delighting in the things of God. There was a time when you didn’t know the Bible well, a season when you were not well-versed in theology. You must never forget. Besides, learning about the things that interest your people—like professional sports—will greatly improve your ability to relate to them.
4. Your fictional church may have equipped you with an encyclopedia of cut-and-dried answers to questions that are anything but cut-and-dried.
Real-life ministry requires wise nuance in the application of Scripture and theology. It requires others-focused relational savvy. In a former venue of service for me, the church was constitutionally elder-led, but had no elders in place when I arrived. In my fictional church, we would have elected elders the first month. After all, plural-elder leadership is the New Testament pattern, and we want to be biblical, right? But I had to take time to see whether there were qualified men in the church. I needed to get to know them well before this right and good step could be taken.
Sadly, years later I’m convinced I wasn’t patient enough.
You will face many challenges for which there are no cut-and-dried answers, challenges that require careful, patient, wise, nuanced application of God’s Word. Some of them will call for seeking wisdom from pastors more seasoned than you. Drench yourself in the wisdom of Proverbs 15:22. Build relationships with faithful pastors who have lived many years in the trenches.
5. Your fictional church may have subtly contorted your theology of suffering.
You may even begin to wish—in some dark corner of your fallen mind—that a theologically respectable version of the prosperity gospel was true. You always knew ministers suffered. You’ve read about Charles Simeon and Jim Elliott and the Reformers, but if you’ve lived too long in a ministry fantasy camp you’ll be shocked—perhaps even a bit peeved at God—that it’s actually happening to you. But listen carefully to Peter:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Pet. 4:12–13)
You will suffer in ministry. It’s axiomatic. And it’s glorious (2 Cor. 4:17–18). Paul devoted an entire letter—2 Corinthians—to tracing out the pastor’s job description. He tells us that at times it won’t be pretty. He tells us church leadership isn’t for the squeamish. And know this: the cauldron of real-life ministry will either confirm your calling or make it evaporate like summer mist. You must cling to the one who suffered in your place and learn to find your contentment in him alone (Phil. 4:12).
6. Your fictional church may cause you to forget who builds the church.
You are the undershepherd of Christ’s church. He is the hero, not you. He builds his church, not you (Matt. 16:18). Whether your ministry efforts seem to bear fruit that is puny or plentiful—and the difference is often impossible to discern—God is strong and you are weak. Ministry has nothing to do with your glory, and everything to do with his.
Just as the Lord calls us to perpetual self-examination (2 Cor. 13:5), so pastors—both present and future—must always be weighing their ministry motives. We must keep a sharp eye trained on the landscape of our hearts, lest we build on it unreasonable—fictional—expectations of ourselves or of those God grants us the privilege of shepherding.