What do you do when you’re fresh out of seminary and looking for ministry jobs?
Some suggest working under a seasoned pastor who can help you learn the ropes. Tim Keller has suggested going to a small church as a solo pastor where you get to do everything. In the providence of God, I ended up at a small country church in Sulphur Springs, Ohio (population: 194).
God had already given me a special love for the people, having served as an intern under my uncle a few years earlier, but that love didn’t make my initiation into pastoral ministry easy.
Humble Beginnings, Hard Soil
By any standard, being the pastor of Hope Church wasn’t glamorous. My salary was $25,000 (with no benefits) my first year. The building dated to the 1800s, and the toilets didn’t feature running water. We would ring the bell in the tower to signal church was about to start.
With Sulphur Springs being so small, I had the opportunity to visit every house in town. Some people shut their door in my face. Many neighbors wrote me off before I could say a word, probably assuming I was a Jehovah’s Witness.
Sulphur Springs had two other churches. One was Lutheran, with deep ties in the community. One older gentleman told me, “I was born Lutheran, and I will die Lutheran.” There was also a Roman Catholic church, one of the few that still held Mass in Latin. People came from as far as Toledo just to have Mass in the traditional way. The town’s spiritual soil seemed hard, as far as the eye could see.
The town’s spiritual soil seemed hard, as far as the eye could see.
I’ll never forget the prayer meeting where only three people showed up (myself included)—and I forgot the key to the church. None of us knew how to pick the lock, we had no hidden key, and none of us lived close by. So we had our prayer meeting in a minivan and headed back home.
Blessing of Ministry
In our years at Hope Church, there were many joys. The church loved our family. When our twin daughters had their first birthday, we invited the whole congregation, and most came. At times ministry felt charmingly personal. I remember riding around in the tractor with our head elder talking about our upcoming elders’ meeting while he was planting corn.
Our church tried to do a lot of outreach. At the Crawford County Fair each summer, we rented a stage and held a “fair service” to reach the larger community. We’d crank up the speakers and lots of folks would listen in. One member had a ton (literally) of forging equipment, so we had a biannual “Forge Day.” We met new friends and neighbors from all over under our big forging tent.
Opposition and Division
Amid all the joys, though, struggles set in. As I tried to move the church in a more biblical and gospel-centered direction, there was resistance. When I proposed changing our bylaws so only men could serve as elders, it didn’t get anywhere. Divisions in the church started to show themselves.
Midway through my fourth year, I was preaching and espousing an historic premillennial (post-tribulation) view of the end times. In the middle of the sermon, a man stood up and shouted, “That’s not what the church believes!” He proceeded to walk out in disgust. While nothing in our doctrinal statement outlined a particular millennial view, he was correct that most of our people held to a pretribulation view of the rapture. That man was one of our elders.
It was a huge challenge just to finish that sermon, not to mention continuing to pastor. I found strength in the Lord (1 Sam. 30:6) and was able to limp along, but the writing was on the wall. A few months later, God opened the door for me to pastor another church in a different state. When we left, six other families also left. Not quite two years later, Hope Church closed its doors for good. My wife and I were grieved, though perhaps not surprised.
If you’ve been a pastor for any length of time, you probably have some ministry scars. Don’t be surprised. In fact, welcome to Christianity: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). There were times Paul and the other apostles were so burdened by ministry demands that they wondered if they’d make it (2 Cor. 1:8–10). Turns out, the path of ministry isn’t the glory road some expect.
Ministry is hard, but it’s also immensely rewarding.
It has now been over a decade since I pastored Hope Church. It’s impossible to express how much I learned and grew there. They were years of continuing education in the school of hard knocks, but God gave me the foundation I needed for a lifetime of ministry and a deeper love for his church (Eph. 1:22–23).
Ministry is hard, but it’s also immensely rewarding (2 Tim. 4:8). If you’re struggling, don’t give up. By the grace of God, you can endure the challenges. And if you’re faithful, one day “when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:4).
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