Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me Not to Find Identity in Ministry

My first job was working for a large retail store. I don’t recall if it was store policy or not, but we often heard the phrase, “The customer is always right.” No matter what we did, we needed to ensure our customers had a great experience and stayed happy while they were there.

While this mindset may be good for business, it’s a bad habit for a future pastor to develop.

I graduated seminary ready to proclaim the truth and do the right thing in every situation, no matter the cost. Sure enough, my rosy idealism ran into a brutal truth—people in churches rarely get angry with their pastor over his sermons or doctrinal stances. Their frustration is usually tied to something much less spiritual.

Disinterested common sense says if people get angry with you over things that don’t matter, that’s their problem. But church conflict is rarely disinterested.

When church members are angry, they do one of three things: they leave, they stop giving, or they attend more than ever to oppose you. If they leave, others wonder what you did to make them angry and why you won’t go beg them back. If they stop giving, your leaders wonder why the offerings are dropping and want to know what you’re going to do about it. If they stick around and oppose you to your face, division seeps into the flock and sheep start to take sides.

Don’t Run for the Roses

Without realizing it, a pastor can slip into the-customer-is-always-right mode and fall into the trap of making decisions based on what will rock the boat least. He starts avoiding difficult subjects, because he can name the people who will get angry. Even if the biblical passage speaks to an issue facing the church, he avoids it so as not to be seen as preaching at people. I once used John Piper’s roses illustration, giving Piper full credit, and someone thought I “subtweeted” him because he’d given his wife $100 to go buy her own roses for Valentine’s Day.

In addition, the pastor labors with the difficulty of not seeing obvious fruit from his planting. We preach, pray, disciple, lead, and evangelize without knowing the effect. Often the only evidence we have are verbal affirmations and attendance. Subconsciously, we can begin to minister for the approval of others so we can feel like we’re doing a good job. Weeks with good attendance and compliments encourage us, but weeks with an empty building and complaints send us into despair.

Piper once compared the stresses of pastoral ministry to a hall of mirrors. If the pastor looks to others for approval, he will never know what’s true about himself, he will ride an emotional roller coaster, and he will minister for the approval of the crowds rather than the smile of God.

Preach to Yourself

Pastors learn about the doctrine of justification in seminary. We learn the supporting texts in their original languages, hear about historical controversies, and wrestle with contemporary challenges to the good news that God declares sinners right with him by faith alone.

We just don’t consider how badly we need to grasp this for our own soul’s sake.

We pastors need to hear the good news again and again. We need to hear that our sins incur the wrath of God and that three or four decades of faithful ministry cannot atone for one of them. We need to look again at the perfect life of Christ, reckoned to us by faith alone. We need to gaze intently at the Lord Jesus dying in our place, bearing the penalty for our transgressions. We need to remember the new life that comes because he walked out of his grave. We need to hear “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” and “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith” (Rom. 8:1; Gal. 3:26).

We need to remember our approval comes from God and not from men. When we know this to the depths of our souls, we will preach hard truths even if it causes blowback. We’ll have difficult conversations even if people leave. We’ll endure hardship, pain, and opposition because we know the beauty of the hope laid up for us in heaven.

Be Content in Christ   

I spent three and a half years at Southern Seminary learning from first-rate scholars who humbly walked with Jesus. They taught me Hebrew, Greek, systematic theology, and church history while modeling how to walk with Jesus and love his church. However, they could not jump into my soul and teach me how to be content with not seeing tangible fruit in my ministry.

My seminary professors couldn’t jump into my soul and teach me how to be content with not seeing tangible fruit in my ministry.

In recent years, I have come to envy men who build things. They go to a job site, put in a hard day’s work, and see what they accomplished. Pastors don’t have this privilege. We either learn to accept this fact of our vocation or face crippling discouragement.

There are times, by God’s grace, that we get a glimpse into what he is doing. People come to faith, attendance grows, troubled marriages reconcile, and sheep make evident strides in their sanctification. We praise God when this takes place, but this is not the norm. Most of the time we walk by faith, trusting that the Lord will take our preaching, counseling, discipling, and hard conversations and use them for his glory. We believe the promise that his Word will not return void, knowing he is at work in our people’s hearts even while we sleep (Mark 4:26–29).

Ministry is a high calling, but it’s a terrible place to seek your approval. We must look to Christ alone, just as we tell others every day, trusting him for our justification, our hope, and our fruitfulness.


Editors’ note: Many hopeful men emerge from seminary eager to dive headfirst into ministry. Confident that seminary equipped them with the tools they need for the journey ahead, they find themselves discouraged when the realities of their first call don’t line up with what they came to expect from assigned readings and classroom discussions.

This book, with contributions from 15 veteran pastors, including Daniel L. Akin, Juan Sanchez, Phil A. Newton, and Scott Sauls, offers real-world advice about the joys and challenges of the first five years of pastoral ministry—bridging the gap between seminary training and life in a local church.

Armed with wisdom from those who have gone before them, young pastors will find encouragement to stand firm in the thick of the realities and rigors of pastoral ministry.

Buy now!

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