The mark of a saint of God is not how well he’s doing, but what he does when he’s not doing well. John Hannah, one of my seminary professors of church history, said that. I found his words again while cleaning out old files, a project one undertakes during unemployment.
So far, I’m not doing that well as a candidate for open pastor positions. Many months ago, I resigned the church I served for 18 years. If a great pastoral migration is underway, I’m one of the early birds. But as search committees turn me down for various reasons, I feel like an odd duck.
If a great pastoral migration is underway, I’m one of the early birds. But I feel like an odd duck.
I have the therapy receipts to show for trying to work through discouragement, which curdles into cynicism if unresolved. Sportswriter Ivan Maisel, in his memoir about losing his son, takes the conventional maxim “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and says, no, what doesn’t kill you doesn’t kill you.
When I bemoaned to a friend that 52 might not be the most attractive age for a church searching for a new pastor, he was annoyed. “You’re not 82!” he roared. He reminded me I have experience refined by fire, high energy for ministry, and many years of service left.
Something will open, eventually. Of the 380,000-plus churches in America, it only takes one right mutual fit. In the meantime, here are three things I’m doing that make a real difference to my soul.
Self-pity makes me fear that I come across in interviews as damaged goods, scratched and dented. Self-pity concludes I’m forgotten, unwanted, when all is quiet on the search front. In short, it causes me to take myself too seriously. A big part of fighting it is staying close to friends who remind me that what God thinks of me matters most—friends who “strengthen my hand in God” (1 Sam. 23:16) and pray after his good purposes for me. Especially when a church says I’m “not God’s man” for it—I know what’s meant, but what an awful phrasing.
No one starts over in life, but we can begin anew. I wrote in my prayer journal three questions to keep before myself for now:
- Can I believe today that God is always doing more than I know?
- Can I believe today that I have not been shelved or tossed aside?
- Can I believe today that God even uses my mistakes to initiate his will?
Scriptures leap off the page in this season: passages that speak of hope, joy after tears, perseverance, and God’s lavish love for his own. The Message paraphrase of Paul’s prayer for the Colossians puts it like this:
We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us.
Revisit Stones of Remembrance
The imagery of remembrance stones is from Joshua 4, the Israelites’ memorial to their Jordan crossing. I keep reviewing how God has provided in my past. One instance is when I needed a job post-seminary. There were plenty of rejections.
My mother, an editor in Christian publishing, knew Warren Wiersbe, writer of the Bible Exposition Series commentaries. She asked if he would send some encouragement to her dispirited son. In his letter to me, Wiersbe said search committees are often looking at Jesse’s sons when God’s David is out in the field. I’ve never forgotten that. A month later, the church that hired me called.
Ministry is not a right or something due me. I’ll be grateful to be called again.
I don’t think of myself as a David today, but more like Jesse’s other sons. With each church turndown, my gut reaction is to want to tout my accomplishments. I’ve used this season to heal from discouragement but also to practice repentance for wounded pride. Ministry is not a right or something due me. I’ll be grateful to be called again.
Live for the Coming Defeat
It’s time to live for a coming defeat—Satan’s. He seems overactive in many churches of late, like a gland spasm causing an outbreak in Christians “biting and devouring one another” (Gal. 5:15). Maybe he sees his time growing shorter. But many pastors in these polarized times feel like failures, as if we are fighting “the long defeat” (Tolkien).
And yet “one little word shall fell him,” as Luther sang. This word is the gospel—the declaration of Christ sufficient, Christ preeminent, Christ imminent. I lost a church but I can never lose the gospel. It’s always in reach, on good days and bad. Though I’m not preaching the gospel to a church right now, I’m preaching it to myself daily and gratefully.
The God of peace will soon crush Satan under our feet (Rom. 16:20). And the grace of our Lord Jesus remains with us, always. Even those of us not doing well.