The picture to the right was taken seven years ago this month.
Yes, that’s me along with a co-worker at Cracker Barrel. One of the managers put us in front of the fireplace and snapped a photo. Next thing we knew we were plastered all over Louisville as a recruitment tool to get more people applying for jobs at the restaurant Ed Stetzer calls – “a garage sale with food.” (And please, no cracks about violating child labor laws.)
I keep this “free job digest” in my office today. I’ve lived in multiple towns and worked in multiple places since then, but I can’t part with it. The picture takes me back to a tough 18-month period in which I was adjusting to being a former missionary and trying to survive seminary. It’s a reminder of the Lord’s faithfulness to us during a difficult, sometimes frustrating, season of life.
I never wanted to work at Cracker Barrel. I had business experience as an office manager, plus five years of international missions experience tucked under my belt.
But none of that mattered when the most pressing question was, How will you provide for your wife and son this week? Like many before and after me, I did whatever was necessary.
Some of you are in similar circumstances. Perhaps you’re no longer in ministry due to a bad church experience or budget cuts. Maybe you’re in seminary and just trying to get through your classes and stay financially afloat. Or perhaps you sense a call to full-time ministry in a church but the right doors haven’t opened yet. Whatever your situation, you’re doing whatever it takes to make ends meet, yearning for the day you can use your gifts full-time.
Let me encourage you. There are hidden blessings in unwelcome work, but you’ll have to remember a few things in order to receive them.
1. Remember that God has a plan, and He is still at work.
God’s plan wasn’t mine, and nothing reminded me of that truth more than encountering situations I didn’t anticipate and didn’t ask for. The work didn’t fit my vision of what I should be doing to use my gifts. But then again, God’s vision was different from mine. It’s different from yours.
I wonder if the only way Moses could learn the humility he was later known for was by milking sheep for forty years. Ever tried that? If you think milking a cow is hard…
God doesn’t love you for what you can do for Him. He loves you because you’re His child.
God’s promise to us isn’t that we’ll spend a lifetime of ministry on the mountaintop. The promise is that we’ll be made into the image of Jesus. Trouble is, there are a lot of valleys on the road to becoming like Jesus. So trust that He has a plan – not just for your foundation in ministry but for your formation as a minister.
2. Focus on your identity as a missionary, no matter what.
It’s silly to think that we have to be paid as a full-time staff person in order to be on mission. I had to learn this the hard way. After having spent a few years doing mission work overseas, I expected to find a job in a church fairly quickly. That didn’t happen.
Within a few months I went from having an ongoing ministry in several churches and a radio ministry in Romania to sweeping floors, taking orders, and cleaning salad dressing stains off the cabinets. I used to be a missionary, I thought.
Thankfully, there were other seminary and college students who worked at Cracker Barrel. Through them, God reminded me that I was still on mission.
From conversations in the break room to witnessing encounters with other employees, God reminded me: you are always My missionary. The same is true for you. The locale may have changed, and the tasks may be different, but you are still on mission.
3. Get used to serving when it’s hard and you’re heart’s not in it.
Looking back, waiting tables was one of the best ways God prepared me for local church ministry. I learned truths you don’t find in a seminary textbook.
Cracker Barrel doesn’t call their employees waiters and waitresses. We were “servers.” Maybe that was a way of keeping the term gender neutral, but I think it was intended to affect our mindset. We were supposed to view ourselves as servants.
There were many nights when that dimly lit restaurant was the last place I wanted to be. But through the experience, I’d pray, ask God to fix my attitude, and then I’d try to treat every guest – no matter how ornery, picky, or insufferable – like I’d want to be treated. I couldn’t make everyone happy, but I could do my best to serve.
Church life is sometimes the same way. You don’t always have a heart full of love for the people entrusted to your care. You need the practice of asking God to jumpstart the wires of your heart so that you’ll love with His love and serve with His heart.
4. Remember this is only for a season.
Perhaps the best thing to remember is that you will probably not spend the rest of your life in this “in-between” stage. Keep reading, keep serving, keep evangelizing, keep providing… knowing that the season won’t last forever.
Glean what you can from the difficult times, because the truths you learn in the valleys keep your feet steady on the mountaintops. There is a time for everything – even unwelcome work. Look for the hidden blessings.