Remember, new ministers — you’re incidental

Seminary students often graduate believing they’re essential. They’re not. But that’s a good thing.

By Amy Butler

What’s the most important piece of advice you would give yourself if you could go back in time to your seminary graduation and have a conversation with your newly credentialed self?

I had the occasion last week to address a class of graduating seminary students, so as I prepared to speak to them I posed this question to myself again. If you could go back and have a conversation with yourself on the day you graduated from seminary, what would you say?

There are, of course, so many things. You’d note that ministry often entails more budget meetings than quiet hours writing brilliant sermons. You’d want to explain to yourself that pastors’ conferences are actually not as fun as you might have imagined, and that church musicians are a wonderfully unusual group of people, for example. You would also give yourself a heads up that the pastor gets called on for many things, like births and deaths and weddings, but also plumbing problems and choir disputes and elevator malfunctions.

As I prepared my remarks I knew, of course, that I couldn’t tell them everything I might have wanted my newly graduated self to know. But I did tell them what I thought was the most important thing I wish I had known before I set out, all shiny and educated, into professional ministry: you’re incidental.

So I told them just that. And I apologized if the words felt harsh when I told them that truth about ministry, but I felt like I just couldn’t pass up this opportunity to let those graduates in on a foundational truth about effective ministry. Learning the powerful lesson of your own irrelevance can hurt very deeply, but understanding its truth can be the foundation of very effective pastoral ministry.

It’s not a character flaw, this assumption of exceptional importance. It’s built into the way we nurture and train ministers. The whole process of hearing a call to ministry and gathering the courage to follow that call demands quite a bit of self-examination and internal focus. Articulating a personal experience of call is often an early step in the process, that courageous step of naming a powerful, internal sense of God’s direction in your own life. That’s exciting, and it’s directly related to identity and self worth. Then, seminaries require written statements of faith; ordination councils ask for personal theological positions; your home church definitely wants you to give your testimony, repeatedly.

And this process of self examination and focus can lead us minister types to launch into the world of professional ministry under the impression that our callings make us, if not essential, then at least very critical to the successful work of God in the world.

Not so.

That’s not the case, and it’s a good thing that’s not the case, because the work of ministry is hard.

We work with regular, flawed human beings, so our work is by its very nature marked by regular disappointment, failure and, usually, some pretty significant pain. If we enter the work of ministry equating easy, successful experiences with our own value as called ministers of the gospel, we will quickly find ourselves despairing.

We are incidental, for sure, by ourselves.

But the good news is that we don’t do ministry by ourselves. We do it in the context of a larger whole, the entire Church of Jesus Christ, to whom we attach those powerful callings and spiffy diplomas. And when we do, our lives and ministries take on a power and effectiveness that we could never have mustered on our own, anyway.

When we join our lives to the lives of so many other Jesus followers seeking to live the gospel in radical ways, we can accomplish many powerful things we never could have imagined on our own. Together with each other and with God we can change systems, heal broken places, offer mercy, build relationships, show in profound ways that love is the most powerful thing of all.

The work we do is God’s work; it’s not about us.

If I could go back in time and tell myself one important ministry truth on the day of my seminary graduation, that would be it: you are incidental. But the work of God in this world is most certainly not. Congratulations on this wonderful achievement. Now, get out there and join forces with the others and with God; you will not believe the amazing things that will happen when you do.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.