The most difficult aspect of seminary had nothing to do with parsing verbs in the Greek subjunctive mood. It wasn’t trying to keep up with all the triangles John Frame masterfully crafted on the whiteboard. Honestly, it wasn’t even the constant strain of feeding a family of 5 while taking 18 credits, working part-time, and interning (we ate a lot of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, which are highly underrated in my opinion). No, no, no. It wasn’t any of that. It was the massive question mark at the end of this training tunnel. The bold, vexing question of, “What’s next?”
Somehow I’d overlooked this particular sequence in the equation. For a few years, I had been working on a distance MA program, but the need to accelerate my study was evident. After serving for 9 years, I resigned a pastoral position to pursue an MDiv at the RTS Orlando campus. It was a massive ordeal for our family. And we spent so much time praying and preparing, and then working feverishly while at seminary, that I somehow forgot that there was going to be life after the training. Six months prior to walking across the St. Andrews Chapel stage to receive my diploma, I remembered. In this case, remember being a euphemism for alternating stages of terror, stress, and frantic networking.
I started bombarding churches with my resume like it was an AOL offer in the 90’s. Not long after the interviews started, I realized I was going to need a grid for decision making. How would I decide what God’s call looked like? Liver shivers? Urim and Thummim? Over the course of those months, I focused on a few areas that served as a guide of sorts. These are the questions I asked and answered to help me determine where I might land next.
First: What theological distinctives are absolutely non-negotiable for me?
This question was essentially an attempt to narrow the scope of ministry from all of Christendom to a certain number of tribes I could serve alongside. This included, amongst others, the nature of God, the church, the gospel, Scripture, and mission.
I was helped at this point by the distinction between that which is of the essence of the church and what is important but merely for the well being of the church (esse and bene esse in Latin and legal parlance). The idea being that I should be fussy about esse issues but gracious and attentive to God in areas I felt were simply bene esse. This took the humility to understand that I would never find a church where everything I thought was ‘best’ would be put into practice. But I committed to turn down any opportunity where something essential was compromised.
I know this is the point of the story where it would be helpful for someone to just tell you what is ‘essential’ and what is not. I don’t want to pretend the answer to that question is simple. It is the furthest thing from simple. But I do want to invite you to the process. The clarity and discernment gained in carefully defining what is non-negotiable is worth all of the existential and theological wrangling you endure.
Second: What has God called me to do?
In other words, how do my gifts most naturally serve a local church? I want to say here that many conversations I’ve had with men, both in and out of seminary, lean toward a self-discovery, self-esteem approach to this question. Where do I thrive? What area of ministry makes my soul sing a Josh Groban cover? That kind of thing. That is not what I mean.
I mean beginning with the question: What does the local church need? What, or who rather, is a pastor? And let me tell you where I think you ought to begin if you are truly asking that question. The church needs men who will lead and dream and stand in pulpits week after week and want to marry a couple and then cry with them over infertility. If you are starting your ministry with the idea that you’ll serve a niche, associate role that utilizes a specific gift, I think you are starting at the wrong spot. The church needs men who will gladly take on the burden of the whole operation and then lead it humbly and faithfully for years. Start with that assumption and let the Holy Spirit refine the call and opportunity from there.
Third: Can I commit to this work for the long-haul?
This could be a personal preference, but my wife and I really prayed that God would allow us to settle somewhere for the long haul. I think a long haul approach is warranted when you consider that a major kingdom analogy is seed planting. Furthermore, the major Christian growth comparison is botanical. These are gloriously plodding approaches to work. I think the best ministry is the kind where you see the slow, inevitable, powerful transformation of people, through the gospel, over time. I asked myself, “If God leads me to this work, can I stay and labor with these people until retirement?” It is not always possible find an arrangement like this, but I think it speaks to a bigger principle.
You will be tempted to land a job no matter what. Though each situation is different, you may want to consider supporting your family in other ways while waiting on a door to open. Six months of throwing boxes at UPS is better than overlooking systemic problems for a ministry paycheck. Don’t say, “Well I could be the youth pastor for a year or so but there is no way I see myself staying beyond that.”
Fourth: What do my counselors think of the opportunity for me?
You’ve got to engage people you trust with some of this information. You just don’t know yourself well enough to make call. Ask them to assess your gifts, approach to ministry, and the likelihood that you would serve a particular church well. A definitive moment for me came when a highly respected mentor told me that I really ought to find a place where I could preach and care for people’s souls. He was fairly emphatic that I would serve the church best in that capacity. His counsel helped to clarify a few different opportunities I was considering. And I needed the clarity because I loved quite a bit about different, but less optimal, options that were opening up.
Finally, remember to apply the gospel. You’ll never have perfect motives. You will wonder what you are “worth”. You will fear failing. And you will fear what people think. And it is possible to start to believe that your value and hope and identity is tied up in whether a cool church in a cool place hires you. That’s when you scold your soul. “You are not your ministry. You are approved, loved, sought, forgiven, free, rich and secure in Christ.” This kind of preaching is exceedingly necessary and must be fierce and firm. Practice this kind of preaching. You’ll need it in your new job.