Ministry Today magazine cover

Crosses and Crowns





We must be balanced in our understanding of the call to ministry and its sacrifices and rewards.
I grew up when clergy were considered professional and highly respected persons in the community. In some circles that still remains true. However, I am afraid that the increasing decline in the level of quality leaders may, in part, be a result of the increasing perception that the job of a minister is easy. Preachers, like teachers, are often undervalued.

Today we might seek to strengthen the quality of new leaders by narrowing the door whereby many are entering into the ministry unwisely. The call to ministry has too often given way to career-minded, status-seeking persons. Such opportunists have chosen the ministry as a vocation, or an aspiration, rather than a deep sense of God's calling on their lives to serve Him and to reach others with the good news.

The call, once a necessary prerequisite for ministry, does not seem to carry the zing it once did in being a mandatory essential. It is easy to look around in almost any denomination and find those starry-eyed persons who desire a position in the church and almost pursue it like a presidential election. In fact, some denominations have traded in their need for divine appointment for ballot boxes and elaborate campaign speeches that would make the GOP blush.

All too often it is the glitz and glamour of leadership's obvious notoriety in Christian circles that have influenced and attracted the new breed of pulpiteers. I am afraid that many of our approaches to modern-day ministry may be creating a delusion that will entice a deep carnality in leadership that threatens to undermine the once-sacred offices that govern the church.

Perks without pain. Some perceive pastoring to bring perks without pain. Perhaps the greater problem is not merely rooted in the method of our selection--pulpit committees, ballot counts or elections--but the misnomer that clerical positions come with perks and no pain. Ministers' silent battles with criticism, rejection and isolation--coupled with marital and parenting issues that often challenge the already demanding lifestyle of most clergy--have created a mythical image that resembles a Herculean posture.

Though many of us abhor this attitude, we may have, in some ways, helped to create it. Our need to appear invincible, effortlessly handling adversities, speaking only of successes, and burying our frustrations, has caused many to think of our office as a celebrity status symbol to be awarded to those who desire recognition and notoriety.

Have we too readily glamorized the personal pain and sacrifice associated with being available to God? This frilly, lace-covered posturing of Christianity has made many believers hide in the closet rather than openly discuss and disclose the price that great men and women of God must pay to be used in any significant way. I am often criticized, in some circles, because I do not ascribe to teachings that suggest walking with God frees us from adversity and private struggles.

The Superman syndrome. We who are up front cannot feel obligated to parade our successes and deny our vulnerabilities. When we do so, we may be paying a greater price than just the luxury tax of invincibility. Pretense actually alienates our congregations by suggesting some feigned, superior spirituality; this often shipwrecks churches when the congregation sadly realizes that the pastor and his family are not Superman and Wonder Woman but are, in fact, just another ordinary Clark Kent and Lois Lane.

The pastor and his family have simply been endued by God with a grace on their calling that they are trying desperately, like all others, to transfer into their own homes and hearts. The distinction should be made between the gift God gave us and the recipient of that gift.

The apostle Paul adamantly declared that we do have the treasure (see 2 Cor. 4:7); there is no denying that fact. But we have it in earthen vessels. Then he explained the reason: "that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us" (NKJV).

The deep-seated hero complex does several damaging things to parishioners:

1. It teaches them that we have earned the call of God through some vicarious, innate ability to "walk on water."

2. They begin to admire us for our status and invincibility rather than our humility and deep need of the Holy Spirit.

3. It causes a carnal aspiration for a new generation of clergy who think that if they aspire to these lofty heights, there will be acclaim when, in fact, any real acclaim is tempered by deep pain.

Ministry crosses. When Jesus prepared to solicit the freshman class of His spiritual university, His ad was very transparent. He promised little more than controversy. He said His followers would be hated by the world, even as the world hated Him (see John 15:18).

Jesus adamantly taught that self-denial is to be an expected norm (see Matt. 16:24). He did not attract those who wanted to serve with a beautiful crown displayed in the curio for fascinated apprentices. To the contrary, He openly proclaimed that there would be an inevitable cross in each of His disciples' lives--a cross they would not be able to shake.

Paul, who missed the orientation class that trained the other disciples, did not miss the concepts. His lot was not described as a cross, but he often described himself as a prisoner of the gospel and a carrier of a thorn that was so uncomfortable, he prayed continually for its removal. Paul learned God was working through his pain, for his gain.

So we stand amid wooden crosses--ministerial shackles and personal thorns--to make ourselves available for service. What an array of religious paraphernalia! Not your ordinary Bible, oil and briefcase, is it?

My question is basically a simple one: If we taught the next generation the price of ministry rather than the prestige of it, would we get as many men and women fighting for the right to speak?

Everyone is debating and wrestling with endless theological entanglements over who can and cannot speak in the church. I wonder: Would the road to the pulpit be as congested if people knew it was a cross to be carried by those truly called to serve rather than a crown to be worn?

Ministry crowns. Before I leave you feeling too dismal, I hasten to acknowledge that ministry often has its rewards. It is not my intent to sneer at or be snide toward those rewards. But I challenge us to find that place of balance, which is difficult but essential.

We are not required to be monks or live like hermits, dwelling in caves and begging for bread. But we must not allow the success of our covenant to draw those among us whose sole purpose is seeking after the fish and the loaves. Jesus didn't mind feeding the masses, but He later deeply criticized those whose purpose was the benefits rather than the benefactor.

There are many rewards to ministry. They are a part of the journey, but they are not the purpose God has promised to bless those who serve Him.

The elders who rule well are decreed to be worthy of double honor (see 1 Tim. 5:17). The word honor in this passage refers specifically to finances. The word is "time," and it literally means "money paid"--this is commended as appropriate. But Paul also made it clear that we are forbidden from becoming a hireling. This speaks not to the amount we make but the purpose of our service.

Other benefits of ministry may include the warm, rewarding feeling of making a contribution to others. It is gratifying to see people make changes in their lives and manage more effectively those areas of excess. This is an understandable and notable aspiration. But "just wanting to help" is not why we should enter into ministry. We should be called to this area of service.

Some have attained notoriety that, though not promised in Scripture, is certainly implied when Paul said that a bishop, or pastor, should be of good report both inside and outside the church. This statement confirms that a pastor should have both a reputation, which is how others perceive us, and character, which centers more on who we really are. The one thing that is quite clear is that one cannot remain totally anonymous and lead the church into battle.

The aged, patriarchal blessing God pronounced over Abraham included a promise to make his name great (see Gen. 12). In the New Testament, the signs and wonders following the apostles' ministry were of such caliber that even Simon the sorcerer wanted to purchase the gift of God. Obviously, even back then, there were those who thought that following Christ was a glamorous call. But there is a sharp distinction between God choosing to promote whom He will for His own purpose, and those who just sign up in the army of the Lord seeking status rather than service.

I believe that those who have attained any crowns of recognition and accomplishment--either by virtue of the effect or scope of their ministry--must be careful to explain it, lest the glistening light of those accomplishments blind the eyes of those they serve into thinking that our crowns come without crosses.

For I know without any shadow of a doubt that the old songwriter was right when he penned the words: "No Cross, No Crown."

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