Stings, Scars & Other Marks of Ministry
By Tim Morey
The other night I had a dream. I was driving to my office when I glanced over at the always-messy floor board on the passenger side of my truck. Among the scattered papers I saw a partially open envelope with something dark inside. I picked it up and found it contained several smashed honey bees. Dreams being what they are, this didn’t seem unusual so I just shrugged and set the envelope on the passenger seat as I drove toward my office.
A minute later I felt a sharp sting in my hand and jerked it away from the wheel. One of the dead bees had apparently fallen from the envelope when I picked it up, and its stinger was now embedded in my palm. I shook off the bee, scraped off the stinger, and kept driving toward my office. A minute later I flinched at the feel of another sting and looked down to see another of the dead bees stinging my hand. I removed it, and a minute later found a third bee stinging me. I was still driving to my office as I began to wake from the haze of the dream, a phantom throbbing in my hand, and a stronger, lingering frustration in my belly over the pains I kept incurring in the simple act of trying to get to work.
As I came awake my mind went to ministry, because frankly there are times when doing ministry feels like a handful of stings from dead bees.
Sometimes the pain comes from outside the church, but far more often it comes from within. We seek God for vision, rally the troops to follow us, and our plans fail. The counseled turn on the counselor. Seasons of fruitlessness leave us wondering what we’re doing wrong. Trusted allies prove less trustworthy than we thought. People grow bored and leave. And we find ourselves frustrated. When God called us to ministry, we didn’t pay much attention to the memo about the stings.
The longer I am a pastor the more sympathetic an eye I have as I read Paul. With the possible exception of Thessalonica, I don’t know that Paul had a single church where things went the way they were “supposed to.” Infighting, heresy, over-inflated egos, out-of-control worship services, racial bigotry, class warfare, sexual immorality, angel worship, works-righteousness, faulty theology—I imagine there was much Paul wanted to say to these churches that he couldn’t because he was so busy putting out fires. And you can almost feel the sting as Paul tells Timothy about his once-trusted friend Demas who deserted him, and Alexander who betrayed him.
Yet Paul, in the midst of the pain, learned to embrace weakness. In fact, he learned to delight “in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties” (2 Cor 12:10). “For when I am weak,” he discovered, “then I am strong.” It was in the wounds that he found the capacity to bring some of his best healing to others. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our troubles so we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Cor 1:3-4).
Increasingly I am amazed at how much of the best ministry our church experiences is not when we are at our strongest, but at our weakest. And this makes me rethink the stings. Perhaps God is not as interested as I am in my win-loss record, or in how many people admire me, or in fluctuations in attendance and giving. Perhaps the results he is most interested in have nothing to do with the measurements of success to which we so often default. Maybe God is measuring things like faithfulness, perseverance, trust, joy in the midst of struggle, integrity, character. And is there any way we as leaders develop these attributes apart from the stings of ministry?
“Scars,” Oswald Sanders writes, “are the authenticating marks of faithful discipleship and true spiritual leadership.”
Tim Morey is lead pastor of Life Covenant Church in Torrance, CA, and the author of Embodying Our Faith: Becoming a Living, Sharing, Practicing Church. He blogs at http://embodyingourfaith.com.