I will never forget my first day as a pastor. I got keys to an office, a contact list, a few introductions and so it began. I couldn’t believe I could get paid to meander with people most of my week through the good, bad and ugly areas of their lives. I was wide-eyed with passion to the brim, and yes, I was incredibly naive. Some days I wonder where that naiveté went. How do the sands of cynicism cover over the freshness? New faces can remind me of old times I felt burned, taken advantage of, or just plain irrelevant.
As a kid I remember my mom reading The Velveteen Rabbit to me. Although I liked the storyline I didn’t quite get it until just a few years ago. I thought it was about getting old, and I knew I had a few years before that phenomenon would hit. Margery Williams truly wrote this story to the parents, not the kids. The rabbit’s conversation with the skin horse fits like a glove for ministry.
Real isn’t how you are made, it’s a thing that happens to you… It doesn’t happen all at once, you become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.
Henri Nouwen speaks to the idea of vulnerability in ministry. He says, “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her vulnerable self.” This is a risk, no doubt, but there is freedom over the crest of the hill. The naiveté and people-pleasing syndrome that can define the first few years of ministry can lead us toward a weathered trust.
While I fully acknowledge I’ve had it easier than many pastors, there are still scars. I’ve never been ousted from a church or had false accusations brought against me, but, like the Velveteen Rabbit, I have had my ears drop out and gotten a little shabby. A ministry degree was only an appetizer for the education of ministry itself.
Would I go back to my first day as a pastor? I was pondering this the other day. After much thought, I concluded, Absolutely not. I wouldn’t go back if I could. I have learned a lot. The scars have taught me to walk closer with Jesus. I’ve seen enough of my weaknesses to not be surprised by them anymore. I am fully convinced He is the Vine, and that this branch gets weary and needs to rest. I now actually believe that His power is made perfect in my weakness.
Here are a few things I’ve learned that help keep me on track as a Velveteen leader.
- Truth has come from every criticism I’ve received. Yes, every one.
- God uses tough ministry seasons and conflict to remind me that He is God; people are not.
- People back down when you come in humility, but they buck up when you come in defense.
- Betrayal and pain help me identify with the sufferings of Jesus like nothing else can.