Is Ministry Fulfilling?

I listened to a sermon by Jon Courson today. He pointed out that those who become slack in the ministry open themselves up to sin. It’s similar to what I’ve heard from other preachers: David was not out with his men fighting the battles, so he made himself vulnerable to Bathsheba’s temptation. He figured he could kick back and relax, and his idle hands turned out to be the devil’s workshop. And so the lesson is that, day in and day out, we should keep up the work of God: quiet times, church attendance, witnessing, serving, small groups, etc., etc., etc. Courson also stated that the people who get “burnt out” from Christianity are those who do not do these things on a regular basis.

I once had a professor at DePauw who said that it’s good to take a vacation from religion every once in a while. I’ve never totally taken his advice, but I have wondered sometimes what that would be like.

I said totally. I’ve prayed and read my Bible every single day for the past eleven years. But there were stretches of time in which I did not attend church. And, unless you count AA, I’ve not participated in a small group for six years.

I remember telling a Christian friend that I was thinking of taking a vacation from church. She was astonished. “You’re taking a vacation from God?” she asked. No, I was taking a vacation from church. There’s a difference.

I can understand that idle hands can become the devil’s workshop. Who knows what people will do when they’re bored? But I do not agree with Courson that the ones who become burnt out from Christianity are those who are not constantly on the go.

I’m reading a book right now entitled, So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore?, by Jake Colsen (a pseudonym). The main character is an associate pastor who is heavily involved in church activities, yet still feels unfulfilled.

I’ve varied in my attitude towards ministry over the years. In my early days as a Christian, it was fulfilling. I enjoyed helping the poor at my local food pantry, hanging up posters for my high school Christian group, participating in Key Club, and planting flowers at my local post office. Why? Well, I was reading all these Christian books saying that I should do good works, and I was looking for opportunities to do so. Through my activities, I got to express my Christian faith in a concrete manner. I was putting my faith to work, making God, my fellow Christians, and the people I helped happy.

I think I lost that spark during my Harvard years. I was President of the Harvard Divinity School’s Christian fellowship, and I absolutely hated it! We had to put together this praise night to reach out to the broader HDS community, and I saw it as a big-time burden. In my final year at Harvard, I worked with my church, through preaching, teaching, and organizing a mentorship program. And I didn’t feel overly fulfilled doing that, either.

What happened? I don’t know. Was love for God a huge motivation during my Harvard years? I thought it was, but it may not have been. I wanted to impress Christian girls, or appear powerful, or give inspiring messages. And, when people did not “oooh” or “aaah” my efforts (as they did with those I envied), I was resentful. At Harvard, my messages were usually greeted with “Big deal! I already know that.” (People didn’t say so explicitly, but that’s what I was picking up.) I also didn’t like being pressured to give messages that made me uncomfortable. People wanted me to emphasize evangelism and community, and, because of my introversion, shyness, and social anxiety, I felt like a phony when I gave such sermons. How could I tell people to do things that I didn’t do myself?

I also was trying to earn God’s favor. Of course, I did that even when I enjoyed ministry, but one difference was this: When I was enjoying ministry, I wasn’t really talking about God. I was simply helping others. And my focus wasn’t really on myself, for I enjoyed working with and for others. When my ministry included talking about God, however, it became more difficult. How could I promote a God whose favor I had to earn? It wasn’t that my fellow evangelicals believed this way, for they simply assumed that God loved them. But the God I encountered in the Bible was someone who punished, who made his favor conditional on obedience. Sure, he had a loving side, but I felt that my cheery evangelical acquaintances did not take seriously the less palatable passages of Scripture.

And so I was focused on myself, and I didn’t really love God. And, to be honest, if I were to go back in time and do it all over again, I’m not sure what I could do differently. How do you choose a different state of mind? And have I really changed over the years, such that I would do things differently?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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4 Responses to Is Ministry Fulfilling?

  1. Anonymous says:

    James:

    This was a brilliant and insightful piece. I just love how you write meaningfully and eschew the cants of contemporary fundamentalism. Several conservative evangelical thinkers: McLaren, Bell, etc… are doing much of the same and I think you would be able to write similiar, highly relevant and highly insightful books.

    Perhaps it is just wishful thinking, but your thinking seems to be gravitating away from the right. The (moderate) left is a fun place–the relief from pressure is a nice.

    A while back I think I encouraged you to have a few drinks and going out (hopefully with someone). Going alone will require much more courage and a few more drinks. Try it and tell me what you think. I need coffee in the morning, most people need lunch to stave hunger pains, and sometimes a few cocktails will go a long way. I know, random advice; but it’s worth trying.

    -Jake

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  2. James Pate says:

    Hey there, Jake!

    Actually, I don’t remember that advice!

    I’m in recovery right now, meaning that I go to AA. I’ve had problems with alcohol in the past, so I’ve quit. And alcohol really never helped me much in the women department. And I could really pack them down, too! I’ve had whole pitchers before–ALL BY MYSELF!

    Ironically, I’ve become a lot more likable now that I don’t drink. Some of that has to do with learning social skills. Still, I have a long way to go.

    Am I moving to the Left? Good question. I really enjoyed many parts of Obama’s book, but a big part of that was because he wasn’t dogmatically on the left. He could see the flaws in big government, as well as value in cultural conservatism (e.g., family, faith). I liked the way that he turned a self-critical eye on the Democratic Party.

    You mention Rob Bell. Is he the guy who wrote Velvet Elvis? Is that a good book?

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  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi James:

    I probably confusing my memory then, and my advice certainly wasn’t appropos. My apologies–but I’m glad you are in recovery, and more importantly, that things are on the up and up.

    Bell is great. You read McLaren (I recall)–similiar.

    People that aren’t supercilious are always winsome. Aren’t they? That’s why Barack will win.

    -Jake

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  4. James Pate says:

    No problem, Jake! Actually, Rush Limbaugh gave the same advice to people struggling socially. 😉

    Yeah, I like Obama, but I don’t plan to vote for him. I may hold my nose and vote for McCain. Or, I’ve heard Bob Barr is running as a libertarian, so I may go for him.

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