If I weren’t in ministry, I’d wonder what paid staff at churches do all day. But since I am, I know the answer. We live in the gray area of life: between high and low, up and down, triumph and tragedy. We do it every single day, and we never know which day will hold which extreme.
Let me explain.
I once had the opportunity to join the staff of a church on the West Coast. The church was great, and while my wife and I didn’t end up moving there, we did go out for a visit. Our trip was in early May, and the weather was amazing. It was a windy eighty degrees (a little on the hot side for the natives), and when we found out that it was like this year round it was hard to say no. I still wonder about that steady sunshine and that cool ocean breeze. Must be nice.
I lived in the midwest most of my life. In the midwest, the weather is a crapshoot. I have memories of January days with highs in the seventies and as many recollections of hibernation-inducing ice storms. I remember an April 1st where my friends went swimming in their pool, and I remember one when it snowed. Generally quite annoying.
Temperature variation aside, it seems like Missouri (my home state) falls under a gloomy cloud somewhere around Thanksgiving and you don’t see the sun again until March. I know this isn’t really true, but it seems like it to me. Driving home in the dark at five o’clock is nothing short of depressing if you ask me, and the melancholy pace of life from December through February is mind-numbing.
A similar phenomenon can occur to those in ministry if we aren’t careful. I don’t know about you, but I signed up for ministry with the bright, sun-shiny days of summer in mind. The post-conference buzz in the ministry, the fresh-conversion craze of a new believer, the unifying force a mission trip inspires—these are the things we first fell for. But, like the weather in Missouri, you really don’t know what to expect in ministry, and what you get isn’t always what you wanted.
I remember one summer sitting in a staff meeting when a secretary interrupted to inform us that a middle-aged man in our church had fallen from a ladder and was in critical condition. Immediately I recognized him as the father of two boys in our high school group. It was a long day of wondering and an intense night of praying until eventually the man died. That Friday we held his funeral. I watched his son’s hands shake as he told the mourners who had gathered about his dad. That was Friday morning.
That evening the gathering was different. A young lady in our ministry had battled leukemia for the better part of a year. She had regained enough strength and the prognosis was positive enough that they had planned a party—a worship service and dance—to celebrate her recovery. The church came together and had a blast. It was a night of exuberance and feasting.
In the morning we buried a man. In the evening we celebrated a life brought back from the edge of the grave.
That is ministry.
Two weeks later we were gathered as a staff again. As we left the meeting the same secretary informed us that one of our members had been murdered. The crime had occurred with his ten year old daughter in full view of it all. He had two teenage sons in our ministry as well. My gut twisted up into knots.
Have you ever been to a funeral for a person who had been murdered? There’s no time to brace yourself. There is no opportunity to prepare. That funeral was a group of stunned people standing around trying to figure out what to say to one another. I would imagine those two boys still struggle with the emotions of that day. They probably always will.
A month later, we started our high school flag football league. On my team I drafted a young man who had undergone a heart transplant nine months before. He played quarterback for me. We went to the championship game. With two fewer players on the field for the duration of the game we lost by one touchdown. It was an incredible privilege to play with that young man.
Heartbreak and heart transplants.
That is ministry.
You know what it’s like. We’ve all been there. The ups and the downs and the twists and the turns. The whole climate of a faith community can change in one tragic moment or in a single second of struggle. It can go either way, and you cannot predict which way it will go. It’s not black or white. It’s gray. Dull, drab, dismal gray.
Have you ever read the Bible?
I know that’s a silly question to ask, but when I get to thinking about the grayness of ministry, I can almost allow myself a pity party. If I focus on the tangled path I trod, I can end up sounding a lot like Job or Jonah if I’m not careful. So instead of shaving my head and taking an ash bath, I figure I might as well read the Bible and gain some perspective. Not surprisingly, it works.
Remember Noah and his heroic trek through life? Remember how he stood in the face of public criticism for the better part of ten decades? Remember how he was the vessel through which God saved mankind? Remember how he found favor with God and was spared from destruction? That’s incredible!
Remember how he got off the ark and got liquored up and naked? That’s just gross.
Remember Abraham and his faith-filled journey? Do you recall how he was going to go and trust God as to where he’d end up? Remember how he was going to have descendants greater than the grains of sand on the seashore? He’s Father Abraham! Let’s just praise the Lord!
Remember how he slept with his wife’s maid and got her knocked up on purpose because he was tired of waiting for God and thought he was smart enough to make his own way? That’s not so sun-shiny, now is it?
What about the disciples? What about Peter? In one instant he is uttering the words that are repeated to this day when someone confesses Christ as their Savior and in the next moment Jesus calls him Satan. Talk about ups and downs!
What about Jesus? In a single day he feeds 5,000 people and is at the peak of his popularity, yet after a brief vignette on how people need to eat him he watches the majority of the crowd head for home.
You see it’s always been this way. So inconsistent, so topsy-turvy, so…well, gray. Black and white would be easier, but gray is what we get. We get compliments and curses. We get dazzles and duds. We get feedback and fallout. We get elation and elders. We get messes and miracles.
We get it all, and we get it randomly. There are seasons of brightness and seasons of darkness. It’s just the way it is.
I remember one time visiting one of our students in the hospital. Actually, he was in the mental hospital. Loosely connected to our ministry, I only knew his name and a few of his friends. I’d never met his parents, never really had a lot of time with him before. I subscribed to enough stereotypes to guess why he had been admitted. Unfortunately I was right.
He had overdosed on ecstasy. At the ripe old age of fifteen, a motel party had gotten out of hand and he had gone ballistic. Once the party was busted by the cops he found his way home, and by then his reaction to the drug was uncontrollable. His mom managed to get him to the emergency room and they stabilized him before taking him to the psych ward. When I walked in to see himhe didn’t recognize me. By the time I left he was giving me a hug.
Ups and downs. A lot of awkwardness in between.
That is ministry.
Here’s what I think. I think maybe gray is what is best for us. It keeps us on our toes, for sure. Church work is rarely boring, and the grayness of it all, while harder, is actually better for us because it keeps us alert. We have to find our hope somewhere deeper than the superficial highs and lows of circumstance.
I also think that God gives us gray so we appreciate the bright times. When I lived in Missouri, nothing beat a January day when it was sixty-five and I could take my daughter to the park and feed the ducks without a jacket on. But if I lived where it was always sixty-five I bet I’d stop going to the park and I’d start staying in my office or watching television or something because I wouldn’t appreciate the cheery days, the days when the gray took a break.
Maybe we have gray for our own sanctification. Maybe the cloudiness of ministry reminds us that we’re not in charge and we have to fight through the murkiness to get to where we need to be, where Jesus is.
Or, probably more true, maybe Jesus is in the gray with us helping us dig through the dull times, pulling us toward Spring.
Maybe we need to embrace the gray so that when the clouds do break and we see a little sunshine for the first time in a longtime, we don’t forget what we learned and we can look back and recognize the God of the ups and downs and how He was faithful through it all.