I remember the morning it happened. A Sunday morning. Opening the door to my study, I found that an envelope had been slid under it. I opened it to find an unsigned, type-written letter that said essentially, “This church will be what it should be when you are no longer the pastor of it.” The message cut like a knife. This was not the first time in my ministry I had experienced opposition, but it was the first time I had received it in print!
I do not know a single pastor who has escaped criticism, and I have found they have received it in many ways—including death threats. Even sadder, a few clergy I know have been attacked physically. In some ways, opposition goes with the ministerial territory. In fact, Jesus told us to expect it (John 15:20). The question is, “What do we do when it happens?” Two things are important.
First, we need to search for the kernel of truth which may be in the opposition. Unless the criticism is downright mean (the kind usually expressed by dysfunctional people), there is something we can learn from it. We just have to calm down, take a breath, pause, and force ourselves to take another look at the hurtful thing. When we do, we often find a place to change, grow, or improve.
But second, and even more importantly, we must remember our calling. God’s call can be summed up in three words, “I want you.” When others do not want us, we must remember that God still does. When we face opposition, we must have a “cave of the heart” where we can find rest, refuge, and restoration. When we experience vitriol, we must embrace vocation. God may “uncall” us from being clergy and move us into other forms of ministry, but no human can “uncall” us. Remembering God’s “I want you” secures our ministry when it is opposed. It gives us a place to stand and hang on.
“I want you” is not only the way we keep from being conquered by criticism, it is also the means for avoiding the comparison trap. When people oppose their pastors, it’s usually because they hold a view of what “good ministry” is. The unsigned letter I received was based on some ideal that my critic felt I was not living up to. If we fall prey to this, we will not only be discouraged, we’ll be tempted to trade in our uniqueness for an image. But when God calls us into ministry, God does not clone us to be like some other minister. “I want you” means “YOU,” not someone else. The sacredness of our service lies in its specificity, not in a steteotype.
Over the decades of my ministry, I have asked myself (and sometimes asked God), “Why do I keep doing this?” Each time the Inner Voice answers, “Because a long time ago I asked you to do it.” Vocation. I am called. I am 73, and have been in a clergy-type ministry since 1963. So far, being called has been enough. I hope it is enough for you too.
[The “Shepherd’s Care 2.0” designation indicates these new posts connect to many former ones I’ve written since 2010. They are archived on the Oboedire home page. Give them a look. I’ve shared a lot about clergy wellness in them]