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Show Them How to Live

The Mennonite
Vol. 7, No. 20
October 19, 2004

by Ryan Ahlgrim, First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis, Ind.

When Chaim Potok, the well-known Jewish novelist, decided to become a writer, his mother had a different idea. “Chaim,” she said, “don’t be a writer. Be a brain surgeon. You’ll keep a lot of people from dying and you’ll make a lot of money.” Chaim said, “No, Mama, I want to be a writer.” Periodically his mother tried to change his mind. “Chaim, listen to your mother. Become a brain surgeon. You’ll keep a lot of people from dying and you’ll make a lot of money.” But he always replied, “No, Mama, I want to be a writer.” Eventually she lost her temper. “Chaim, you’re wasting your time. Become a brain surgeon. You’ll keep a lot of people from dying.” Chaim shouted back, “I don’t want to keep people from dying; I want to show them how to live.”

That is exactly how I feel about being a pastor. I want to show people how to live.

I have been a pastor for about 20 years. I am not one because anyone in my family has ever been a pastor, or because it was expected or in order to please anyone, and not because of any overwhelming vision or conversion experience. I am a pastor because I wanted to become a pastor, because I could not conceive of a more important vocation. I have never regretted my decision. It is the greatest job in the world.

There is a severe shortage of pastors in the Mennonite church as well as in most other denominations. According to a survey conducted by the Alban Institute, since the 1970s the number of pastors under 35 has dropped by at least half, and in some denominations by two-thirds. The average age of those going into seminary is much older than it used to be, which means seminary graduates will be in ministry that many fewer years. Even so, we are not training nearly enough pastors for the needs that exist. Mennonite Church USA needs 120 new pastors every year (far above the number we are actually training) simply to replace the number of those retiring.

But I cannot figure out why there is such a shortage of pastors. I don’t understand why young people aren’t going into pastoral ministry in droves. There is no other job like it. The joy of pastoring is the best kept secret in the church. Three factors make being a pastor uniquely positive.

Variety: First, I can’t think of another job that has more variety. I remember all of those monotonous summer jobs I had in college, doing the same thing over and over. I could hardly wait to begin a vocation in which I could exercise creativity and a wide variety of skills. Now, as a pastor, each day is filled with different activities: research, writing, hospital visits, home visits, community organizing, counseling, teaching, planning, leading, dreaming. And every day is different, meeting different people, responding to different challenges. Only one thing is the same for me: Every Sunday I have to preach a sermon. But even this is a creative activity because I do not say the same things over and over. Instead I have the spiritual challenge of creating something new and true every week. I am an artist.

Flexibility: Another positive feature of being a pastor is flexibility. In many ways I am my own boss. I set my own schedule. I decide when I am going to get up in the morning and when I am going to bed. I decide when I am scheduling a meeting and when I am not. Obviously there are meetings I need to go to, but with some advance planning I can arrange my schedule so that I can travel to various out-of-state events or have an extra day free to get together with friends. I know of no other job that has this much flexibility.

Variety and flexibility are added benefits to pastoral ministry, but the real reason being a pastor is the greatest job in the world is because it is the most meaningful job in the world.

Meaningful: A young woman came into my office one day. She did not attend church, but she was dating a young man in my congregation. She sat down and said, “I don’t believe in God and I hate God.” That was the beginning of many conversations I had with her. Slowly I learned of the painful experiences in her life in which she had felt abandoned and betrayed. But she started coming to our church, and through experiencing our congregation and through our conversations, she began to change. A year later she publicly gave her life to God through Jesus Christ and was baptized.

One day I received a letter from a man in prison. He wanted to know if a Mennonite pastor could come and visit him. He was not a Mennonite, but he had met some Mennonites who had impressed him and he wanted to know more. So I visited him and continued to visit him every other week for the next three years. During that time I was the only visitor he had. He was in prison for a violent crime. He confessed that crime to me and took full responsibility. Two years ago he was released. Because he had no family or friends in the area, my church found him an apartment and paid for the first few months of rent. We helped him find a job. We gave him clothes, furniture and a bed. A woman gave him a beautiful quilt she had made. A group of men in my church met with him regularly to help him adjust to life outside prison and be accountable. He felt overwhelmed by our love. He attended our church. He also gave his life to God, was baptized and became a member of our congregation.

What does it matter if we survive cancer but don’t know how to live? What does it matter if we have a big money-making business but our life feels pointless? What does it matter if we have everything we want but don’t have meaning? Pastoring addresses every area of life—physical, emotional, social and spiritual. It pulls it all together and gives life purpose, direction, joy and meaning.

Too poor: If being a pastor is such a great job, why aren’t more people becoming pastors? I suspect there are three reasons. First, some people assume it doesn’t pay enough. One of my friends in seminary had a fiancée who was afraid they would be living in poverty if he went into pastoral ministry. If one’s goal is to make as much money as possible, then it is true that pastors do not make enough money. But becoming a pastor should never be motivated by money anyway. I get paid about $45,000 a year. I don’t know if that sounds like a lot or a little, but it is certainly enough for me to have all that I need plus quite a bit more. And if I do get into a financial bind, my church will always help me out. A few years ago, when medical expenses for my wife and son piled up, both of our cars broke down and we didn’t have the money to repair or replace them. A couple in the congregation, aware of the situation, handed me a substantial check to get us on our feet again. I have never had a stingy church. Everything I have asked for I have always been given.

Too busy: Some people think pastors are too busy—they have no personal time or time with their children. I discovered in college that a lot of PKs (Preacher’s Kids) resented their parents for not spending more time with them. So I made a commitment that my family would come before my church. I have kept that commitment. Whereas the average mainline Protestant pastor spends 12 hours a week with his or her children, I spend about 35 hours a week with my kids. I give myself reasonable personal time. I have no pager or cell phone. I don’t even have an answering machine at home. Pastors who are too busy have mostly themselves to blame. They just have to learn to say no.

Too hard: Finally, some people think pastoring is just too hard. A pastor has to have an incredible range of skills and be able to work effectively with all kinds of people. To this I say: Yes—it is hard. That’s what makes being a pastor so challenging and exciting. I don’t want an easy job. Despite the difficulties, it is a vocation that is constantly buoyed up by faith in God’s grace. As the apostle Paul might say, we hold our pastorate in jars of clay so that we realize that this extraordinary ministry belongs to God and does not come from us.

I thank God that the people in my congregation have been called into many different vocations and that they bring the Spirit of Jesus into all of those vocations. That is as it should be. But I hope some of them, especially some of the youth and children, will also be called into the vocation of pastoral ministry, because the need is great. And besides, it’s the greatest job in the world.

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