“I would’ve gone with you to the end. Into the very fires of Mordor.” – Aragorn, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (cinematic)
Some of the most exciting memories I have had over previous years in ministry are of those times at church gatherings or conferences where each person in attendance seemed to so confident in their calling and empowered by God that they felt unstoppable. “I’m ready to charge hell with a water pistol.” “We are not just starting a church, we are starting a movement.” “I am on fire for the Gospel.”
While some of the sayings may seem a tad cliche these days, at the time they were uttered with a passion and a sincerity that was not only energizing to those who uttered the words, but also to all those within earshot. There was nothing God could not do, which also meant there was nothing we could not do, since we were intent on following Him.
In the movie quote above, Aragorn told Frodo. “I would’ve gone with you to the end. Into the very fires of Mordor.” The bonds of fellowship seem so strong when we are united around our calling to serve God.
Unfortunately, as it did for Aragorn and Frodo, bonds break. Situations change. The “feeling” of being unstoppable is too often crushed by the pressure of ministry, seeds of mistrust, or feelings of inadequacy that become contagious among congregants.
I have watched leader after leader walk away from ministry. Former mentors and church leaders – both those who have inspired crowds onstage in front of thousands at conferences and those who have partnered alongside us in “the trenches” – have quit the race. Some have let personal vices become very public sins, thus, destroying their credibility as leaders. Others faced a “burn out” they deemed impossible in prior years of energy and success. Either way, the impacts on them, their families, and their churches have been devastating.
The reality is harsh. These pastors, coaches, worship leaders, and friends have moved on to secular positions. Some have even walked away from faith altogether. Others are stuck in a state of flux trying to balance the harsh realities of personal brokenness and their relevance in an ever-changing culture. In my personal experience, I can count on one hand the number of leaders (pastors, coaches and advisers) who are still engaged in ministry. The rest – maybe dozens – are simply done. Their ministry prowess is now applied to business or sales positions. Their passion for people has been replaced by a passion for a hobby or activity.
Watching this unfold around me, it has been very tempting at times to join them and simply walk away. At times like these, I find myself reflecting on the lyrics of a 1990s song called “Show Me the Way” from the band Styx:
Every night I say a prayer in the hope that there’s a heaven
But every day I’m more confused as the saints turn into sinners
All the heroes and legends I knew as a child have fallen to idols of clay
And I feel this empty place inside, so afraid that I’ve lost my faith
The stress of the demands of ministry and the unimaginable drama that can infest interpersonal relationships has taken a huge toll on my health, my family’s emotional well-being, and – especially – confidence in my own calling. When I see a friend of mine spending his Sundays engaged in a hobby instead of serving in a ministry capacity, I have felt envious. When I see others who have traded ministerial careers for more financially lucrative opportunities in the secular world, I sometimes question whether or not it would just be easier to give up on my calling and just enter “normal life.”
But I cannot. I cannot walk away.
First, I can clearly remember when I was called to ministry – that moment when I realized that having faith is not about “having” something and keeping it, but sharing it with those that do not have it. For me, that changed everything. From that moment on, I sought out ministry positions and opportunities to serve or volunteer in organizations dedicated to sharing the gospel with those who did not know it. And in spite of everything that has happened to me over the years, I cannot forget how precious it is to see God move in a community – in a church. I cannot and will not let my discouragement or the discouragement of others propel me in a direction away from ministry where I have seen God do amazing things.
Second, as I have formed new networks and established new friendships, I am reminded that God is still moving and working in many churches and communities. It would be too narrow-minded and arrogant to assume that the negatives I have seen firsthand are indicators that burn out and dysfunction are the inevitable outcomes of ministry. In fact, I have seen the opposite. Though the leaders I have met are painfully aware of what can go wrong in churches, their faith in God and His bride (the church) has not wavered. instead, they use this awareness to guide and encourage those that would be discouraged.
So I must press on. WE must press on. If we are called, we have a race to finish. We have a fight to be won. We have a faith to keep – a faith that drives us not only to celebrate our own salvation, but to share the good news that Jesus Christ has paved the way to salvation and that His arms are open to the broken in a broken world.
At the end, I want to be able to utter the words of the Apostle Paul:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 2 Timothy 4:7
I will follow to the end…