Is There Enough Goodness to Justify a Life in Ministry?

I believe that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. (Psalm 27:13)

157515_5475d59c4e9ec5475d59c4ea23“I am tired; burned out. I have been beaten up by the dysfunction of this congregation, and the two before this one. I am not experiencing any goodness in ministry anymore. Unless something turns around as a result of this coaching relationship, I’m done.” These were the opening words of Pastor Chris in our first coaching session.

Exhaustion and overwhelm. But something else, too. A glimmer of hope that something good might still be possible. An unwillingness to throw in the towel until every last vestige of promise has been explored.

Let’s be Honest.

For many, the joy in ministry has fizzled out. We spend much of our energy keeping ill-maintained, over-sized buildings afloat.  The saints are dying off faster than we can channel replacements into the pews. We pour ourselves into programs for target audiences that do not respond. Our decision-making structures are overgrown bureaucratic nightmares. Congregants debate their increasingly limited options, often venting their frustration and fear directly at the pastor. Not to mention that the Church is no longer heard as a relevant voice, in the din of an increasingly vitriolic world. Need I say more?

When most of us chose a life of ministry we didn’t expect material rewards, or success by worldly standards. However, we also didn’t expect that we would be beaten down and used up. We expect our work to be worthy, and life to be inherently good.  Is there enough goodness left in the vocation of ministry to sustain our basic resilience and resolve?

In a recent issue of the Christian Century, Miroslav Volf wrote an essay titled, “What is Good?”, Volf highlighted three interrelated qualities of goodness. A good life is dependent upon the experience of: life going well (circumstance), life feeling good (affect), and meaningful action (agency).  

Circumstance: Is Life Going Well?

We experience goodness when the circumstances that surround our life come together in pleasing ways.  My family and I are healthy, financially solvent, and growing. We live in a lovely home. We have health care and can afford to educate our children. Life is going well.

Inside of the organizations we lead, we often determine whether life is going well by looking at organizational metrics. The budget is increasing, membership is on the rise, and attendance is booming When the circumstances of ministry are pleasing, as determined by success in our metrics, life seems good.

Herein lies the first challenge in the good life experience. The circumstances of congregational life are simply not going well for most of us. Traditional metrics have plateaued or are in decline. Does this mean that we are destined to experience despair?

While traditional metrics are important bellwethers of overall health, they aren’t the only indicators. Maybe we need to move beyond counting the outputs of ministry (how much money was raised or spent, how many people worked or were served, how many butts sat in the seats) and start evaluating outcomes (people deepening their experience of God through spiritual discipline, new experiments engaged, creativity unleashed, and diversity embraced.) Perhaps the circumstances of our ministries are not as dire as our current indicators suggest; maybe we aren’t evaluating broadly enough.

Affect: Is Life Feeling Good?

The experience of a good life is also supported by a second quality; my affect, my overall sense of well-being. The circumstances of my life may or may not be going well, but unless I experience joy, my life does not bear the overall quality of goodness.

This is where the good life gets really shaky. If my ministry context is in decline, and the world around me has turned sour, and my personal life is in disarray…how can I be joyful? How can life be good?  

It requires great personal resilience, to look into the face of disorientation, despair or decline, and to respond joyfully; to be a radiant expression of the countenance of God. It is a spiritual challenge of monumental proportions, but joy is the crown jewel in the experience of goodness.  Perhaps, this is the greatest gift that we as leaders can bring to the organizations we serve; a determination to emanate joy in the midst of circumstances not going well.

Agency: Are My Actions Meaningful?

We also don’t experience life as good unless we are actively leading well.  If I succumb to despair and just sit this season out, waiting for the ebb and flow of ministry to carry me into a better chapter, I have no sense of personal agency. If I have abandoned leading the organization I serve, convincing myself that all I can do is offer a pastoral presence to the people inside of the organization, then I have abandoned my sense of agency, and life is not good.

Let’s make an important distinction.  You do not have to do anything to be considered good in the eyes of God. Your very existence is inherently worthy. However, you are not likely to experience life as good, unless you take action that feels appropriate and worthy for your context.

What is your leadership stance? What body of work do you engage? A good life in ministry requires the assessment of your environment, and charting a leadership course that feels productive for this chapter. You may not experience productive gain, and you may not receive accolades from others for your work, but your own sense of agency helps you to experience your life and your work as inherently good.

Are You Okay?

How is your “good life” measuring up, my friends?  Are the circumstances of life going well enough, is life feeling joyful enough, are you experiencing a sense of agency in your work?

If the answer is yes, I celebrate with you and exhort you to get back to work and make the world and the Church a better place.  

If the answer is no, I encourage you to reevaluate your context, seek out support, think about how to re-orient yourself, or change something to bring the good life back into balance.  The world needs the church, and the church needs you. Everyone is entitled to experience life as inherently good. Especially you!