Ministerial Joy and Glory
Employment in the secular sphere is usually evaluated in terms of job satisfaction and job prospects. But what are their equivalents for those who work in the church – notably as Christian ministers?
Although some embark in the ministry with a notional ‘career trajectory’ in mind – from humble Youth Pastor to Venerable Archbishop – most ministers have the theological wit to realise that no such thing exists. Not only does church history tell a very different story with the likes of John Owen and John Newton (both of whom ended their ministries in much smaller congregations than those they had served earlier) but the doctrine of ministerial calling in Scripture by definition precludes such an idea. The Master calls his servants to serve where he is pleased to send them; not where they necessarily aspire to go.
The same is true when it comes to ministerial ‘job satisfaction’. The experience of the clergy is often radically different from those who work in the secular world. If the pleasure derived from their profession was only to be found in visible fruit for their labours, then, as one minister-friend of mine once put it, ‘Every Monday morning I resign from the ministry; only to go back every Tuesday because there is nowhere else I can go!’ Even for those who are blessed with tangible ‘results’ for their labours, it is strange how even the best of them seem to bring as many discouragements as encouragements.
The Bible’s answer to this question is more surprising than we might imagine and is well captured in what Paul says to the church in Thessalonica. Even in the face of the suspicion and covert criticism he was facing from this congregation, he says of them, ‘You are our glory and joy’ (1Th 2.20) – a statement that is echoed in different language in what he says elsewhere to the Corinthians (2Co 1.14) and to the Philippians (Php 4.1).
In other words, his greatest honour was not found in himself; but in the lives of those God has entrusted to his care. And his supreme joy did not arise from the pleasure of what he did through preaching and pastoring; but the impact it had on the lives of his beloved people. Calvin points out in his comments on Paul’s use of ‘glory’ that the apostle in no sense saw this as a reflection on himself and his own abilities; but, rather, as the visible proof of God’s work through him.
John Stott, in his commentary on Thessalonians in the Bible Speaks Today series (IVP), remarks that Paul’s choice of words at this point is best understood as the language of parenting. Just as a mother or father finds unique delight in watching their children grow, develop and come through the challenges of life, so too with Paul as he closely watches his spiritual offspring. Indeed, the fact that in the earlier part of this chapter, he has reached for the imagery of both mother and father to describe how he relates to the Thessalonians only serves to reinforce this. Also, in the following verse at the start of next chapter, Paul uses a word (found only this once in the New Testament) to capture the pain of his being ‘torn from’ these people. It is a Greek compound that carries the sense of ‘losing a child’. His relationship with these people went far deeper than he could easily express; but his choice of parental imagery very poignantly brought home what he had in mind when he spoke of the ‘joy and glory’ of his ministry.
How does this translate into how we understand the pastoral ministry generally? At the most basic level it must make us realise that our ministry is people-focused. This in no way contradicts the fact that it is also Christ-centred and God-exalting; but simply that all our efforts to centre our ministries on Christ and through them bring glory to God can only make sense when they actually engage with real people.
God-centred, Christ-exalting ministry cannot be exercised in a vacuum. (Despite the fact that more than a few ministers have been heard to say, ‘Church would be great if it wasn’t for the people!’) God has called us to serve people: lost sinners who need to be reached with the gospel and sinful saints who need to be sanctified. And both of these dimensions of our calling are invariably messy, often painful and will always exceed the limits of our capability.
Paul knew all of this through his own personal experience. But one only has to trace out the threads of personal testimony that he weaves through all his letters to catch a glimpse of the pastor who gave himself to his calling in joyful self-sacrifice – not because he was simply ‘wired that way’, but because he was a living replica of Christ as the true Pastor.
All this explains why Paul’s use of ‘glory’ to describe his relationship with the Thessalonians has a very strong ‘already, but not yet’ feel to it. For all the many evidences of God’s life-transforming grace at work in the lives of these people, for which Paul gives thanks in prayer, they were still imperfect and would not be seen in all their fullness until the Parousia.
That same thought allows all who serve as ministers to live with the tension that is always part of the package of ministerial service. We can be sure that the best joy and the greatest glory are yet to come because they are not in our feeble hands. Instead they are in the strong hands of him who has called us and is pleased to work in us and through us for his own pleasure and glory.