This is not my story. It is a generic, aggregate story that includes aspects of my own and that of many colleagues. I am writing this because over the course of my ministry experience I have trained pastoral interns and helped people pursue their calls to ministry. Currently I am working with a couple of people who are on the edge between step 1 and 2 and another in the middle of 3. Whatever you are looking for in ministry, do not look for certainty. A lot of different folks become pastors for a lot of different reasons. I can only speak for my little corner of the world of mainline Protestantism. Our formation to ministry works something like this:
First, you feel called by God.
That can be because of your upbringing in church. You came up the ranks form Sunday school kid to youth leader. and you just stuck with it because church feels good. A lot of times feeling the call happens in defiance of your church experience. Your church rejected you for you who are and you thought God was as cruel as they were. But then you discovered God to be different.
Second, you feel a good about that call.
You get excited and you start the official discernment process. You learn about educational requirements and church requirements. Eventually you decide to tackle the biggest hurdle and pick a school to obtain your Master of Divinity degree.
Third, your whole world comes tumbling down.
In seminary everything you believed in, everything you thought was right or wrong is turned upside down. You may have been a practical Saint like mother Teresa and in Step 1 and you felt the call to be just that for the rest of your professional life. Or you may have been a righteous thinker who can tell right from wrong and protect the truth and values of the Christian faith against heretics and atheists. Serious graduate level work will show you that your orthodoxy is worthless without a similar passion for orthopraxy. Whatever you came in as, you will come out changed and hopefully more balanced.
Fourth, you get your first call.
Usually you start out as somebody else’s associate pastor. The greatest danger here is a feel-good-experience. You may be sent to do children and youth ministry. That way you feel like you did when you first felt the call. You fall back into old uneducated patterns and have a jolly good time. You love your job and everybody loves you.
Fifth, it is time to grow up.
Eventually you will have to step up and become your own pastoral self. All of a sudden you are “the pastor”. The first year or so feels really good. In this honeymoon period you do everything for the first time. Your congregation feels the excitement of having your new energy among them. You learn to figure out who you are as a pastor. Roughly 10 years into the process you start to learn who you want to be when you grow up.
Sixth, ministry is hard.
On a practical level serving in ministry means working for a non-profit organization. If they are large, they may have a lot of politics going on, staffing issues, policies and procedures. If they are small, they may lack a clear vision of their mission, they may be happy with maintaining the status quo, or they simply do not feel strong enough to do anything meaningful at all.
Seventh, you succeed and fail.
In some ministry settings you may be able to leave a lasting legacy or make a big impact. Some you may have sustained for a few years and then moved on. Others again you may have profoundly hurt.
It is okay and necessary to be excited about the initial call.
It is okay to explore faith practices that have sustained you in different periods of your formation.
It is okay to be constantly evolving.
Just make sure to keep an open mind for the next step of the wild ride that God is sending you on. It never looks like anything you could have ever imagined.