I have come to understand that many people are in the dark regarding what goes on inside of church buildings and on church campuses from Monday through Saturday. After all, doesn’t everyone just show up on Sunday morning and God miraculously pulls all the details together by sending out armies of logistics angels, sermon fairies, and well-rehearsed worship teams like manna from the sky? (Don’t we wish!)
I have had people ask point blank, “What do you DO all week anyway?” I have witnessed colleagues receive phone calls from friends or family during the workday, expecting them to be able to engage in prolonged discussions, perhaps not understanding that actual work is getting accomplished. Other people seem to imply that somehow our ministry careers (referred to as a calling or vocation in some circles) are simply not real by asking questions like “Why can’t you just not be there that Sunday?” Or, “What’s the big deal if you miss?” (Unless you are self-employed or work in a vacuum, can you just miss a day of work without coordinating in advance?)
I usually toggle between laughing and shaking my head at these questions. In an attempt to clear up some confusion, laugh a little, and stand in solidarity my fellow clergy and ministry friends, here is an imperfect attempt to clear up 5 misconceptions about life in ministry.
- Church work is real work. Like all organizations, a church is developed and resourced around a common purpose; it ideally has a stated vision, mission, strategy and objectives to pursue. There are weekly objectives, seasonal objectives and longterm visions that are always being worked. In order to achieve these objectives, plans are made and carried out. Constantly. The worship services that you attend on Sunday morning or other ministry activities that you take part in throughout the week may be what is most visible, but please keep in mind none of what you see comes to be on its own. A church has resources to manage, such as facilities, people, time and money. We have schedules to keep and employees each have specific purposes that line up with their education and experience, much like…you’ve guess it…all other organizations! We have org charts and performance management reviews and expectations and the whole sha-bang. Oh, and it would be worth mentioning that our clients, otherwise known as congregants or church family, expect our services during off hours: nights, weekends and holidays. (Thanks to Debra Merrill, our executive director, for the client metaphor!)
- Ministry is HARD. I would like to first point out that it is the most difficult work I have ever done in my life. It trumps childbirth and running miles uphill at 10,000 elevation. Actually, it feels exactly like running miles uphill, each day, at 10,000 elevation…while carrying a few crying babies. Ministry is dynamic and fast-paced; cutting edge and ancient all at once. Ministry involves the whole person and as such, is super-duper hard. It is physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. The organizational and physical component deal with the resources we talked about in the first point above; the practical, logical stuff of all organizations. But then, THEN, there is the people component, which includes all of the mental, emotional and spiritual realm. In this arena, resources get expended almost as quickly you can fill them up. When in ministry, many people allow you into the most intimate, personal, joyful and messy areas of their lives. It is a true blessing and honor! It also explains the number one reason ministry can be so draining: we care so much about the people involved with our church community, and we want to live out our call to make and grow disciples. Therefore, if not careful, we can deplete ourselves in the process.
- Everyone is (not) always happy. While recently attending a conference where some serious issues facing the church were being discussed, a caring family member (otherwise known as my husband) said, “Why do you look so stressed? You work at a church. This should be happy.” Let me just direct you to points 1 and 2. And I’ll also add: where two or three are gathered, there will be disagreement. Now, we will probably seek to resolve our disagreements in a more civil and respectful manner than other organizations, but still, let’s be real here: we are not always happy or dancing through fields of clovers and daisies. In fact, I have no idea what that statement even means, but it reminds me of scene from Heaven is for Real. Haha.
- Burnout is real. This sad and eye-opening reality is nearly polar opposite of some people’s opinion that ministry is easy and/or not real work. In fact, a recent clergy health initiative study at Duke Divinity school has found that “members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans.” Many respondents admitted they would change their jobs if they could. This same study went on to point out that 33% of clergy felt burned out within their first 5 years; 75% report severe stress causing anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear and alienation; and 80% reported having insufficient time with their spouse.
- Ministry can be isolating and lonely. Now, I know this statement seems counterintuitive. Most clergy and people in ministry are seemingly extroverted; they love being around people, love being engaged in the lives of others, and are almost always surrounded by people. The reality, however, is that when you are a spiritual leader or serving in ministry, you are often confused about who to turn to when you yourself need a friend or confidant. Who can you trust? Who should you trust, or open up to? These may be questions that run through your mind. Your circle of colleagues might be geographically spread out and your circle of friends takes on a different shape and feel. That same Duke Divinity study mentioned above uncovered this sober statistic: 70% of clergy say they have no close friends. Therefore, forming a covenant group, cohort or even a loosely arranged network of other clergy and ministry friends who you can laugh, cry and simply be yourself around is essential.
With all being said, I guess the confusion and questions are logical. Many of us grew up associating certain thoughts and stereotypes with what a church is and what the people working in them should look like, be like, act like. Add to that the fact that incorporating one’s faith tradition into the fabric of the family is becoming less and less likely and I guess it is logical to have some confusion as to what we ministry folk actually do.
Also, it’s interesting how those stereotypes can live on; sadly, even, prohibiting some from checking out what is inside those mysterious walls. Walls, that most likely, do not house the church or stereotypes of your childhood memories. BUT EVEN THEN, the questions and misconceptions can also come from those intimately familiar with both the people in ministry and the activities going on inside and around the church.
Just last night, I returned from a church meeting around 10pm. My husband looked at me and said happily, “You look nice!” before pausing, thinking, pausing again and then saying, “Why do you look nice? Why are you dressed like that? You work at a church…you should probably dress more frumpy.” 🙂
Sigh. The work continues…