By Patrick Mitchell
When I entered a conversation with a dear friend that morning at Milligan College’s exercise facility, I never would have thought that within a few months I would be pastor of a 125-year-old church in a town that boasts a population of approximately 1,000.
While still chugging along on the elliptical machine, Phyllis asked if I would consider helping fill the pulpit of a rural church in our area while it searched for a pastor.
You should know that at that point in my life (I was then 30 years old), I was done with church ministry. I loved the church deeply and would always serve her, but I wasn’t going to be on staff or pastor in the formal sense—not again. Like the refrain of many who’ve gone before, my experience at other churches had sullied my view of paid ministry. But I enjoyed preaching and wanted to help these tiny, obsolete congregations—which is how I was somewhat conditioned to view such churches.
I preached one Sunday at that church and was asked to preach again for Easter. After preaching Easter Sunday 2013, it was as if the church and I were courting. It would take another couple of dates to know if the relationship would work. Before accepting the pastorate at Bunker Hill Christian Church in Bluff City, Tennessee, I spoke with trusted advisers, the first being my wife. She said I had to talk to our counselor.
Jim’s counsel brought me back to my call, that moment at 16—and the next decade of affirmation—when I was called to pastoral ministry. The PhD road I had been pursuing was an escape for me. I think I knew that deep down, but Jim gave words to it and made it tangible for me.
The difficulty of ministry, I discovered, is that there is little to measure one’s success or effectiveness. How do I measure success when my primary call is to be present to people and to point them to God in the process? Papers have grades and red marks to give guidance. Tests have a number on the last page, circled in finality.
The great rub of ministry today is bound up with the obsession of needing to quantify everything. You’re a successful pastor if your church is growing at a certain percent each year or if you baptized an impressive number of people in a given weekend. Those are great things! But what if that’s not happening? Did I fail?
What if my people seem really messed up? What if the church I pastor has a bunch of dunked people and the area is at a population stalemate? How, then, do I become successful?
It took Eugene Peterson’s writings to shake me loose of this slavish, commodified view of congregants. Peterson confesses in his memoir that by “reducing them [people] to problems to be fixed, I omitted the biggest thing of all in their lives, God and their souls, and the biggest thing in my life, my vocation as pastor” (from The Pastor, p. 140).
I remember reading that and feeling a soul-deep chorus of amens. My vocation—my call—was never to fix people. It was never to make them happy. Nobody hired me to solve their problems, even if that’s what they thought they were hiring me for.
This messy, unkempt vocation into which so many are called and yet in which so few persevere is plagued by the notion that I, the pastor, can be successful, that I can be effective. But while problems have solutions, people have souls. Souls are not solved or fixed; they are formed. That takes a long time. And it takes more wisdom, patience, and skill than I can offer. It takes God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Not the Call, but the Caller
It is not my call that keeps me going, but the One who calls. Week in and week out, I traverse the unaccommodating terrain of bivocational ministry—missing dinner with family when necessary, waking earlier than my body prefers, and finding any spare moment (red lights included) to do adequate sermon study and preparation. Why? All because the same God who called Paul to be an apostle called me to be a pastor, set apart for the gospel of God, a role for which I will have to give an account.
I can’t tell you if I’m successful or if I’ve been effective. I can only say that because God has called and commissioned me, I hope to reach the end and say, “I was an unworthy servant; I have only done what was my duty.” And to hear in reply, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Patrick Mitchell serves as lead pastor with Bunker Hill Christian Church, Bluff City, Tennessee. Follow his blog at www.patricklmitchell.wordpress.com.