My life doesn’t look like I thought it would at this point. I’m learning to be thankful for that.
This month marks five years of student ministry in the same church, following, after a brief gap, a period of two and a half years in the same role at another church. All this after I’d decided I didn’t want to work with students. I love both churches, each one full of friends who have become like family. I am who I am because of my time in these contexts. Initially, however, student ministry wasn’t attractive to me. I was interested in other avenues of ministry. So when I realized God was calling me into student ministry, I entered obediently, but I entered with a misconception I didn’t notice for years.
I never thought I’d stay in student ministry for very long. I served where God placed me, but I always kept one eye on the future, not expecting the season to last more than a few years. Then three years turned to four, and then to five. I watched friends graduate and move away to serve in full time roles, and I watched others move from one church to another. Yet I remained in the same position, unmoved and uncertain of my future. And as I considered my current placement, I began to ask myself if I’d serve any differently were God to keep me in the role for another five or ten or twenty years. I began to question how I was serving and what I was looking to for fulfillment. Did my work reflect commitment or reservation? Was I following the Lord, or was I operating based on my ideas of how life should look? Was I engaging the present, or was I too distracted by the future? Was I content with the responsibilities of the day, or was I longing for something more? Was I satisfied in Christ, or was I waiting for some unseen, future goal to fulfill my purpose? I didn’t like the answers I had to give.
I’d begun to see student ministry as a temporary position on my journey to the next thing. This is partly the nature of ministry for seminary students. Students serve the local church while they pursue a degree, yet they rarely remain in the city for long. Temporary tenures are common. And while “temporary” doesn’t equal “insignificant,” I’d caught myself acting as if the two words were synonymous. I’d served halfheartedly at times, justifying laziness because I was still “in training.” An overemphasis on the future drained my commitment to the present. And I doubt I’m the only seminary student to struggle with commitment to a temporary position.
Because seminary is a season, you can mistakenly view ministry opportunities during those years as simply steps toward the “real” ministry you’ll one day fully embrace. You can see your service not as an opportunity to serve others in the name of the Lord but as simply a task to complete, a job that needs to get done as you await the calling you really want. But partial commitments to ministry are much like partial commitments to relationships or to jobs: they may seem easier in theory, but they really aren’t viable. Jesus called us to love as he loved (John 11:34-35), and we can’t do that halfheartedly. And while I’ve long understood, at least in theory, that Christians must bloom where we’re planted, to engage in the work God is doing in the present, it took time for the lesson to work its way into my heart.
By keeping me in one place for five years, God changed how I thought about ministry. He began to break me of my halfhearted habits, pushing me past the point of merely waiting for the next thing and teaching me to wait well, to be obedient in the moment as I await something ahead. He began to teach me to truly invest in the present opportunities, even when they don’t meet the expectations I once had. And I’m learning that this lesson applies to more than just ministry positions.
Maybe you don’t have the job you want, and you’re struggling to see your current position as worthy of the same effort you’d give to your dream position. Maybe you’re looking forward to marriage, and you’re using the absence of a spouse to justify some bad habits you know you need to break. Maybe you’re not currently serving a church in a formal position, and you’re letting the lack of a title serve as your excuse to avoid meeting the needs in your immediate area. In any instance where our expectations of the future negatively affect our present service, I think we need to hear afresh the call of Jesus.
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
The cross may require us to deny our schedules or our intentions or our hopes, to surrender them to a loving Lord, and to follow Jesus wherever he leads. It may mean recognizing just how heavily we’ve been leaning on our own understanding so we might repent and truly trust in the LORD with our whole hearts (Proverbs 3:5). It may mean admitting that feeling “stuck” in one place is not necessarily a bad thing. Obedience to the Lord is not always comfortable, nor should it be. Crosses are meant not to coddle but to kill. Yet what the cross puts to death are our sinful habits, our desires for unsatisfying ends, and our delusions of grandeur and of self-sufficiency. The Holy Spirit purges us of what is unlike Jesus, making us both more satisfied in the Lord and more effective in his work. Furthermore, in our denial of self, this daily crucifixion and surrender, we find fullness of joy and peace that surpasses anything else this world can provide. Ours is the joyful task of the slave who loves the master, working as unto the Lord in all things (Colossians 3:17, 23; 1 Corinthians 10:31).
So now, with all this in mind, one question remains: what does obedience look like today?
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Huge thanks to Maci for editing this post.