I recently did an interview for a girl who is considering going into ministry. One of the questions she asked me was what do you wish you’d known about working for a church? And the answer that came to mind was: I’d wish I’d known that coming on staff has a way of making some peoples’ grace dissolve.
I think back to the girl I was when I first started in full time ministry. Mid-20’s. Eager and arrogant. Absolutely oblivious to the ways that her personality, mistakes, weaknesses and sins were going to hurt people. Oblivious to the punches she was going to take because of her personality, mistakes, weaknesses and sins.
See, something changes the minute your face goes up on that website: expectations.
My commitment level didn’t change. My service didn’t change. My maturity didn’t change. I didn’t suddenly become a super Christian.
Forgetting names (something that I HATE about myself) shifted from being an interesting and amusing quirk to bearing the devastating implication that someone was uncared for by their church. Failing to notice someone in the foyer shifted overnight from being assumed an accident to being assigned intentionality and rejection.
Suddenly, instead of being to asked how I was doing, I was expected to have it all together- ready and waiting to pour out.
‘That girl didn’t seem very talkative’ became ‘that church doesn’t value people.” The same quirks and weaknesses that previously led people to draw conclusions about me, now had the power to make someone draw conclusions about our church, or even the ‘C’ church.
I wish I had known in those early days how to ask for grace; how to articulate these three things:
1. Not everything someone does communicates a deep heart issue or is about you.
It’s not hard to come up with a list of women I deeply love who have felt hurt by me or the church – not because of anything intentional or malicious. But because I missed a phone call. Because I cancelled a coffee. And those kind of mistakes were taken to mean that either I was unfaithful or I was passive aggressively trying to communicate rejection.
When really, they were mostly about stomach aches and migraines or calendar issues and internet problems or people dying and emergency funerals.
I work hard now to not miss appointments because I understand in my line of work – whether I like it or not – those kind of details can communicate things I don’t mean to communicate. But I would also tell you this: pinning the weight of your church’s value and acceptance of you on their timely response to an email is utterly unfair and destined to destroy them or you.
2. People might actually love you and just not show it the way you do.
When my Father died I learned a valuable lesson: you cannot judge people’s love for you by how effective they are at ministering to you in the way you want. Some people brought meals. Some people hugged. Some people didn’t. And everyone did what they did because they genuinely loved me.
I have a friend who stays away when people are hurting. Not because she’s uncomfortable or unloving, but because it’s what she would want so it’s how she shows love. I have another friend who hovers. Not because she has no regard for what I want or is trying to fix me, but because it’s what she would want so it’s how she shows love.
3. Give grace, because everyone is fighting their own battle
(That’s my version of the famous quote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”)
I’ve hurt a lot of people in these past years in ministry. I’ve hurt them through sinful arrogance and foolish mistakes. And that’s because, coming on staff didn’t end my battle against sin. I am fighting my own demons, my own flesh, and some days I have victory and some days I don’t. But in repentance and rest is my salvation and I am covered by the blood of Jesus and I am truly sorry.
I’ve also hurt people by failing to always reach out even when they’re having a hard time. I’ve hurt them by failing to always be a proactive and considerate friend.
But, if you want to know why I forgot to say ‘Hi’ or why I jetted out so fast after class; if you want to know why I did lunch with you and said – I want to do this again soon, and then didn’t follow up for six months – here’s the truth: because of life. Because of nervous breakdowns. Because of deep depression. Because of phone calls about mothers with brain aneurisms and autoimmune diseases. Because of dads with cancer and friends getting shot.
Because life doesn’t stop when you come into full time ministry. Struggles don’t evaporate; disease doesn’t heal any faster and death doesn’t taste any less bitter.
So give grace today. Think of that church leader you are frustrated with, think of that church you are bitter against, and take a second to remember that on the other end of that thought is a real person, a real image bearer, with real pain and real fear and real life pressing in on every side.