Advice #2: It's a calling, not a career.
Here is how vocational ministry works in my mind:
1. Every Christian is a minister. Period. End of story. A minister, by definition, is a servant or a slave. We are ministers to God and the church. I am no more or less of a minister than any other Christian in my church. When I was not receiving a paycheck from a church, I was still a minister.
2. Some ministers become leaders. In the Kingdom, leaders are those who serve other people the most. If you continually serve God and the church as a minister, you will eventually become a leader - a person of influence within a Kingdom community. Some leaders are given official leadership positions and some are not. (And some people who are not leaders are given leadership positions in our flawed systems.) But the truth is that if you are serving and influencing the people you serve, then you are a leader.
3. All ministers (and leaders) have special gifts given by the Holy Spirit for the building up of their local community of faith. Some of us were created to teach or organize or pastor or faithfully pray or whatever else. Ideally, ministers serve primarily in their areas of giftedness. (Though like in any family, we all do things we aren't great at if a need arises.) The idea is that within the church, it is normal for Christians (ministers) to serve within the areas of giftedness and passion.
4. Every Christian is called by God to a local church. I should say that I believe this to be true most of the time. There may be seasons in your life where God has you between churches, but the normal way things work is that Jesus builds his church by sending ministers to a local body. Sometimes he sends new converts to a body who bring special gifts needed for the church. Sometimes he sends Christians from other churches to build up another one that is struggling in some area. In the book of Acts, this was done purposefully and always under the apostolic mission and guidance of the Spirit. Every Christian is sent by a church to a church to serve the church.
5. In a church (or a system of churches) it may become obvious that certain ministers need more time to perform their "calling" or function within the body of a local church or within the larger community of churches. This may result in that minister leaving their career to accept a paid position within the church. Maybe a church grows to a point where a teacher is needed more than a few hours a week. Or maybe an administrative leader is needed to spend 40 hours/week to organize the rest of the volunteers in a local church. Or perhaps a church has someone who is called to start a new church or go to a new area of the world, but needs to devote as much of their life as possible to the task. When this happens, it is Biblical for the other ministers in the church to financially support one of their own so that the supported one may focus more time on their joint ministry. In many ways, this is how Jesus, Peter and Paul survived for seasons of their lives. They were supported by others within their community in order to give full attention to the spread of the gospel.
6. When a minister accepts this gift from his or her church, he or she accepts a wonderful gift, but also a weighty responsibility. The minister truly works "for" the church in the sense that the church financially sacrifices because they are a better witness to the world when that particular minister is free to serve more hours per week. In accepting the support, the minister (in my opinion) should not see this new "job" as a career, but rather as a calling to fulfill. (Literally, this minister has been "called out" from and by her own church for a specific task.) Jesus was a carpenter. Peter was a fisherman. Paul was a tentmaker and a lawyer. They already had their careers. They sacrificed their careers to accept their calling. Success is measured differently for a calling than for a career. A minister should be willing to sacrifice their career before accepting a full-time calling.
7. A specific calling is rarely for a lifetime. A financially supported minister should always be willing to lay down their position (and paycheck) if God ends their particular calling. Ministry isn't a career. God didn't create the church to pay your bills. If you are currently supported by a church or para-church or denomination, then you should feel no guilt receiving your salary. God has you there for a reason...but he also tends to like moving parts. He is the great strategist moving his chess pieces around the board as he sees fit. He may have someone else who, for the sake of the Kingdom, needs to receive the dollars you are receiving now. Or he may have something else for you to do in the years to come outside of vocational ministry. Remember, you will always be a minister. If you serve, you will always be a leader. Getting the paycheck only means that the church sending/supporting you sees unlimited access to your specific gifts, talents and temperament as crucial to their particular mission.
I am unique among many of my friends in that I have lived within all of the options within vocational ministry. I've been in full-time vocational ministry, part-time bi-vocational ministry and "volunteer" ministry while working within my career. I have lived within each of the realities for at least three years over the last 15 years. Each has its own joys and struggles, but I thank God that he has allowed me to experience them all. If you are a younger leader hoping to work full-time for a church or mission organization, I would encourage you to also immediately devote yourself to a career other than ministry. You may never need to use it, but you probably will want to at some point. Having a career makes you normal. Not having one makes you a professional religious person...a real career is a missional necessity except for the rarest of disciples.
Of course, I didn't really believe any of this when I was younger. When I graduated from Cincinnati Bible College I intended to be a pastor and church planter for my entire life. And when I said that, I meant that it would be a career. I felt like a failure when I took my first job outside of the church. I felt like I should have been able to make "ministry" work. I felt like I had less faith because I had to take a job outside of the church to support my family. This is all a symbol of how broken my understanding of ministry was. Looking back on it, my three years working in Las Vegas as a performer were some of the best ministry years of my life...at least in terms of relational impact with many people who did not self-identify as Christians. From there I moved to southern California and worked ten hours/week for a great church in Costa Mesa. It was hard to manage at times with my new focus on my career. But overall, it was beautiful to have a foot in both of my worlds. Now I am a full-time minister again. I understand why the position God has called me to at The Vineyard demands full-time attention. The great irony is that my current job was my dream job when I viewed church work as my career in my twenties. Now that I see it as a calling, it is just humbling. I accept that God has given me influence here. I don't know why he has chosen to have me here at this time, but it is my calling. And a calling is a bigger deal than a career. Always.
Here are some parting thoughts on this topic:
1. If you are currently in or pursuing church work as a career, please schedule a time this summer to seriously consider your motives. Be fearless. Go on a three day solitude retreat and ask God how he views your ministry. Deal with your pride issues that make you want to be known as somebody within the church. Deal with your fear issues that make you feel like you can't do anything else for a living. I have met many of the "famous" pastors and church leaders out there and they come in two categories for the most part - the "successful" ones who seem desperately egomaniacal. And the truly humble ones who have never forgotten that they are, first and foremost, a minister - a servant leader. You want to be the latter...trust me.
2. If you are a "volunteer" minister, you are a 100%-as-real-as-it-gets Christian minister. You don't need a paycheck or a title or a position on an org chart. Serve with all your heart and support those paid ministers in your church who serve along side you.
3. If you aren't sure what church you are called to serve, throw yourself fully into the one where you are now. Callings are a tricky thing to discern sometimes. My last one was obvious, but others have been more trial and error. Callings are a reality more than a feeling - like being married or being a parent. I am always both whether I wake up feeling like a husband and father or not. I am called to teach, pastor and tell creative stories with The Vineyard in Cincinnati right now. That's my daily reality regardless of what I do or do not feel like today. It is also true regardless of how much I agree or disagree with the rest of the leadership on any particular topic. I genuinely like VCC, but even if I didn't, that wouldn't matter either. Sometimes we are called to a church we don't like very much. How else is God to change a church (or change you) if he never puts us in places where we feel a little uncomfortable?
I'd like to devote my next post in this series to the idea of "dreaming big." I do it. I love having big dreams. But I also have learned that God doesn't always give us our big dreams. Sometimes he prefers to give us something different than our dreams. Stay tuned...