I unearthed an old file from my GBOD (General Board of Discipleship; now, Discipleship Ministries) days, and I discovered an article I wrote that was never published. It focused on interviews with pastors, district superintendents, bishops, authors, and other key movers-and-shakers in The United Methodist Church, and it raised a startling similarity in the various stories: none of the people interviewed ever imagined they would be doing the ministry in which they are/were currently engaged. No one was more surprised about their vocational location than they themselves. Time after time, some variation of “this must be God’s will, because it sure wasn’t mine!” emerged. Almost everyone expressed a strong call to ministry, but little or no aspiration to their current position. District superintendents never dreamed of becoming DSs. Bishops still aren’t sure how they ended up in the episcopacy. General Board and Agency staff had no early clue they would end up serving the national/global church. Among those called to ministry, most feel God uses them as God sees fit — almost as if they have little choice or control in the matter.
Conversely, many pastors who leave ministry report that ministry failed to live up to their expectations, or that a specific vocational pathway got thwarted or blocked. The sense of being prevented to do a ministry a particular way is very high among the responses of those disillusioned with pastoral ministry. “I’m better than this,” one young pastor lamented. “I have so many gifts and skills that I don’t get to use. Instead of being appreciated for what I bring, I am expected to perform all these tasks I have no interest in. I cannot believe this is God’s will for my life.” Contrast this attitude with “I cannot remember a time where I wasn’t in exactly the right place at the right time to do effective ministry. I honestly believe that wherever I am, I am there to serve God. I may not always choose it or agree with it, but if I’m there, it must be for a good reason.”
These two attitudes have a strong correlation with sense of satisfaction, fulfillment and effectiveness. Where a person feels they are in the right place at the right time for good reasons, the overall morale and satisfaction is high. Morale tends to be lowest when people feel they are in the wrong place. This leads to an externalization of control. Most unhappy pastoral leaders believe they would be happier somewhere else — even pastors that have been chronically unhappy in a series of appointments. It boils down to an essential difference of perspective: “grow where you are planted” to “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”
So, is this simply about predisposition and propensities? There is more to it than this. Correlations abound. Those happiest with wherever they find themselves show much stronger self-awareness and self-differentiation. Those surprised at where ministry takes them exhibit the strongest social awareness and relational excellence. They are solid communicators and bridge-builders. Lone ranger types, and those whose self-esteem is tied to recognition and reward tend to be the least satisfied, no matter where they find themselves. The more ambitious a pastor is, the less satisfied he/she tends to be. Those elevated to conference, denominational, board/agency level positions who lack the sense of “wherever I am is where I am supposed to be”, tend to be much less satisfied with the work they do.
Satisfaction has much less to do with position or attainment than with a general sense of doing God’s will. “I look back on my ministry, and at virtually every point I was in a place I didn’t choose for myself. I have had so many great opportunities,” a newly retired district superintendent reflected. “I can honestly say that I believe God guided me every step of the way.” In another conference, another newly retired DS shared, “I always thought I would make a great superintendent. The day the bishop called, I didn’t hesitate, I said ‘yes’ immediately. It was something I really wanted. I had no idea what I was getting into. I am so sorry that my last appointment was to the superintendency. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it!” Granted, these are two unique responses, not representative of a larger group, but they line up well with the two different perspectives.
The last piece of the research included the correlation between sense of clear call and satisfaction in ministry. Those pastors articulating the strongest, clearest sense of call correlate most closely to those satisfied in whatever place and time they find themselves. Those articulating ministry as a vocational choice or career correlate to the greatest dissatisfaction. Where individual’s claim that ministry is God’s idea, God’s choice for the individual, satisfaction is highest. Where people report that ministry results from human agency, satisfaction is much less.
Remarkably, a large number of effective and powerful leaders share the basic sense that their ministry has happened to them. Few aspire to greatness, then achieve it, and those who pursue it most seem to enjoy it least. There may be a moral in here somewhere. Many are called, few are chosen, and the very best journey is the one where God’s surprises just keep on coming.