How I'm Changing As a Minister
I'm still a work in progress and have come to believe that I will always be changing as a minister. As many have said, “ministry is a moving target.” I thought it might be helpful to someone to consider my path as a preacher. This path is probably not unique, but I offer it as an opportunity to learn from someone else's path. Critique it as necessary and forge a better one for yourself, or consider it when a preacher(s) you either love or tolerate does something that disappoints or irritates you. When I began, I was ambitious. I wanted to be the best speaker I could be. I didn't know how to grade that, so I thought compliments and invitations to speak elsewhere would be the measure. So I began seeking both. Compliments were rare, and outside speaking appointments were practically non-existent, so I became discouraged. Only later did I realize that if I am built up by people's praise, I will be crushed by their criticism. Even today, in my heart I feel like my early audiences were quite critical, but if I think about it objectively I realize that wasn't true. The simple truth is that if I received one criticism in the midst of 50 praises, like Haman I could see only the one who “would not bow.”
So I charted a course of not caring what anyone said. I determined to be faithful to God and not play to the audience anymore. This was a good idea but was poorly executed. In its extreme form, it meant I was not open to the guidance of spiritual people who sat in my audience. Suggestions were perceived as criticisms so I “faithfully” ignored them. This was a miserable time of ministry. During this time I earned the reputation of being arrogant, stubborn, and a trouble-maker. I completely understand why people thought that of me, but my motivation was to be faithful to God and to God alone. I puffed out my chest, squared my shoulders and my jaw, and bore up as best I could, but the truth is that I was dying inside. I may have looked like Elijah on Mount Carmel, but I felt like Elijah in the cave. It did not help that not every person who tried to help me tried to do it gently. I interpreted their venom as a sign that their views were to be rejected. Looking back I realize that some of what they had to say would have been useful to me, but I was afraid that if I listened, I'd be reverting to my early days of wanting to please the people. I thought the cost of faithfulness was steady criticism from my audience. Ministry became a misery for me. I'm sure I was not only a sufferer, but also a carrier.
In frustration and deep disappointment, I left paid ministry and went to law school. God began to sort many things out for me in that environment. I learned how to think about texts. I learned not to just run and hide when I met postmodern thought, but to instead embrace its possibilities for faith. I saw how conflicts can rage to preposterous results, but also how mediators can help broker solutions. Importantly in my journey, I began to serve small congregations who could not afford a full-time minister. Meaning only to be helpful to them, I began to hone my craft. God placed me in the perfect place. Before I had wanted to speak at lectureships. Now I was satisfied---and even fulfilled---to speak to 25 Christians on a Sunday morning and encourage them in the word. My desire to be known went away. My need to be praised withered. My fear of criticism waned. The audience was too small to be significant in a Christian Chronicle or Pepperdine Lectures sort of way.
Funny thing is that the audiences were not harshly critical. They were occasionally helpful with remarks of how things could be “even better” or simply engaged in parking lot follow-ups that demonstrated to me where the sermon had succeeded on the one hand and failed on the other. I learned that these sweet people struggled with life, and I was confident that God offered them respite. I marveled at how God worked in their lives generally, and through the word specifically. I even began to realize that I was one link in the brigade that was bringing the water of life to them, but that the source of this fountain is the Holy Spirit of God. I learned that I was significant as a minister, but not indispensable. God had been working in their lives long before I arrived, and would be long after I was gone.
I graduated from law school and entered private practice. I still preached on about half of the weekends and attended a local congregation during the other half. Strangely to me, I became more controversial as a member of the congregation than I had ever been as a preacher! People knew I was a lawyer and had a missions degree from Abilene Christian, so they would ask me my opinion about faith matters and I would share my views. I was asked to teach a Wednesday night class, which I was delighted to do. My text was Job, and my class size dwindled like Job's friends. Long story short, I was guided by God and prodded by his people to find another faith community. My family and I began attending the local Vineyard Fellowship. This launched a two-year period of great spiritual growth. I was a substitute speaker for them and taught in their adult education program. The pastor and I became friends for life. People knew me mostly as “the guy who sometimes fills in for Jon.” I was much better known as a prosecutor.
I can remember joyful Sundays when I sat in the seat with my wife and children and realized that things were going just fine without my public involvement. The ministry simply did not need me, and that thought brought me great relief. I felt free. I felt like whatever I offered at a later time would be “bonus ministry” but that God had chosen others to be front and center, and I rejoiced that this was true. The pressure of being a standard-bearer had been too much for me. It made my head strong and my stomach weak. God was freeing me for ministry by taking me out of ministry.
This is a blog, not a memoir, so let me skip ahead. (Omit lots of life stuff here, including wife's cancer, children growing up, career joys and disappointments, M.Div at Lipscomb, etc.)
I felt a call to return to ministry. Encouraged by a wonderful man of faith, David Hunter, I became the pulpit preacher at the Hurricane Church in Hurricane, WV. Through the week, I continued to prosecute. That was a wonderful six years that resulted in my believing it was time for me to return to full-time ministry. My first church in Kentucky shook me to the core. My tenure lasted only 17 months. Had I misunderstood the call? Had I learned nothing in my previous ministry experiences?
I returned to full-time criminal prosecution and preached part-time for a small church. I did that for about four years before moving to the church in Indianapolis where I am currently the “Senior Minister.” This church has been a wonderful blessing to me and my family. We are in a very trying stage of life right now. Many churches would view my struggles with sympathy but invite me to the door, all the while explaining that I am “too divided” to give much to the ministry. This church views ministry as a two-way street, believes that now is their turn to minister to us, and trusts that if they invest in us, God will give increase in us to the benefit of all.
I used to think ministry was apologia: perfectly crafted sermons and compelling arguments. Then I thought it was eulogia: good words that encourage. I'm not as keen anymore to define it in a word, but if I did, it would be incarnational. I think it's more about the relationship of Christians within a community of differing gifts. Each builds up the other, and is in turn encouraged by the other. This relationship shifts, with faltering knees becoming sturdy legs that can help later. Eventually, sturdy legs stumble and need to receive encouragement. When it works well, everyone struggling with life and faith helps each other to the finish line. The weak are not without strength, and the strong are not without weakness. I'm glad I've found a place that is such a blessing to me and to my family, and that allows me to continue to minister, even though I'm not up to it. After all, who is sufficient to this task? Certainly not me. What a freeing realization that has been!
Grace & Shalom, Steve Kenney