This past spring my wife and I traveled to five states and visited nearly 50 Talbot alumni. Our journeys found us in the San Joaquin valley of California, the Flagstaff-Casa Grande corridor of Arizona, parts of Illinois and Indiana, and the Colorado Interstate 25 from Ft. Collins to Colorado Springs. And while our grads were doing all kinds of ministry in a multitude of settings, some basics about life and ministry came through loud and clear. Here are some of the most prevalent:
1. The ministry of Christ takes many forms and expressions. Simply put, there is no one standard profile of Christian ministry. Among the alumni we saw, each enjoyed their own unique job description. There were grads working for the local community, sharing Christ through their public service. Another headed a software company while enthusiastically participating in a new church plant. Still others enjoyed combined ministry in a local church and educational institution. Our graduates are serving in so many varied and interesting vocations, all using those skills and knowledge gained while gracing the hallways of Talbot.
2. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun. Solomon was right then (Eccles. 1:9) and he’s right now. No matter the geography, denomination (or not), or history of the many ministries we heard about, the challenges, opportunities, and blessings of these settings are reflected in the New Testament record of the early church. We heard of petty bickering, governmental hassles, conflict among leaders, alongside of amazing growth, exciting opportunities, community appreciation, and heartfelt love among the brethren. It’s nice to know some things don’t change.
3. People are people. We heard many stories regarding the challenges of those our alumni serve. Occupations, economics, family dynamics, and local realities differ greatly among people, but underneath it all, folks need to be appreciated, listened to, cared for, and shepherded with Christ’s love. And our alumni find their people to be consistently willing and able to live up to the expectations they have of them. They all affirm that ministry is about people and relationships. And we can testify that our graduates who are thriving and enjoying their life of ministry, regardless of how easy or hard it may be, exhibit a genuine love for their people. They would all say, “If you don’t love people, do something else with your life.”
4. Ministry couples must be on board together. Our married graduates have all kinds of working arrangements in terms of ministry. Many pastors’ wives work a job outside the home and church. There are some who have switched roles, with the wife serving in the church while the husband is Mr. Mom or working in a career not directly linked to pastoral ministry. Whatever their reality, every one of these couples will tell you that being on board together concerning the call to serve Christ is an absolute necessity. Ministry of any type is hard, and especially challenging to families. Couples who are thriving today have in common a commitment to follow Jesus and serve him, no matter what.
5. The ‘Wal-Mart effect’ is alive and well. Investopedia defines this as: The economic impact felt by local businesses when a large firm such as Wal-Mart opens a location in the area. In every major metropolitan area we visited, small congregations felt the presence of the area mega-church(es). Our alumni had mixed feelings about the ‘success’ of these congregations, being grateful for seeing people come to faith, but discouraged because many believers were leaving their churches to get the benefits offered by the ‘big boxes’. During one trip, I was sitting poolside chatting with a perfect stranger when he mentioned the huge church up the street, saying, “That guy has an amazing operation going over there. They’ve got everything!” It can be tough ministering in such a marketplace.
6. Cultural adjustment is a huge challenge and opportunity. It’s really fun traveling the country and seeing the cultural nuances of different regions. From ranchers raising buffalo in Colorado to business executives commuting between Indiana and Illinois, our graduates report the life-infusing discipline and delight of getting to know their people. Alumni serving in the same city or region report subtle differences between their settings, and add that learning about and adjusting to these peculiarities makes ministry fun, a bit crazy, and ultimately more effective.
7. Societal changes continue to impact ministry. There is not enough room here to even begin a thorough discussion of this topic, but many of our alumni report that social media’s effect on their ministries is profound. While the amazing connectivity of today’s technology can be a boon for ministry, it is also a cruel taskmaster. Seeing someone’s struggle on Facebook can induce guilt (I should do something about that, now that I know). Gossip hits warp-speed and effects relationships instantly. The tendency to glamorize one’s life online leads to false perceptions and even personal offense. And the changing moral landscape around us continues to vex and challenge Christian leaders as they guide people in truth and holiness.
8. Longevity can be a source of great blessing. While we did visit many recent graduates, a goodly number of our contacts were long-time alumni. Some even had grandchildren! These long-termers reported both the challenges and blessings of staying. They shared the joy of seeing people develop from birth to maturity in Christ. Deep friendships with people in their ministries were commonly mentioned. Love for community came out in several conversations, and was manifested in good relationships with city officials, appreciation among the populace, and open doors for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.
You could add your own observations to this list in the comment section below. Thanks for your input!