Ministry more of a calling than a career

By Curtis Shelburne: Religion columnist

Twenty-five years. Easter Sunday was for my wife and me our 25th anniversary.

“Interesting,” someone might say, “since three of your four sons are older than 25. Glad you got around to tying the knot.”

Now did I say it was a wedding anniversary? No, I did not.

But, though I couldn’t have known it fully at the time, Easter Sunday 1985, my first Sunday in the pulpit of the church I still serve, bore witness to a covenant much more akin to a marriage than to a business contract or a casual employment arrangement between preacher and church, each looking for a good deal.

I remember that some of my pastoral colleagues in the city from which I moved were worried about me. They didn’t like the look of the marriage. I was headed to a smaller town and a small church. These were guys in “connectional systems” who, if they did a good job, could pretty much count on some “upward mobility.” I tried in vain to explain that “First” churches in our little group were rare to non-existent. Any preacher in my anti-denomination denomination wanting to climb a career “ladder” would be wise to jump the fence and seek ladders elsewhere. Our “group” of churches had plenty of problems of its own, but an over-abundance of “ladders” was not one of them.

Maybe in a sense they were right. Twenty-five years in a small church “marriage” may indeed spell death to a career. And in that may lie great blessing as both the church and the pastor learn some precious truths and together grow in ways that matter.

Real ministry is more than marketing; the real thing centers on relationship. It starts, of course, with loving the Lord first of all and then building on that divine love in human relationship. Building anything worthwhile takes time.

Relationships can be messy, and the best and the worst in life in a local church centers on the fact that the church is as human as it is heavenly. On any given day or any given moment, it can and does veer wildly off in either direction. And pastors face choices. To be law people or grace people. To be organization people or relationship people. To be bean counters or to be shepherds. And they find out (and this is true in other professions, too, by the way) if their lives are about “calling” or about “career.”

Pastor and author Eugene Peterson warns that in our market-driven consumer society, the last thing the church needs is a pastor who does what spouses who never grow up do: change partners whenever their present spouse becomes ungratifying. “The vocation of pastor has to do with living out the implications of the word of God in community, not sailing off into the exotic seas of religion in search of fame or fortune.”

If through laughter and tears we’re embracing calling, he’s right, and I still love my long-suffering “spouse.” If it’s just a career, boy, do I need a ladder!

Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at