A Pastor’s Perspective on Ministry
The Rev. Ralph McCune
It is a pleasure to welcome Ralph McCune to this web site to contribute these reflections on pastoral ministry. Ralph has had a long and rich ministry already, including serving for nine and a half years on the staff of Young Life in Austin and Dallas, Texas, and for twenty-one years as the rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, in Garland, Texas. It was his pastoral care and influence that helped me so much in the direction that my ministry was to take.
He grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, did his university work at Baylor in Waco, Texas, and his seminary training at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, as well as at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, with a year at New College in Edinburgh, Scotland. He also took studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, and the Anglican School of Theology in Dallas. He was ordained in the Episcopal diocese of Dallas, and has made his ministry home there.
Ralph is married; his wife Jan is a first grade school teacher. His son Joel is now also a school teacher, and his daughter Christi is a senior at Texas A & M, preparing to be certified in education as well. Ralph has some other passions which you may hear about from time to time—bass fishing, photography (watch for his web site to get up and running--sereneimages.net), golf, and model airplanes.
The experiences that Father Ralph has had in his ministry and his life have provided him with a good platform from which he can share some very practical and solidly biblical insights into pastoral ministry and the Christian life in general. This is the first part of his essay on encouragement; watch for part two and other essays in the future.
“Encouragement for Those Who Give It”
Very few Christian laypersons consider the enormous stress which comes quite naturally to those who serve in full-time Christian ministry. And sadly enough, it is just possible that many of these Christian leaders might have their heads in the sand regarding this matter of stress in the ministry as well.
The Apostle Paul mentioned his own experience in this regard in 2 Corinthians 11:27-28, writing, “I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches” (NASB). If it were not enough that this great Christian leader had to contend with the stress of the externals, there was the on-going stress of the ministry itself.
Stress, pressure—whatever we wish to call this burdensome thing—has been around a long time. And those who serve in the vineyard of God’s service must realize that having this pressure is neither abnormal nor sinful. But they must also learn how to deal with it. Why? Because stress does not just go away. And the things it leads to will have a negative effect on their ministries.
Having served in that vineyard for over thirty-six years I am well aware of the pressures that fall on those who minister as full-time servants of Christ. And I also have the greatest appreciation, with incalculable thanks to God, for those who from all walks of life were there to give me a word of encouragement when I needed it.
Hopefully this series, “Encouragement for Those Who Give It,” will be of help to any Christian leader who just might be hungry for a word of encouragement.
Acknowledging the Need for Encouragement
Everyone at some point in life needs encouragement. Living in a world where loneliness, tragedy, failure, and so many other depressing ordeals invade and challenge our lives, it should be no surprise that all of us from time to time need that which comforts our hearts and lifts our spirits. No one is immune to discouragement. And it is just as real to Christian leaders as it is to those with secular vocations who may or may not have a relationship with the Lord.
Why does it seem important to mention this—this idea that Christian leaders need encouragement like everybody else? At least two answers should be considered. First, there is that tragic myth which says that pastors, other ministers in the church, and leaders in para-church organizations are somehow insulated from the adversities of life; or that these people are so spiritually strong that even when crises do interrupt their lives they have the ability to handle them, perhaps in such a way that would give the impression that they were never there. But not only that, the myth further fosters the notion that Christian leaders do not experience problems like “normal” people because God always takes care of His leaders.
As blatantly ridiculous as this may sound, it nonetheless presents itself all too often in the life of the Church, not in terms of concrete, clear-cut assertions, but rather as a subtle, deadly and misinformed attitude. For instance, a pastor has just been informed that one of his best friends has been killed in a car accident. This person was also one of the strongest leaders in the Church. The pastor must now minister to the family and plan for the funeral. But all too often very few people minister to him in this profound moment of personal loss. Everyone simply assumes that he is “head and shoulders” above such situations. After all, he is the pastor, isn’t he? Some of these folks might even say, “This is what ministers are supposed to do.” But he is a person too; and although he might be made to feel like a tool, or a machine, he is a real, live human being with feelings and emotions. And somehow he must deal with his own grief. Perhaps someone will give him a word of comfort.
Of course the one in full-time Christian vocational service is aware that this dreadful mentality only adds to his or her stress. This assertion no doubt contains an element of truth because people who subscribe to such nonsense place enormous pressure on those leaders to live in a place which we might call “the bondage of performance.” This mind-set means that Christian leaders are not seen as real much of the time, not “regular” people. Unfortunately, they are not viewed as persons who must deal with real-life problems and challenges like everyone else. These leaders in Christian ministry are seen as though they lived in houses with stained-glass windows. This fallacious mind-set goes on to imply that because they are “religious people” their lives have not been contaminated by worldly, mundane issues.
Needless to say, this erroneous way of thinking only adds additional pressure to those who serve in full-time ministry.
Second, it is necessary to mention this matter of the Christian leader’s needing encouragement like everyone else because the leader must not live in a state of denial. When any minister conveys a message that everything is always “wonderful in Jesus,” that leader projects a distorted, mistaken view of the Christian life. Such ministers will then come across as plastic, phoney people. They also jeopardize their integrity, without which they have no ministry.
Leaders who adopt this phoniness should evaluate not only their spiritual maturity, but their understanding of the Scriptures as well. Perhaps it would be wise for them to investigate what it means to be free in Christ. In John 8:36 Jesus spoke of being “free indeed.” What a wonderful expression! And what a wonderful privilege it is to explore the possibilities of what this “free indeed” business is all about, especially to see how it applies to life in the temporal realm as well as the eternal.
Freedom in Christ not only refers to our having been redeemed from the bondage of sin; it also means that we are free to let down our guards, remove the masks we all hide behind, and acknowledge, as just one example, that sometimes we need a word of encouragement.
One other thing must be mentioned in this context. It has been my experience over the years that when I mention my fragile humanity that that not only opens a door of ministry to me, but also a door of ministry to others as well. I had little understanding of this truth in the early years of my ministry. Fresh out of seminary I felt it necessary to project a “victorious Christian life” image. Somehow I had been led to believe that I should always have that “smile, don’t you know that Jesus loves you?” look on my face. I was not only in a state of denial regarding the hardcore challenges of life, I was also a frustrated actor attempting to be someone that in Christ I did not have to be. Somehow I had been “programmed” to believe that any acknowledgment of discouragement would be a demonstration of unbelief. It would be a breach of faith.
But God always brings the right people into our lives at just the right time—and He has certainly brought a host of them into mine. Many of these dear people helped me enormously in this matter of projecting a false picture of myself. I learned that I could share my discouragement, even my insecurities, with those who wanted to demonstrate their love for me. And I could receive their encouragement as well.
Being vulnerable about our pain, our failures, or our disappointments, is not necessarily a weakness. Handled with wisdom which can only come from God, the proper exercise of vulnerability can be an enormous strength, and a great tool for ministry.