Ready for some real talk about what my early years of ministry were like?
Fruitful, but hard. Joyful, but challenging. Filled with more conflict than I expected.
I wasn’t prepared emotionally or spiritually to deal with the conflict that I faced in ministry. Being in ministry felt like a giant group project that honestly wouldn’t go away. For some reason I had the expectation that working with a group of people to help our campus know Jesus would be all fun, all excitement, and all fruitfulness… all the time. I assumed that people would love working with me and that I would love working with them.
I wanted to accomplish ‘big things’ for God but was faced with having to work alongside people that naturally I didn’t agree with or even understand at times. It felt defeating and I felt helpless.
It was humbling to address that conflict. It can feel easy to forgive someone for the first offense – but what about the tenth time? Approaching the same people to seek peace, reconciliation, and unity challenged me to my core. So many times I wanted to give up and walk away from the relationships that seemed to hurt over and over. Embracing forgiveness was painful because it required perseverance in choosing to love and not hold a person’s actions against them. It required me to let go of my anger even when it felt unjust.
The conflict I experienced in ministry was really a microcosm of a larger lesson God was teaching me: I needed to learn what it meant to really love and serve others selflessly, especially when I didn’t seem to gain any benefit from it.
Ministry required a death of self that I was not prepared for.
It all started during Orientation Week (frosh week) of my first internship. Those early hot September days when those of us in Power to Change (P2C) were trying to meet first year students and build connections with them. We connected with a student named Janice* who filled out a survey and seemed interested in talking about Christianity.
I had just moved to that campus and city a few days before and was still orienting myself to a new place, a new ministry, and new students. I was excited to finally be starting the ministry God had called me to: helping students grow as disciples and discover Jesus. I felt ready to apply my experience as a student leader – showing I was worthy to be on campus as a minister of the gospel.
We met Janice near the Starbucks in the middle of campus and sat in a quiet courtyard to get to know her and talk about faith. Samantha* joined me – a student leader in our ministry who had gone on a missions trip with P2C that summer. As we asked Janice about her spiritual background, she shared how she grew up attending church but had never really decided for herself if she wanted to follow Jesus.
We were able to share the gospel with Janice using one of the resources we had with us. Yet, as we walked through the resource I was surprised that it wasn’t me doing most of the talking – it was my new student Samantha. We rejoiced together when Janice decided to pray and commit her life to following Jesus! Yet, a piece of my heart was disappointed that it wasn’t me that shared the full gospel with her.
I felt God starting to teach me that being in ministry and working with students really wasn’t about ‘me’ at all – my skills, experience, or talents. It wasn’t about me being the hero of the appointment, or event, or even the ministry. Instead, I was on campus to journey alongside with and work through the students involved with our ministry.I was there to help make heroes – not be the hero.
When I considered going into ministry as a student, applied to join staff with P2C, and started raising my financial support, I spent a lot of time considering who God had made me to be and what he wanted to do with my life. As a student, and particularly as a student leader very much involved in the ministry, it felt like a lot of attention was on me. Conferences were designed for me, mission trips developed and challenged me, events on campus were run by me, and I was discovering how God was wanting to use me.
That focus on myself didn’t prepare me well for what it really means to serve God. Being in ministry isn’t about climbing the ladder of achievement to deem myself ‘worthy’ of following Jesus, as I was tempted to believe. In the Bible Jesus speaks about surrender and servanthood a lot. I never really considered the implications of that until it was me in the position of serving and not being served. To be honest, it was a lot more comfortable being served.
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45, ESV)
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life with lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25, ESV)
“If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” (John 12:26, ESV)
“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28, ESV)
To follow Jesus’ example in serving God means to serve and love others often at the expense of yourself. It means to lay down your desires, wishes, and self glory. To let go of what you think you ‘deserve’. Jesus prayed the ultimate prayer of surrender when he declared to God, “Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will,” (Mark 14:36, ESV) before he died on the cross. Jesus knew that it was the Father’s plan for him to accept a punishment that he didn’t earn or deserve.
The pain of not only physical death, but also spiritual separation from God was unbearable – even he asked if there was another way. Yet he surrendered his desires and served God (and thus the whole world) through his obedience. As we obey God and serve him and others, we will experience moments where we need to ‘die’ to (or deny) our own desires and comforts. In doing so we are promised to find real eternal life, and receive true honor from God.
Ministry killed my natural focus on ‘me’, and I discovered the joy in serving God as a ‘we’.
In ministry and in God’s kingdom there’s a shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’. Practically in doing ministry with P2C, it looked like a shift in thinking about how I could grow, develop, and be elevated, to considering how God can use ‘us’ together. Instead of yearning for God to work through me, it was praying that God would powerfully work through our team in unity of the Holy Spirit.
In those painful reminders to let go of my selfish agenda, I was forced to reorient my expectations. To serve students often looks like loving them in forgiveness and working hard to fight for unity and resolution (as much as is possible on your end). It looks like giving them chances to take steps of faith, to fail or succeed in new things by stepping back and not always doing ministry for them. Serving students looks like prioritizing team goals and unity over what may help me ‘advance’ or grow the best.
In God’s Kingdom, a win for the team is a win for everyone.
*Name has been changed