On my first trip to Ghana, I experienced a wide range of emotions and experiences. One of the many unusual experiences was being the “elder.” I’m in my fifties, in the US today this still counts as middle-aged. (Or at least I keep telling myself that.) Statistically I have about 30 years of life left. In Ghana the life expectancy is much shorter; you just don’t see a lot of older people. The youth of Ghana, out of respect, wouldn’t let me do anything physical. Every time I tried to help set up chairs, move a bag, or even carry my plate to be washed, some teen would jump in and grab whatever I was carrying. It was like they were expecting me to keel over from a heart attack, or at least fall and break a hip at any moment.
For centuries, the span of working years for a person’s life was 20, 25, maybe 30 years. People just didn’t last that long. There was a natural rhythm to life with predictable shared seasons that everyone went through. Growing into an adult, working till your late 50s or early 60s, and then either coasting a little or just dying off. There are always exceptions to this cycle, but as we all live longer, the question that isn’t discussed enough is: what does one do with this new found season at the end of our lives? There are a lot of lost people wandering around out there.
This rambling blog is a letter to a very specific crowd, but even if you aren’t part of this crowd, I can guarantee you know someone who is. In the last few years, I seem to be bumping up against a large group of men in their fifties, who’ve been involved in ministry most of their lives, who are lost in ministry purgatory. They are stuck in a weird no man’s land. Much too young to be considered an elder statesman, but too old to pull off skinny jeans, worship leader cool. Think of it as being a middle-aged junior higher, caught between two worlds and awkwardly stumbling along waiting for something to happen. Many middle-aged ministers are not even aware that they are stuck.
Whenever I comment that we all know somebody still in the pulpit who should have stepped down ten years ago, the reaction is always a knowing smirk. One, two, or three pastors always come to mind. It can be incredibly challenging to maintain enthusiasm and passion after fifteen or twenty years. At some point, for most men, the shift is subtle, slow, and dangerous. If we’re not careful, ministry can slide from a passion and the call from God, into just a job where we’re going through the motions. We suffer, the people in our ministry suffer, and no one is happy in the situation.
In the last year, I’ve had three different pastors, all in their fifties, come to spend time at our ministry for short sabbaticals. I’ve talked to many more. The patterns are all the same. A lot of life left but not sure where they are going and what they are going to be doing. They might be comfortable in their ministries, but are we meant to be just “comfortable?” Some know they are going through the motions, their church knows that they are just going through the motions, but nobody is brave enough to change. Ministry purgatory. Coasting along, waiting for something, anything, to happen.
If you’re a little uncomfortable reading this, if this rambling blog is describing you, please know you are not alone. Please find someone you trust that you can talk to, and who will be honest with you. Along with seeking counsel, I don’t have any magic answer, but I do have one word of advice: flip the table.
If what you’ve been doing isn’t working anymore, stop doing it. This can be a hard concept for some people to get. We won’t experience change doing the same things, in the same way, in the same place. If we don’t like the way the table is set, we can move a few things around, but it really won’t change anything meaningful. Sometimes we need to flip the table over, let things fly, and start over.
I know many men who have left full-time ministry, who have found real peace, and a more significant ministry, in other professions. One good friend says he’s better now that he is no longer a “professional Christian,” he prefers the amateur status. I know insurance salesmen, electricians, etc. who used to be pastors but are now in another season, ministering more now than when they did it as their profession. If we’re serving for the right reasons, we should know that the most important place to be is in God’s will. The only title that matters is Child of God.
One other suggestion: Pray about where you should be headed but do it from a different place. This is one of the many reasons short-term missions are so important. Missions are needed for the people going. Sometimes we need to get out of the space where we’re comfortable and figuratively (or literally) travel to the mountain top to hear from God. Sometimes we need to visit other ministries, missionaries, or churches to find our passion again, or find a new passion. By traveling to new places and connecting with people in new ways it can give us a new perspective. Things look different from the mountain top; we can see more, we can see the bigger picture.
People say, “Write what you know.” This week’s blog describes me. Personally, although I’m still assisting at the orphanage, I’ve found new passions to feed my soul. I’m still stumbling along, but by finding new areas to serve, and handing off most of my old responsibilities, I’m slowly moving out of purgatory into the light. I’m also encouraging the next generation to shine.
If you see yourself in anything you’ve just read, please seek counsel. If you can’t find anyone better, e-mail me, I don’t have any answers, but I can listen.
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