I recently had the privilege in sharing in a Celebration of Life service for an old friend and mentor, Arthur Gay. Art will be one of the unsung heroes of the evangelical church of the last generation. (He served as both the president of the National Association of Evangelicals from 1982 to 1984 and World Relief from 1991 to 1996.)

In looking through my files of my times serving with Art in Portland, Maine, I came across a simple article he had wrote years ago entitled, “Your call is enough.” He was reflecting on some turbulent years of ministry he went through in Chicago. He simply stated that sometimes in hard times your call must be enough to get you through.

I have been reflecting on his article a great deal. It especially became poignant when I received a note from an old seminary friend who joined the ranks of the many tired, disenfranchised pastors who over the past years have decided to hang it up on pastoral ministry. For my friend, like many, it had become too hard, too intense, and in the words of many, “I didn’t sign up for this.”

Many articles and reflections have been written regarding this last chapter of life we have been in. The toll it has taken on churches, people and pastors is still being tallied. The numbers of pastors leaving ministry and churches closing has been staggering. Enrollment in M.Div. programs is down as people look for other ways to fulfill God’s calling in their lives. I began to think, “Why this trend? Why now?” Ministry, cultural pressures have always been hard. The “Am I done?” question with God is not new.

Recently I have been reading through Lamentations, one of the more underappreciated books of Scripture. In it, the Prophet Jeremiah is sitting amidst the ruins of God’s people. The city has been so ransacked that even the wick snuffers in the temple were taken. The poor were left scratching out an existence, and everywhere there is only ruin. This was ministry to a hard place, in a hard time, for a long time. This was Jeremiah’s calling.

I have no doubt during these desolate days of seemingly abandonment Jeremiah reflected back upon God and the call God had placed on his life, and asked, “Really God? You want me stay here?” As I pondered anew this book, I began to see how Jeremiah stayed true to his call. For myself and my friends who have bailed or are thinking of bailing, here are a few thoughts on “our call”:

1. From the beginning, make sure your call is confirmed and affirmed by others, not just by you.

Jeremiah’s call was affirmed by God and not derived from himself. When I first entered ministry, I did so, not because it was my first choice of a vocation, but because mature people and my church affirmed gifts they saw in me and challenged me to consider God’s call on my life. I do not think we do an adequate job from the beginning of someone’s journey into ministry to identify and affirm gifts we see in them, nor do we listen well to the opinions of others. Seminaries and churches need to do a better job of intentionally identifying, affirming and supporting the call of others. We need to be asking the questions, “Why this specific person for ministry? What do we specifically see in them?”

2. When called into ministry, you must be willing to ask the hard question, “If I believe God has called me, am I willing to see this through to the end?”

In the early days of missions, it was not uncommon for the missionary to pack their belongings in a box as they left, knowing that the box would become their coffin. They knew they would not be returning. Their call was to an end. When I entered seminary one pastor said to me, “Remember if God is calling you to ministry in New England, he is calling you to be in a hard place for a long time.” Tough words, but true.

Ministry is a long obedience in the same direction regardless of the outcome. It means being willing to ride the waves and live in the valleys. I want to carefully suggest that many bail too early or too easily simply because it is too hard. We need people of personal spiritual depth who will not only hold our hands up but hold us accountable to stay the course. Sometimes those people need to be gentle; sometimes they need to be blunt. There have been several times I have had to say to myself these past years, “Just stop whining and keep going” (not a literal translation).

3. You need a big, deep view of God.

In Lamentations, Jeremiah goes through a litany of the brokenness he sees around him. No hope, no future, complete devastation. In the middle of his tirade one verse stands out. He declares, “You O Lord reign forever, your throne endures from generation to generation” (Lamentations 5:19). He needed to state the fact for himself, “God, you are still the same. You are still in charge.” Sometimes I must speak biblical truth back to myself until my reality catches up with the truth. Life can be hard. Ministry can be hard. It doesn’t mean it is time to quit, but time to be reminded of who God is in that chapter. I need good people around me who can speak that truth to me in a way I can hear. Our goal, our God has not changed.

My heart grieves for those who have decided this chapter of ministry has just been too hard. I get it; I’ve been there. Sometimes my call, and my belief in the one who had called me is all I have to hold onto, and it is enough.

I am thankful for Art’s final words to me at a time when I needed them. May each of us have such a person — and be such a person to someone when they need the reminder as well.

Read the NAE Statement Honoring Arthur Gay Arrow