He held my response quizzically, as if examining an object entirely new and foreign to him.
“You don’t know,” he repeated, “the impact of your work? How can that be?”
Charley and I were having coffee, two guys in their 60s approaching the twilight of their careers—he an insurance guy, shaped and formed by actuarial tables and profit/loss statements; me, a clergyperson who had spent almost his whole vocational life in service of the church, albeit in wider-church settings. A church bureaucrat, if you’re so inclined.
Maybe it was the deluge of Medicare emails we both started receiving after our 64th birthday that had us so reflective, the retirement decisions we both knew were coming. Maybe it was just the wrestling with legacy that is so common at this age, and perhaps especially among men. For me, watching this summer’s RCA and CRC Synods was also weighing heavily.
That’s how we found ourselves talking about our careers, and what we saw of our influence and impact. Charley pointed confidently to his quantitative metrics; numbers, he said more than once, that reflected both the collective success of his agency and real people. I talked more qualitatively, of stories and faithfulness, of the Spirit blowing where it will, of the farmer who scattered seed by the road in one of Jesus’ parables, watching some of it grow on good ground while other seed withered and died. Charley just shook his head.
It is hardly a secret: the metrics for pastors and clergy can be, well, murky. Stories often carry the meaningful freight for those who serve the church: a life reshaped after months, maybe years, of intentional conversation; a church revitalized, though perhaps not even numerically, by urgent preaching and disciplined discipleship; the accompaniment of someone at the most profound moments of their lives—baptism, confession, marriage, the deathbed. The ten-word note that comes in Tuesday’s mail: “Your _____ changed my life.”
Of course, stories play the other way as well. The person you could never reach. The program that fell flat. The five families who simply ghosted the congregation, and you find out later it was your preaching they thought inadequate. The day(s) you think, you know, it might just be time to walk away.
But in the end, can stories ever be enough? How does a pastor—or in this case, a church-nerd bureaucrat—how does he know, beyond what his own sinful heart might tell him? Will Christ say to us, to me, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Or am I more like Saul on the road to Damascus, educated, cultured, sincere, efficient, absolutely convinced I am doing the will of God while all the while resisting Christ’s bold and saving work?
I asked this very question recently on a closed Facebook group of clergy, some of whom I’ve known for the better part of four decades. I had just finished Douglas Brouwer’s remarkable memoir, Chasing After Wind: A Pastor’s Life, the jacket copy having shot the arrow that pierced my heart and sent me straight to Eerdman’s website: “In the current age of shrinking mainline churches, what could he point to as the end result of his decades in ministry?” Doug Brouwer came to recognize that the meaningful parts of his career—the “holy bits,” as he calls them—were in the unexpected moments where everything was stripped away but the mysterious work of God. Were there “holy bits,” I wondered, amidst the Robert’s Rules of the twenty-seven RCA General Synods I’d attended?
The “Pentecost Letter” we drafted out of an intentional process of mission and discernment at the Synod dubbed Mission 2000, for example: was it the work of the Spirit or simply a gimmick destined for no real impact? (It’s less than two pages, 30-31, of 477 pages of minutes.) I remember sitting in the Hofstra University gymnasium, weeping as it was read, not for its profunditry—although there were some remarkable words, I recall—but because I’d been up much of the night before and had raced the clock to secure a last-minute change that had threatened a floor fight, and I was emotionally and physically spent.
Did it matter that, in 1992, the General Synod voted to send the Church Herald magazine, for which I was the editor, to every household in the denomination (or at least those who would send in their addresses), and the next year voted to re-affirm that decision in the face of seventeen overtures to overturn it? Did the Church Herald change any lives? Was it even supposed to? What about the LiFE curriculum? Children and Worship? Did introducing discernment at General Synod help us more intentionally seek the movement of the Spirit, or did it simply open the door to different forms of manipulation? The agreement we made between the RCA and the CRC in 2014—one of those Facebook memories that has pushed me down this journey of reflection— “the principle that guides us, and the intention that motivates us, is to act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel us to act separately”—did that matter at all? The hundreds of meetings and thousands of airplane miles; the pieces of my family’s lives I missed while at the Howard Johnson’s in Newark or the Cenacle in Chicago—were there any “holy bits” in all of that?
Or more recently, in my service as an executive presbyter, sitting with a pastor and his spouse to explain the severance package—one I’d fought for and thought to be fairly generous—only to be told in response that I’d allowed their lives to be ruined, that their time in ministry was likely done. Hard words, words all of us in ministry have heard in one form or another, that seem not very holy.
I don’t mean to be hard on myself, or hard on the church. Neither am I fishing for compliments, an ego-stroking atta-boy. There are times, even for bureaucrats, when there are those holy moments, that realization your work really did have an impact. Like last summer, when an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America bishop inquired of an unexpectedly-out-of-work Presbyterian who had been RCA most of his life, about doing a congregational interim. Because, she said, the Formula of Agreement—something into which I had poured countless days, weeks, years, now three decades ago—made this possible.
So, too, the people who shaped me along my journey. The Council for Christian Education was, on one hand, just a standing committee, a ten-thousand dollar line in the budget that, almost every year, someone tried to red-line away to save a few assessment pennies. But here was a group—majority female in a male-dominated church, mandated to have members from our racial-ethnic councils—who were asking hard questions of race and white privilege well before it burst onto the national scene, before we adopted the Belhar Confession, and changing our curriculum because of it. I don’t know specifically whose life that work changed, but it changed me.
And there was the tagline for Putting People in Mission, the early 1990s RCA fund drive: “A people who belong, to God and to each other.” Ed Mulder took a lot of heat for promoting belonging two decades before Brene Brown’s first Ted Talk. For thirty years, I’ve dedicated my life to that belief, and to the institution—the church—I believed could embody that. Maybe that’s also why this summer’s Synods (both RCA and CRC) have left me so reflective and disappointed— even beyond its bad theology and ecclesiology, I watched the church in which I invested so much of my life seem to reject that investment in its actions.
Ah, the investment. The call to ministry. The stewardship of that call—that’s where this is all going in the end, isn’t it? How we interpret this individual call to ministry, how we live it. Martha and Mary, sometimes all rolled into one person. Sometimes, we make our SMART goals, as we’ve been taught, but too often tend to measure our busyness—convene this many meetings, support this many initiatives, preach this many sermons—more than impact. Other times, it lands our work in private, untouchable territory, the burden of proof placed either on one’s individual definition of faithfulness or the number of lives won for Christ.
But who’s to finally ensure those of us called to ministry are not simply making up most of the details of our weeks by designing our hours, deciding which commitments to undertake, and choosing tasks that fit their moods and schedules. Back in the mid-00’s, the RCA staff spent a couple of years being shaped by the Gallup StrengthFinders (now Clifton Strengths). I led some of those sessions. Some of the feedback we got, both from staff and from the wider church, expressed the fear that the introduction of practices like Gallup, and more intentional staff evaluations, was the camel’s nose to “run the church like a business.” The mention of Heifetz or Kotter’s theories of change prompted many in the ecclesiastical world to decry what they called “a corporate mindset,” practices and policies “being conformed to this world.” Carver policy governance?—don’t even get people started on that.
Sometimes that leads to a sense of intellectual superiority, a we-know-better-than; we saw that on display this year at both synods. But other times, as Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind, people are far more likely to be persuaded when they feel seen and heard, when they believe their own argument has been fairly presented, and if they are confronted with a story. I was often told that, while I was a good listener, I needed to be a more forceful speaker. The church needs leaders, not shepherds. I’ve never been convinced. I’ve always paid attention—way too much attention, I’ve long feared—to what other people think, quite horrified by the badge of honor opposition seems to some. But how, I’ve wondered, do you truly hear the movement of the Spirit if you don’t listen deeply to others—especially those with different views than yours?
That wouldn’t get very far in the Cary Nieuwhof empire, where his five reasons for about any church-related issue has built an influential, and lucrative, online juggernaut. Nor with so many I know who don’t have the same privilege of reflection that I’ve taken here—whose gender, race, sexuality isn’t privileged as mine has been—and whose own stories of ministry are defined more by the barriers they’ve faced than the opportunities they’ve had. Did I listen to, advocate for, them enough? Thinking about that, what I did seems woefully inadequate.
So where does this plane land? What I’ve sensed these past few months in my wanderings, beyond all this sharp-contrast analysis I’ve been doing, is this, and if you find it hardly profound, or figured it out for yourselves long ago, forgive me for taking up too much of your time. You live your life in ways as faithful as you can as the time you are living it, taking risks, cultivating vulnerability, embracing uncertainty, admitting there is much you don’t know; and in it all, you trust God to use it in ways that make a difference in the world while humbly asking forgiveness for the ways in which you fell short. That there is finally no secret formula to experiencing the sacred in our lives and in our work. What if the deepest truths of our lives, the fullness we seek, doesn’t happen by demanding what we know, but learning what we don’t?
Week after week, I’ve been inviting my current congregation to consider that God is doing a new thing, calling us to build and expand on the life God is calling us from into one God is calling us to—even if all the numerical evidence says something else. It’s in following that Spirit, actively, to which we must finally, honestly, deeply, be accountable. “Love God and do what you will,” Augustine wrote in his commentary on the First Epistle of John, which strikes me about as true and as murky as it gets.
Finally, maybe I need to look at my own 35 years in the way Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Jim Kaat (another west Michigan product) described his baseball career: “I’ll never be considered one of the all-time greats; maybe not even one of the all-time goods. But I’m one of the all-time survivors.” Year-after-year, he showed up, committed, dedicated to his craft and his teammates. I’d like to think I did too. I didn’t solve the world’s problems, or the church’s. But maybe, just maybe, not because of me but in spite of me, God used my attempted faithfulness somewhere, somehow, for something bigger than me, beyond my own limited vision; and on that, someone else is building, blossoming, growing. Living out their own calling. Maybe especially someone who might not otherwise have gotten that chance.
I’m not sure Charley will get that. But I think I can live with it. And if I’ve missed something profound—and surely, I have—may God bless the comments section below. I’d love to learn from you. Thanks for reading.