It’s a Wonderful Life is an American Christmas drama film produced and directed by Frank Capra, that was based on the short story “The Greatest Gift”, written by Philip Van Doren Stern. Released in 1946, the film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and the contributions he has made to his community. It’s a great film for pastors and elders to watch, especially if they are a bit disillusioned about church life.
In an afterword to his book, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary, James Emery White reflects on the calling and challenges of pastoral ministry, and he uses the example of George Bailey to describe his own experience of leaving pastoral ministry to take up a position in a theological seminary. Initially, he viewed it as an escape from all the pressures, demands and criticisms that are part and parcel of congregational life. But within two years, White was delighted to be back in pastoral ministry again.
Just as George Bailey got a chance to see what life would be like if he had never lived, so White says that he was given a chance to see what life would be like without serving as a pastor of a church. And just as George Bailey learned that he wanted to live again, so did White. His conclusion is that if you are called to pastoral ministry, no other vocation will satisfy.
I know it’s tough. I know there are days you want to quit. Don’t. If you do, you’ll wish you could go back. I’ve never yet met anyone who at one time was truly called to the church but did get out of the game who remained glad they left.
You will miss the terrific idea for a talk or a series and having the ability to develop it and teach it.
You will miss coming upon a nugget of scriptural insight, tethered to language and historical insights, and being able to share it.
You will miss living in full community with others – young and old, married and single, believer and seeker, black and white.
You will miss being a leader, chasing dreams and building a kingdom vision that reflects the comprehensive vision of the church, and being free to pursue that vision with all vigour and energy without barrier.
You will miss being on the front lines of impacting lives – not just talking about life change but seeing it, experiencing it, making it happen as you cooperate with the Holy Spirit in people’s lives.
Simply put, if you are a practitioner and not a theoretician, you will miss the practice.
After a hectic programme of activities during the autumn, pastors and elders need to catch their breath over Christmas and New Year and then gird up their loins for a new session of activity. Some of us may feel a bit jaded, and our evaluation of our progress and fruitfulness in ministry may cause some degree of despair. We would love to see the kingdom advancing more quickly and we yearn to see greater growth in sanctification in our own lives and the lives of others. That is the burden and challenge of pastoral ministry. But, if we were taken away from all the frustrations and fears of pastoring a congregation and preaching every week, how better could we spend our days?
Paul’s description of his pastoral care of the Thessalonians continues to encourage and inspire us:
“As apostles of Christ, we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become som dear to us….For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God who calls you into his kingdom and glory.
For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed you are our glory and joy.”
I think Paul would agree that when it comes to pastoral ministry, it’s a wonderful life.