I’ve been wondering: should I get a tattoo? At this moment, it seems like a pretty important question to me. I’m pretty sure it’s a question for others too. I’m a church pastor, and I’ve just entered my fortieth year of life. And my question is specifically for those who are also pastors (or ministry leaders) and who are at a similar stage: is it time for you to go and get a tat?
Lately I’ve been reflecting on the phenomenon known as the “mid-life crisis”. That may sound strange or melancholic, but I suspect it’s just something thinking men of my age are likely to reflect on. Mid-life crises are not exclusive to men, of course, but they do seem to manifest themselves in men in a particular way. At this point in my life I’m wondering whether it will happen to me, I’m curious about how it might affect my friends, and I’m conscious that the “mid-life crisis” seems most destructive and sinister when it comes upon someone who’s unprepared. That’s why I’m thinking about it, and that’s why I’m writing about it.
A “mid-life crisis” comes, of course, when a man begins to feel a measure of dissatisfaction with his existence. He begins to reflect on where he is in relation to where he thought he’d be at this stage. He begins to think more seriously about his own mortality as he realizes that half of life (or more than half) has most likely already gone, and he wonders what he will leave behind when he goes: what his “legacy” will be, what “mark” he will have left on the world. In particular, it seems to me, the man who begins to experience some mid-life angst is the man who begins to face up to the fact that he had great expectations for himself as a younger man, great hopes and ambitions, but very few (if any) of them have been realized in the way he expected.
And so, the man with mid-life angst looks for ways to give his life a shake-up. Perhaps he begins a quest of self-discovery. Perhaps he regresses to interests or fascinations he had as a younger man—or those he wished he had. Perhaps he questions his established convictions, habits, or relationships. He might look for a new career or a new job. He might buy a motorbike or take up smoking. Tragically, he might have an affair or a string of affairs.
Or he might go and get a tattoo.
If he’s a pastor or ministry leader, he might re-write the church vision statement, or plant a new ministry, or ring the changes in some other way. He might even leave the ministry he’s doing now for a “fresh challenge” elsewhere.
The needs of the pastor
When it comes down to it, I’ve been wondering whether it’s possible that a lot of major changes in our churches and ministries are more about the needs of the pastor than the needs of the church. Perhaps, sometimes, ministers will work out their own self-confidence or self-identity struggle through their Christian leadership. My hunch is that sometimes pastors will restructure the staff team, begin a new congregation, re-write the vision statement, change a whole raft of other things, or even leave their ministry, in part because they have come to the realization that their church is ordinary (in the original sense of the word), even though when they were younger they dreamed of it being extraordinary.
Of course, motives will almost always be mixed. I don’t imagine there are too many pastors or leaders who would be forced to admit that their leadership has been all about them. Inevitably, people want to see change and growth for many good reasons. I’m sure, however, that there are other motives we ought to inspect and question intermingled with the good ones.
My theory is that—sometimes—in his search for significance, a man can drag his church through his mid-life crisis with him.
How would we know if this were the case? Well, we might simply know because we’ve humbly reflected on the state of our hearts. We might also know because someone who loves us has bravely asked some hard questions. There may also be other tell-tale signs. Are you quick to criticize (usually not to their face) other leaders who seem to be experiencing growth or blessing? Do you take out frustrations on your families or friends who you feel impede the focus you want to have on “the ministry”? Do you feel discouraged by stagnant numbers at church even though individuals are growing? How often do you notice when people don’t thank or praise you? How often do you find yourself wanting to make sure people are aware of your contributions? Is it simply a struggle to rejoice in the fruitfulness of ministries exercised by others? I think I’ve seen some of these signs in people, and that’s certainly part of why I’ve arrived at my theory.
Preacher, know thyself
However, these signs I’ve seen in others are only part of the story. I’ve primarily arrived at my theory because of what I’ve seen of my own heart, and the temptations I’m facing.
When I was a younger man I harboured dreams of one day leading a large staff team, of planting a new church that would grow dramatically, of speaking to thousands at conferences, of developing a reputation as a world-class preacher/church-planter/leader. Now I’m almost forty and I must face the fact that the lofty visions I’ve entertained (and nurtured) in my heart have largely not been realized. So I find myself facing the temptation to try and work out a way to orchestrate these things happening. I find myself facing the temptation to find some way—any way!—to leave a legacy, to make my mark, to secure a name for myself. (I’d never express it like that in godly company, of course.) I find myself facing the temptation to change things at church so we can work towards (and, in my more Calvinistic moments, pray towards) being the next big thing on the Christian landscape.
It’s shameful for me to even confess this. But I am calling a spade a spade in the hope that it might help others to identify what they are also facing. Perhaps you’re reading this as a mid-life pastor but none of this rings a bell. If so, feel free to stop reading and thank the Lord that he has spared you. For those still reading, my gut tells me that if you’re honest with yourself, you will find that my confessions resonate in your own hearts. So I hope these pages will read as a challenge from a brother for his brothers, and my encouragement timely rather than strange.
In his kindness God has been teaching me many lessons over many years now. He has been showing me that many of my ministry dreams have been more about me than about others. He has been showing me that much of what I’ve called “godly ambition”, “zeal”, and “gospel urgency” really goes by a different name: “pride”. He has been teaching me that I need to learn the secret of contentment, as Paul calls it, whether I’m in ministry “plenty” or ministry “want”. Above all, he has been teaching me that my identity is more about who I am in Christ than who I am in the church, and more about who I am as a disciple than who I am as a leader. In a way that has come to be deeply precious to me, he has been teaching me that Luke 10:20 is a verse I need to read and meditate on regularly:
“Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
The seventy-two return to Jesus from their mission delighting that their ministry dreams had been wonderfully fulfilled, and the Lord speaks to them—the Lord whose ministry dreams involved the cross, mind you—and stings them with the plea to rejoice first and foremost that their “names are written in heaven”. That priority in thanksgiving bears some serious thinking about!
Please don’t mishear me: I’m not saying we should never change anything at church. There are lots of great reasons to make good changes. I’m simply encouraging my brothers to interrogate their deep and hidden motives and to guard against making changes for terrible reasons.
Nor am I saying there’s no place for ambition in Christian ministry. I think there is. It is a wonderful thing when a Christian leader is filled with a burning desire to see the lost saved, to see the church grow, to see hundreds and thousands taught the word, to see more fellowships begin and flourish. I recognize too that sometimes, as we get older, it’s possible to lose the “fire in the belly” that we had when we were younger simply because we’ve become dulled by the institutions we’re a part of, or distracted by things of secondary importance, or overwhelmed by the emotional toll that ministry takes. I do believe in mid-life ministers growing in their zeal and urgency and a longing for God’s purposes in the world. I’m simply saying that we should ask ourselves what really fuels that recovered urgency and zeal. Is it a deep longing for God’s name to be honoured and revered? Or is it a deep longing that my name would be?
If we’re willing to think hard about this, there will be some very searching and sobering questions for us to answer. What’s driving our church mission statement—the unique needs of this ministry and its people, or my dreams? What are my reasons for wanting to leave this ministry and move on to another? If I feel like a failure as a Christian leader, is it because my goals were/are all wrong, or is it perhaps that I really am in the wrong job? What dreams have I nurtured that I should be willing to now lay aside? Is it now time to back myself as a leader and to steadfastly stay whatever course the church or ministry is on, whether or not great fruitfulness comes? Is it time to resist change for the sake of my dreams, and to resist being jaded and discouraged too, and to simply know myself, know my context, strap myself in and get on with it?
Of course, this issue is one of huge importance for every minister of the gospel to think clearly on—whether facing mid-life crisis or not, whether young or old, whether male or female. There is an ever-present danger for Christian leaders in every time or place to think too much of themselves in their ministry, and to find their identity in their ministry output rather than in Christ. In fact, what feels to me like a particular issue for men in the middle of life may actually be far more universal, albeit in different form. I don’t think my exhortation here is for a select few.
However, allow me a word in particular to my brothers who find themselves at a similar stage of life to me, and facing similar temptations: spare your people the upheaval of going through change that the ministry needs less than you do. Make every effort to learn the secret of contentment in your ministry. Make difficult decisions to repent of pride, arrogance, and godless ambition. Avoid a mid-life crisis that’s driven by a sense of identity forgetful of Luke 10:20.
If you must have a mid-life crisis, my exhortation is this: whatever you do, please don’t drag your church through it with you. Maybe it’s time to go and get a tat instead?