How to Survive in the Ministry: “Use Your Nose, Not Your Ears”

The tagline for my blog is “Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Reflections.” Well, this one is of the latter sort. (Prepare thyself for sarcasm)

As any ministry leader knows, part of being a pastor is receiving criticism. This can take all sorts of shapes. Shortly after I felt called to the ministry, one of the pastors on staff began meeting with me. One of the things he told me up front was that if I became a pastor, I should be prepared for people to be offended by what I say and/or do—sometimes their criticisms are legitimate while at other times they aren’t. For example, this particular pastor told me a bunch of people were going to be offended in a couple of weeks because not every member of the church was going to receive an invitation to his daughter’s birthday. (Note, there were about three thousand people attending this church. Exactly how this many people would fit in the house is beyond me, but I digress . . .)

One of my other mentors told me his church was complaining because they didn’t like the way he walked. Most recently, I read of a pastor whose deacon board asked him to resign because he had a beard. “Why should I resign?” the pastor asked. “Well,” said the chairman, “all the despots and criminals of history have beards: Karl Marx, Czar Nicholas, Genghis Khan, Fidel Castro, George Custer . . . Judas Iscariot for that matter.”

Thankfully, said pastor had a good sense of humor, and in the midst of all this godless nonsense answered back, “Yeah, but what about Santa Claus and Jesus?” Alas, his witty rejoinder failed to engender laughter and didn’t convince the deacon board and he was voted out 3 to 1.

In light of this, how should a pastor respond? I think an elderly gentleman from one of Calvin Miller’s church offered some wise advice. Allow me to set the stage. Calvin Miller (who went home to be with the Lord in August of 2012) was longtime pastor of Westside Baptist Church in Omaha, Nebraska. He pastored there for 25 years before becoming a professor at Beeson Divinity School.

However, like every pastor, as he got to his first church, after the honeymoon was over, he began to be criticized. Thankfully, there was an older godly man who helped him, supported him, and was there to offer him advice. For Calvin Miller this was Ralph Greenman. Miller described him as “an old bachelor who had lived alone all his life.”

Since Greenman was a farmer, Miller would often visit him and ride with him in his tractor while he worked. “But my favorite moments,” Miller writes, “came when the conversation was too delicious to be shouted and he would stop plowing, idle the tractor to a whisper, and tell me what I needed to know to survive in the ministry.” Here was his advice to young pastor Miller:

“Calvin, you have picked a life that will be filled with criticism. Much of it will not be instructive, but listen to it all, then sort through what you need to build a bulwark of survival.”

“How do I do that, Ralph?”

“Use your nose, not your ears. The ears itch to hear the good stuff, but they will deceive you, for you will want to believe every good lie you hear. But your nose, that’s your best evaluator: manure always smells like manure.”

And this ends my wise advice to all young ministers on this glorious Friday afternoon.

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