Tuesday with Michael Spencer
No Regrets (from 2009, edited)
Young folks in ministry. Adults living in regret. This is for you….
There was a time, in the last decade, that I constantly and painfully struggled with regrets about various choices I’d made in my life.
I regretted not finishing doctoral studies. (I made it 37 hours in and never finished the paper.)
I regretted staying in youth ministry so long. (13 years full time, then back for 18 years where I am after 4 years as a pastor.)
I regretted staying in Kentucky. (I had opportunities to go to Oxford, Mississippi and to Texas, but followed my hillbilly instincts.)
I regretted that so many of my friends were pastors of First Baptist Churches and I never got close. (The cost of not getting that Dr. degree.)
I regretted a bunch of stuff I can’t talk about. (You don’t want to know.)
Sometimes, I’ve honestly regretted staying at one ministry in the mountains of Appalachia for most of two decades. There was a time I was constantly called to do speaking and seminars, but almost from the day I came here those opportunities stopped. Say what you want, when you’re in the mountains of southeast Kentucky, you’re off the radar. It can be very disorienting.
I’ve spent a lot of time — too much — regretting all kinds of aspects of life in ministry. You’d have to be there to understand that struggle, but it’s a hard calling and I’m not ashamed that it was hard for me.
I made a lot of mistakes as a husband and a dad. I’ve spent a lot of time regretting them. (In God’s grace, my marriage and kids are wonderful.)
Recently, I’ve regretted the time I spent as a Calvinist (still struggle with that) and even the entire fact that I wound up in full-time ministry at all. (It wasn’t my fault, but full-time public school teaching combined with ministry as I had opportunity was a better fit. But in the church where I grew up, the only thing they knew to tell us 16 year olds was “be preachers.”)
I regretted the lack of friendships we’ve found wherever we’ve been, seemingly no matter how hard we tried. (Still one of life’s big mysteries and a sad aspect of ministry.)
There have been a lot of regrets involving the church home we never quite found as a family. (Denise and my kids have all found churches. My home is with the homeless.)
I was a tortured soul for many of those years and those regrets poisoned my experience of the goodness of God. If I could have seen it at the time, I would have confessed that I’d made ministry my entire life and set expectations in ministry that would always leave me disappointed.
A good counselor could have shown me the footprints of all this regret, stalking me for many years. I brought childish, self-centered attitudes into adult life, ministry and marriage that constantly tried to prop up my own insecurities and deficiencies with various aspects of success in ministry. I tried to fill up empty places with “success” as a minister. That’s a real wall to hit, and I’ve hit it repeatedly.
Where am I now? I’m at a much different place. I would never claim that I’ve moved beyond the swamp of regret, but I’ve learned some things that are bearing much helpful fruit.
I have never found it satisfying to simply do the Calvinistic thing and talk about God ordaining everything. I need to understand how this has all worked and not worked for me. I can see clearer now, and what I see is that God is helping us to be persons, not success stories. His goal is that we be loved, not well liked — a la Willie Lohman — or well known.
A healthy Christian person must find a place where they can be themselves, and that place won’t be identical to our definition of “success.” Even if we succeed, the experiences that bring make us who we really are won’t be found in the spotlight of success. They will be found in God’s version of our wilderness.
That place may be a nursing home, or a tiny college, or a farm or a forgotten mission to the poor. It may be in another universe from the latest conference or well known ministry. It may have no potential for anything but small acts done with great love. If that is so, you should embrace it as your place. Yours, and a gift to you.
God has placed me in a life where the soil for growing a good and useful spirituality is plentiful. There is the rich soil of community and relationships, and there is the occasional fertilizer of human failures and disappointment. In this soil, I will grow. I will not be an object to be seen and heard. I will be a person, growing into a human image of the God we know in Jesus.
As an older man considering my place, I can see the value in my life of having predictability, schedule, structure and place. I can see why I need some of the simple things that guide and nurture my life that many “successful” pastors never find. These things can’t be found anywhere, but they can be found where I am.
There is a place and time to read the Psalms. There is a place and time to pray. There are people to love and to tell about Jesus. There is good work and comraderie, even if all is not perfect. There is labor and a mutual acceptance of pain. There is help, rejoicing and the grace of seeing the old and leading the young. There is family, time and room to breath. I know see these gifts in ways I did not before. I see them in such a way that many of my previous regrets are unappealing to me.
I do not understand why God has left me in youth and student work so long, but it’s apparent that my passion for and emphasis on Jesus and the Gospel isn’t found very many places in the evangelicalism my students know and experience. I am a communicator, and though I feel some weariness in my bones after preaching and teaching for hours, I am still certain this is why I am in this world and at this place: to communicate Jesus and his Gospel in a time of chaos and static.
It appears that this has been my assignment and the point has not been to have my name on a conference program, but to preach regularly to hundreds of students who don’t know Christ, and to do so in the mountains and to do so for years. My place isn’t telling someone how to do ministry, but to stand in front of kids and actually teach the scriptures. I still feel guilty that I am so old, but I know that I have gifts and opportunities that are rarely found together. So this is my place.
I don’t have to always be happy. I need the love of God not the happiness of men. I can grow to see the two coming together, but not if I dictate how they will both come to me. I have the privilege of embracing a calling and the road that is before me. I am not going to talk about the Kingdom or missional living. I am going to live in the Kingdom and practice missional living.
I can relax and accept that God has been at work in all of this for his glory and my usefulness and joy. I have no regrets unless I want to be God.
In the end, this out of the way corner of the world is the place where I want to be found. When God wants me to go elsewhere, I’ll gladly go, especially if it’s near a ballpark, but in the meantime I’m not ashamed or regretful of the path the loving hand of God has given to me.
I am wasting far less of my mind and heart on regret. I’m finding that the wisdom of the spiritual life is not found in evangelical success and notoriety, but in coming to know who I am in the place and calling God has for me. My influence will be no less and no greater, in God’s Kingdom, here in the mountains than it would be anyplace on earth. In the end, it’s my privilege to belong to Christ and to use my gifts as he gives opportunity.