The wife of a pastor wrote me recently, “I can understand why pastors and wives aren’t given a secret handbook when ordained, but I really wish we got one.”

It’s an intriguing idea: an initiatory book of secrets and rules and rituals to keep us sane in the ministry. There are a number of good resources out there, but I decided to bite and offer my own modest contribution in that direction. Here and in a subsequent post, I will reprint two articles written years ago for Florida’s The Bradenton Herald. The first, which was never published, is a ‘open letter’ to a new pastor and the second, which I’ll post here later, is a word for their spouses.

None of this is secret, but I hope it is suggestive and helpful.

Dear __,

By your ordination you join in a great line of those who, like Mr. Greatheart in Pilgrim’s Progress, seek to lead pilgrims on the perilous journey to the Celestial City. God has uniquely gifted you for this calling and will use you greatly.

I am excited for you but want you to enter ministry with your eyes open. Ministry attracts idealists who can be shattered by its harsh reality. Instead of undoing you, these realities will, if you let them, enable you to see how quickly and personally Christ comes to encourage and support us all.

I trust then you’ll take the following to heart, as I must do daily.

1) You cannot fix everything.

Congregations expect their pastor to ‘fix’ them and to ‘fix’ their situations. You will be tempted to think you can. You can’t. Only Christ can. If you try, everything in your life will pay a price.

2) People will disappoint you.

Precious people will encourage you, care for you, support you, and love you. Others, just as beloved by Christ, will fall short of your best expectations and betray your most heartfelt commitments. They, too, are Christ’s gift to you. You will grow because of them to place your hope in Christ alone. The pain of the process will be real, but so is the gain.

3) You will disappoint people.

You are weak and you will fail. You will say unkind things and you will sin before those who look up to you. You will forget appointments and blame others for doing the same. You will change where people don’t want you to change and be unable to change where you should. Your grief over these things will again drive you to Jesus to experience his love even when we fail.

4) You will experience more deeply the pain of your sin.

People will call you ‘reverend’ and shush their cursing when you come into the room. They will think you holy. But in reality, you will come to see more clearly your own sin. You will begin to see it through the eyes of the sheep you have been called to shepherd. As the painfulness of this knowledge increases, you will need even more to know the refreshing grace of the gospel as a daily reality. As you preach grace to yourself, you will learn to preach it to others.

5) You will wrestle with the idol of success

You will not escape the expectations people (and you) place upon you. By whatever standard you and those you care about measure success, you will fall short. Such knowledge can destroy you. Remember, though, that Christ has already given to you every blessing you need for happiness and contentment in himself. His reward is far greater than the idol of success.

The calling of the pastor is noble but not easy. Find others in whom you can confide and work through the struggles. Most importantly, retreat frequently to the gospel of God’s grace so that it and it alone will be that which defines your ministry.

You will then do well and be of great usefulness.