by Ted Cunningham
At the age of 26, I became the senior pastor of a 400-member church in southwest Missouri. As a recent seminary graduate, I had no idea that I was headed for the single most painful year of my life. Fresh out of school, I was ready to change the world.
About five months into the new position, one of the other pastors asked me to lunch. As we unwrapped our sandwiches he said, “Senior pastor is not the best job position for you.” My eyes widened as my body tensed up. My jaw dropped slightly. I could feel the adrenaline (and anger) flowing through my veins as this pastor offered a laundry list of reasons why I should not be the leader of the church: You have the book knowledge of leadership, but not the experience. Your teaching is geared toward believers, and we need a more seeker-oriented speaker. You don’t seem to be open to feedback.
I was irate! Anger mixed with youthful errors in my response led to an ugly church dispute. Our church fight became the talk of the town. So much so, that Dr. Gary Smalley called and invited me to breakfast.
When I heard that Gary wanted to help, I thought, Great! Gary Smalley, the world’s relationship expert, is going to give me proven strategies to fix the problems at this church. He is going to help straighten out the staff, adjust the structure of the church and chase off the “bad” leadership.
I was wrong. Gary did no such thing. Instead, he helped me examine my heart. “Start from the beginning, Ted,” he said. “I want to hear everything that happened.”
About halfway through my story about the struggles and difficulties I was facing, Gary started to smile and praise God—out loud. I remember looking at Amy and thinking, Gary Smalley is not the guy I thought he was. Why is he enjoying my pain?
After I had poured out my heart, sharing the naked truth that I had never felt more like a failure in my entire life and that I was wrestling with evil thoughts toward my coworkers, Gary said something that changed my life and ministry outlook forever: “Ted, do you have any idea how blessed you are? Most guys wait 5 to 10 years after seminary to get these sort of trials, but you have been blessed to get it in the first 5 months. If I put $100,000 on this table, it couldn’t pay for the education you are getting. All I can think of is that God has very big plans for you, and He is letting you go through this advanced graduate class to get there. He is raising your threshold of pain.”
I have never forgotten those words because they forever changed how I view ministry adversity. Through that conversation, I realized that the situation at this church was not only a defining moment but also that God intended it to be a refining moment in my life that would forever change me to look more like Him. Gary Smalley became my mentor that day. He blessed Amy and I by picturing a special future for us. We have faced many critics since that day and I am sure we will face many more. We decided that day that the blessing of one far outweighs the criticism and praise of the many.
Are ministry setbacks, critics or unmet expectations discouraging you? If so, lean into a seasoned leader to help you translate the trials and frustrations into future ministry blessings. It will raise your threshold of pain. Find a mentor pastor in your area. Invite him into your life. Do not give all of your time and energy to the critics, instead find one who will speak truth into your life and bless your future ministry.