Twenty years ago, two of the most important events of my life occurred in a span of less than two weeks.
On August 14, 1999, I entered into a covenant relationship with my bride, marked by vows of love and fidelity.
Ten days later, I began my employment as the youth minister for the Northeast Church of Christ in Kingsport, Tennessee.
A covenant and a contract. My life would never be the same.
By the time we got married, Sunny and I had been dating for four years. Of course, we had no way of knowing what the future wold hold; we simply knew that we wanted to face it together. So we stood in front of everyone we loved and made our promises. In some ways that seems just like yesterday, almost like a dream. And then again, that moment seems like another lifetime ago, simply because of its enormity and magnitude.
At the beginning of that summer, I was wrapping up an internship with a church in Nashville, but I was unsure about my ministry prospects beyond that. I’d made the decision to pursue youth ministry as a career and although I felt that God had validated that decision with a slew of internship opportunities throughout my college years, I had yet to feel a real sense of calling to any of the full-time ministry possibilities I’d been exploring. And the feeling was, apparently, mutual. With our wedding a little more than two months away, our urgency was becoming palpable.
I had arranged one final interview with a church in northeast Tennessee, a church looking for a youth minister. Sunny and I spent a weekend with the members of this church and it just seemed a natural fit. We accepted their gracious invitation to join their ministry team and said we’d be there by the end of August.
Serving under the eldership of that church turned out to be one of the great blessings of my life. As soon as I arrived, they met with me to let me know that I was not allowed to teach Sunday morning or Wednesday night classes for the next few months. At first, I balked. “How am I supposed to cultivate these relationships with teens if I don’t have the opportunity to teach? I just got here and you’re putting me on the bench? How is this best for my ministry?” For starters, they said, we already have teachers lined up for the next few months. But more importantly, they told me, you need to be more concerned about cultivating your covenant relationship with your wife right now. That takes priority over your “ministry.” They said, “We’re more concerned about what’s best for you as a husband than what’s best for you as a minister.”
From day one, those shepherds helped me to understand the essential difference between a covenant and a contract.
I know some ministers / pastors who are fond of saying to their churches, “Call me any time, day or night, and I’ll be there.” And I’m sure these statements are well-intentioned and I have no doubt that they are met with thunderous ovations from congregants. This is essentially saying, “I’m always on call for you, no matter what.”
But I can’t help but think that such statements flow more out of a Messiah-complex than a fully formed ministerial identity. I mean, lets be honest: only God is capable of carrying through on such a sweeping promise (Jer. 33:3). And in order for us to even attempt to do what only God can do requires us to forsake some other commitments. “Call me any time, day or night,” sounds an awful lot like covenant language, if you ask me.
After twenty years of ministry, I think one of the reasons I’m still standing is precisely because I don’t make such promises to people. Honestly, there are times when I won’t be able to be there for you — because I’m not in a covenant relationship with my congregants. Believe me, this statement will make me wildly unpopular in some ministry circles. But you have to remember that I cut my teeth under leaders who were more concerned with my development as a husband than my development as a minister. One of my elders in that church said to me, “Remember: you’ll be Sunny’s husband far longer than you’ll be one of the ministers of this church.” And I’ve taken those words to heart. From my early, formative years in ministry, my leaders never let me treat the contract like a covenant.
One of the best things a pastor / minister can do for his / her church is model a healthy covenant relationship with his / her spouse — to keep that covenant sacred by esteeming it with time.
As a corollary, this means refusing to promote contracts to the level of covenants. It means refusing to feed the ever-growing sense of narcissism in our pews. It means refusing to write checks you can’t cash. I’ve seen too many ministers crash and burn these last twenty years, many of them because they failed to distinguish between their covenants and their contracts.
Don’t get me wrong: Congregational ministry is a blessed calling. And I have been able to spend the first twenty years of my career serving in two churches that “get it” when it comes to the essential distinction between covenants and contracts. But I can’t say the same for many of my colleagues in ministry because they serve under leaders who expect them to be covenantally bound to their ministry above all else.
Let contracts be contracts.
And may covenants be covenants. Because covenants are eternal.