When Clay Smith was 20, he and a buddy decided to go for a quick run in Paris while they were there on a college trip. They dropped their bags at the hotel, changed clothes and headed off.
And a half hour later, they realized they were lost.
“We didn’t think to get the name of the hotel. We didn’t know the street on which the hotel was. We didn’t have cell phones then,” he said. “For four hours we were running just a large circle around our hotel again and again and again, and I wondered, ‘Will we make it?’”
Smith, senior pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia, told the crowd at the Southern Baptist Pastors Conference June 13 that he didn’t ask himself that question again until 2021, and this time it was not as a runner but as a pastor.
“On top of all the complexities of pastoring a church like Johnson Ferry, we faced what you faced,” he said, noting that they worked to navigate well through the COVID-19 pandemic, mask mandates and the death of George Floyd and the racial tension that came to a head across the nation.
Smith said there were “plenty of days when I wondered, ‘Am I going to make it?’ Have you been there?”
He pointed to a Barna study that showed 38% of pastors say they are seriously considering quitting the ministry. It’s tough to follow a ministry call, he said, but he noted that pastors have a great example in the Apostle Paul.
Preaching from Colossians 1:24–29, Smith noted four areas for pastors to evaluate in their own lives as they weigh their doubts about their calling.
In verse 24, Paul wrote from a jail cell, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.”
No one enjoys suffering, and neither did Paul, Smith said. “He’s rejoicing in the midst of, over and above the sufferings.”
Pastors may not be experiencing that same level of persecution, but “I think we all sense that our world and our country is shifting,” Smith said. “Here’s my question for you: What’s your attitude about ministry? For Paul, he said, ‘I rejoice.’”
Smith said he is often reminded of what a blessing it is to be part of God’s work in the world, even if it’s tough.
“We need to be joyful because can you believe God picked you to do this? That we get to do this, to be involved in people’s lives in the critical moments of their lives?”
When Paul said in verse 24 he was “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the church,” he didn’t mean Christ’s work on the cross wasn’t enough, Smith said. “Jesus’ suffering was propitiation. Paul’s was about propagation. It was about the gospel being spread to all people.”
Smith asked pastors how they view the assignment God has given to them.
“Are you a servant? … If you picked pastoral ministry as a pathway to fame, you are a fool,” he said. “We are shepherds, undershepherds of the flock of God. This is our assignment from God, to be this servant He’s called us to be, and let’s be honest — ministry is tough. It’s hard.”
But that is what it always has been. Paul faced it, and so do pastors today, Smith said.
“Tweetership is not leadership. Leadership is serving. It’s getting in the trenches. Leadership is doing the hard work.”
In verses 25–26, Paul talks about “the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to His saints.”
That mystery, Smith said, is “the beauty, the power, the reign (of Christ). This is what we in ministry are to focus on.”
“We proclaim Him because He is the answer,” he said. “Is that your aim, to lift up the beauty of Jesus and the gospel? … I wonder if I were to listen to the last 10 of your sermons, would Jesus come through as the great love of your life? Are we experiencing as pastors the risen Christ?”
Smith repeated again that there are “a lot of wonderful joys about the pastorate, but it’s also tough.”
Paul said he struggled and agonized over people being presented as mature believers when they meet God.
“You can’t do it in your own power, but you can do it in the power of Jesus,” Smith said. “I pray that we as Southern Baptists would strive in the power of Jesus who works powerfully in us.”
View photos from the 2022 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors Conference here.
For more stories from the 2022 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting, visit thebaptistpaper.org/sbc2022.