Do you ever find yourself preoccupied, encased in your own little world? Today I was considering the times I have missed ministry opportunities because I was in my own little world. “Missing a ministry opportunity,” this is a strange statement coming from a minister. We are surrounded by ministry opportunities. If anything we cannot keep up with the ministry opportunities, or we are exhausted from ministry overload.
Let me explain my statement, “missing a ministry opportunity.” There are ministry opportunities that come with our job. They are somewhat expected and/or demanded of us. Then there are the exciting opportunities that God lays in our lap. We might slide by if we miss the first type of opportunity. They are routine and accompany our vocational calling. However, those God-given opportunities involve a different story line. They stimulate a little more excitement. They are characterized by an air of intrigue! Questions such as, “What is God up to?” come to mind.
This discussion reminded me of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). The part of this story that disturbs me the most is the description of the two religious leaders. “A priest happened to be going down that road. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way, a Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.” (vs. 31-32) All of us have heard sermons, studies and read commentaries about this passage. The priest and Levite may have entertained religious reasons to pass by without helping. They might have been in a hurry. My current thinking prompts me to ask, were they preoccupied? Were they so busy being ministers that they did not have time to minister? This challenges me to ask several questions:
Last week I watched a football game in which the star player for one team was tired and slightly injured. The coach took the star out of the game, had him checked, and placed him back in the game. Do you ever feel like you are tired and injured and need to be taken out of the game? You are not alone!
In Exodus 5 we find Moses wondering if he should be in the game. After a season of struggle Moses reluctantly accepted God’s call to go into the game and lead the Israelite people out of Egypt. After embarking on this task Moses faced an immediate trial. He came against Pharaoh. As he came against Pharaoh things got worse instead of better. Instead of Pharaoh allowing the Israelite people to go free he increased their burden. Not only did he keep them in bondage, he required them to make the previous quota of bricks. In addition, he made them collect straw with which to make the bricks. Collecting straw had not been demanded in the past. After this encounter we find Moses’ words in Exodus 5:22-23. “So Moses returned to the LORD and said, ‘Lord, why have You brought trouble on this people? Why is it You have sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all.’"
In this encounter Moses faced several negative emotions.
1. Moses was discouraged. He asked why God had “brought trouble on this people.”
2. Moses doubted. He asked, “Why is it You have sent me?”
3. Moses was basically defeated. He said, “neither have You delivered Your people.”
The title of this article represents a disturbing thought. It is especially disturbing for those who serve in ministry. You would expect a non-believer to be too busy for Jesus. You would expect a back-slider to be too busy for Jesus. This thought is disturbing and might even be offensive to faithful followers of Jesus Christ. However, the fact is, there are times when we are too busy for Jesus. One passage comes to mind.
In Luke 10:38-42 we find the story of Mary and Martha. In Luke 10 we read, “But Martha was distracted by her many tasks, and she came up and asked, ‘Lord, don’t You care that my sister has left me to serve alone? So tell her to give me a hand.’” (vs. 40 HCSB) Martha was doing good things. She was even doing good things for Jesus. However, she was too busy for Jesus. Mary took the time to sit at Jesus’ feet. (vs. 42 HCSB) Jesus said, “Mary has made the right choice, and it will not be taken away from her.” (vs. 42) Making time for Jesus is a choice.
The choice to be with Jesus is discussed in Peter Scazzero’s book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. The sub-heading of Chapter 5 is “Stopping to Breathe the Air of Eternity.” By his own testimony and admission Pete discovered the consequences of not taking time to be with Jesus. He almost lost his marriage and his ministry. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality shares the lessons learned on his journey.
Do you ever catch yourself saying “I cannot believe I did it again?” That happened to me last week. I have my weaknesses as a minister. In fact, over the years of serving in churches I developed a list of my weaknesses. This list was used as a watch list to remind me of my shortcomings. In doing this I held myself accountable when my shortcomings raised their ugly head. I will not give you my entire list; however, I use this concept to convey a growth point for all of us.
I share this, not to make you feel pity for me, but to make a point. I have been busy. Our association of churches recently conducted its annual meeting. This meeting requires a lot of extra work. My wife and I have been working to sell our home. Also, I am working to complete two books. In addition, we recently planned and conducted two events for pastors and their wives. I have learned that when I put too many irons in the fire, one of them does not get hot.
This brings up the problem. When I am stressing because everything is not done to perfection, this attitude cannot be of God. If I beat myself up because “I did it again” there is something wrong with this picture. As a pastor and servant of Christ what should I do?
“Go to the ant, you slacker! Observe its ways and become wise. Without leader, administrator, or ruler, it prepares its provisions in summer; it gathers its food during harvest.” (Prov. 6:6-8) We learn several valuable lessons from the ant.
Last Thursday and Friday the Shepherds Connection conducted a “Survive and Thrive Retreat” in Shreveport, LA. The purpose of such retreats, sponsored by the Shepherds Connection, is to offer encouragement and support for those serving in ministry. We call these “Survive and Thrive Retreats” because it is our conviction that the Lord wants us to “survive” emotionally, physically and spiritually but also “thrive” in our place of service. As we conducted this retreat there were several elements that created a “good” experience for us. I want to share these observations so that we might (hopefully) enlist your participation in a future event but also to challenge you to a healthy ministry lifestyle.
A spirit of transparency was present. All of those attending the retreat serve in ministry. Thus, all recognize the importance of seeking safe places where they can share with others who serve in ministry. After all, who understands a fellow minister better than a fellow minister? All of us need safe places where we can, as the saying goes, “let our hair down.”
A spirit of affirmation and acceptance was present. We need people who will affirm us, understand our ways and share our dreams. Also, we need people who accept and affirm us for who we are, not our denomination, eschatological position or the size of our church.
Humor was utilized. We listened to several short humorous video clips. In addition, we played the “newlywed game” for those who serve in ministry. The Bible says “a merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”
Encouraging worship and Biblical teaching was utilized. Oftentimes we pastors do all of the teaching and receive little take in. We need to be fed and enriched by the teaching and worship skills of others. A pastor who gives out without taking in will be like a bank account that runs out of money when no deposits are made.
A spirit of prayer was present. During this short retreat there were no less than five opportunities to laugh, cry and lift in prayer the burdens of fellow pastors and their wives.
The Shepherds Connection was started because we see the loneliness, isolation and challenges of those who serve in ministry. From this summary I challenge you with the following questions.
If you buy a $25,000 car you do not neglect its maintenance. It is too valuable a possession. As a pastor you are valuable in God’s service. Regular maintenance goes a long way in keeping you on the road of ministry.
Hey pastor, do you struggle with the tension of being “the” pastor or an equipper? As a young pastor I did not feel this tension. In fact, I was not aware such tension existed. As my knowledge of scripture, ministry experience and responsibilities expanded I became aware of this tension. Let me explain what I mean. As a young pastor I naively saw it as my responsibility to serve as a resident chaplain. I visited every home, performed every wedding, conducted every funeral, attended every meeting, sat through every surgery and preached two or three times a week.
There is nothing wrong with this style of ministry. Congregations will applaud you for ministering in this manner. However, there are three difficulties with approaching ministry in this fashion.
First, it will wear you out as you try to wear so many hats. A sure recipe for burnout is to wear too many hats and burn the candle at both ends.
Second, this ministry overload will hinder you from doing things with excellence. You cannot do one or two things with excellence when you are stretched in doing many things.
The third difficulty with the pastor doing everything is that it violates our calling to equip people for ministry. The Bible tells us, “He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints.” (Eph. 4:11-12) We are called to equip all of God’s people to minister.
In considering our call to equip others there are several thoughts we should entertain.
First, do I attempt to do all of the things listed in paragraph one because of my ego. As a young pastor I found it flattering to hear people brag on me and the “hard working pastor.” Pride is a sin! I will leave this discussion for another article. However, we will call it for what it is. A root of pride grows in many directions.
Second, do I trust people? Am I willing to back up and delegate responsibility to fellow believers and trust them to do the job? This requires that I invest in them by equipping with ministry skills to perform the task.
Third, am I willing to confront cultural barriers in order to equip others? For example, most religious traditions refer to “the pastor.” Some of these comments are used generically in referring to a position in the church. However, others see the pastor as “the minister.” Those with such views see the pastor through a different lens than they view other believers. The correct view is that he is a minister/equipper working among fellow ministers. Dismantling this view will require teaching, patience and a new vision. We must establish the vision of a multitude of people ministering and witnessing. We must help our people see the church’s potential when a multitude is active and serving. This new vision will require special effort in areas, such as rural areas, where the demands of ministry (for the paid staff) are less demanding. Some people might criticize you for delegating ministry to others.
The pastor is a pastor/minister! We should add to this the title of pastor/equipper. This will enhance the effectiveness of our work and expand our reach. It will not hinder our work unless we hinder it in our minds.
Last Sunday I preached in a local church. In my sermon I made the comment that all of Jesus' disciples turned their backs on Him before He went to the cross. After the service an elderly man walked up to me and humbly asked a question. He said, "Preacher, was not John standing at the cross when Jesus was crucified?" I stood corrected. Ever feel as if you did not think through a statement?
As I listened to that man I was reminded of several principles that came out of that encounter.
• It reminded me that no one is above making mistakes or saying things that need to be corrected. As pastors we must be open to correction and awkward questions, such as my friend asked. It is possible for our ego to hinder relationships and close our ears to important feedback. If I responded to this gentleman with arrogance I would have pushed him away.
• All of us need each other. God uses other people to guide, correct and show us alternative views. It may be that God sends people to assist us in seeing a broader view. I know, I know, there are some people (critics) who think it is their God given responsibility to keep the pastor on his toes.
• Most of the time we are a better person - stronger, wiser and humbler because of our friend's feedback. Every pastor needs a few trusted friends who are not afraid to tell him the truth or to ask those pointed questions.
For example, in recent years there has been much debate about deacon ministry. Some churches do not recognize the office of deacon. These churches, in a general way, feel there is more harm than good in deacon ministry. This is true in the case of controlling deacons or deacons who do not live up to the spiritual aspect of their calling. However, deacons can be a valuable sounding board for our ideas. Deacons can be a pastor's best friend when they are discerning listeners and spiritual men of God. Controlling deacons or deacons who are not spiritual leaders are a whole different story.
My general point is that pastors need advisers and must be humble enough to accept their input. The writer of Proverbs said "in the multitude of counselors there is safety." (11:14)
For me, pride was one of my greatest barriers as a leader.
1. Pride kept me from laughing at my foolish blunders. I do not enjoy humble pie.
2. Pride kept me from laughing with others at my foolish blunders. When you laugh at yourself and join with other people in laughing at your blunders it creates a spirit of transparency. We desperately need a happy spirit in our churches.
3. Pride, at times, raised a barrier that hindered me from seeking people's input.
4. Pride hindered communication that prevented me from leading people to the next level in our spiritual journey.
Our success in ministry is dependent on healthy relationships with other people. There is much that goes into this dynamic: transparency, integrity, communication, humility and leadership. If we do not seek to build healthy relationship we could be in for a long future. This requires growth, maturity and a vision for God's better plan. He does not want us to spend a ministry career running away because some elderly man asked us an awkward question!
Today I rode horses with my son and grandchildren. My son rode a twenty-year-old family horse, one that is gentle with children. Another lady led the horse on which my grandson (who is four) rode. I rode the high stepper among the group. This horse was energetic and fast paced. He has been ridden in parades and walks with a prance and head held high. Due to this matchup and the aforementioned conditions I found myself holding back my horse and waiting on the others. Though it was not wise to speed up the pace I found myself wanting to say, “Come on guys.”
The previous paragraph describes a situation none of us appreciate. Most people enjoy progress. Waiting on circumstances, people, or GOD is not fun. However, that is a condition ministers are often forced to endure. I use the word “endure” with understanding. I am speaking to myself.
The Psalmist instructed us to, “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10) Any conscientious worker faces a challenge when trying to be still. Action is in the DNA of every working person. Progress and accomplishment fuel a sense of fulfillment. This week I saw this verse in a new light.
To be still is to relax, rest and release. As I look around at ministry friends I see us in a constant state of movement. Preparing to teach, enabling programs, counseling people and visiting the sick drive us every day. These are enjoyable but demanding activities. When God commands us to “be still” He knows we need stillness to refuel and refresh our spiritual energies. God set an example when He rested after creating the world. Do we allow for down time in our lives?
Sometimes I feel as if I am obsessive compulsive. When I sit down to relax and rest I have a hard time fulfilling the task. I find myself thinking of all the things I could be doing. Even when relaxing I often find myself fumbling with my smart phone and all of its gadgets.
The second part of Ps. 46:10 is “know that I am God.” When we are still it allows God to be God. In the Bible when God commands “stillness” it is often so that His children experience His deliverance. I am reminded of the occasion when King Jehoshaphat was surrounded by a group of his enemies (II Chron. 20). The Bible indicates Jehoshaphat was filled with fear and led the people of Judah to fast and pray.
The Lord spoke a word of encouragement to Jahaziel which he shared. He told Jehoshaphat to “stand still and see the salvation of the Lord” (vs. 17). God was waiting on Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah to allow Him to be God.
God desires that we be still and wait on Him. Those of us who have raised children know the joy of a child asking our assistance. There is something about the weakness of a child that makes a father or grandfather have warm feelings. The dependency of the father child relationship is natural.
This dependency speaks to our relationship with God. He knows about the difficulties we face. He knows that people can be stubborn. He knows that strained relationships can cause sleepless nights. Ps. 46:10 begins with two conditions “be still and know.” It closes with an affirmation, “I will be exalted among the nations.” As we urge God to “come on” maybe He is urging us to “wait on HIM.”
Have you seen the lists of biggest and fastest growing churches? How do those lists affect you? They affect me in several contradictory ways. On the one hand I am captivated and inspired by the accomplishments of those churches. I thank God for them. On the other hand I feel intimidated by their accomplishments and feel unworthy because my accomplishments dwarf in comparison. There is a sense in which I feel like a second class minister. Those large ministries are not to blame. It is not their fault that I struggle with such improper feelings. I am caught in the size trap. It is up to me to confront such feelings.
I am not alone! There was an occasion when Andrew was caught in a size trap. He was deceived by size comparisons. On the day Jesus fed the multitude Andrew struggled with this issue. As Jesus questioned His disciples about resources (for feeding the hungry crowd), Andrew said “"Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?" (John 6:9, NIV) The size factor became a trap for Andrew. Jesus was not concerned with size. He was far more concerned with meeting needs and bringing glory to His Father.
You may be struggling in a place of insignificance. The small church you serve seems so little in the great scheme of God’s work. The ministry you perform seems so insignificant. You may be struggling because you do not see the results you thought you would see. The numbers are not what you imagined. More of us fall into this category than those listed among the largest and fastest growing. That leaves us struggling for affirmation. That leaves us questioning our value. Does God notice our accomplishments? Am I on any list?
Several significant truths are found in the story of the feeding of the five thousand. First, we should share our talents, gifts, possessions, and abilities with Jesus. He is the one who determines success. A pastor who is faithfully serving a church of twenty-five is as successful as the pastor of a church running twenty-five thousand. The worship leader in a church of one hundred is as successful as the worship leader of a church running ten thousand. If this is true, then the real measure of success is faithfulness and not numbers. The lad who shared his lunch was to be commended because he was faithful. The lad was to be applauded because he shared what he had with Jesus.
Another closely related truth is that we should leave the outcome to Jesus. The lad shared his meal and left the results to Jesus. It is not our job to determine the outcome. That is Jesus’ task. It may be that we sometimes manipulate results in order to get the numbers we desire. I pray that we would follow the lad’s example and let Jesus determine the outcome.
Are you struggling today? Are you feeling as if your life does not count? Are you caught in the size trap? Give yourself a break! You deserve more credit and more affirmation than you are giving yourself.