This is the second in a series. Our ability to manage the issue of church complication may well affect our health and effectiveness in the ministry.
Second, we are guilty of “layering.” At some point in history churches began to layer new programs and new ministries in an effort to strengthen our churches. We added Sunday school, discipleship classes, brotherhood or men’s ministry, women’s ministry, various music groups, three or four children’s ministries, VBS, nursery, committees, Wednesday night activities, and the list goes on. All the activities I mentioned are good. There is not a bad idea among them. However, as the layers build up so does the complication.
An example of layering occurs in children’s ministry. If a church conducts Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night activities they feel obligated to provide children’s activities during each of the time periods. That is a noble gesture. However, the problem is, there are only so many people who are gifted, willing and able to work with children. Parents and church leaders desire to provide children’s Sunday school, AWANA (or a similar) ministry, mission organizations, VBS, and other children’s activities. All of these are “good,” but they put a strain on children’s workers. In order to get the needed workers a church ends up asking people to fill two or three ministry positions or use people whose hearts are not into children’s ministry. In this scenario the issue is not what is “good” but what is “best.”
When church leaders cannot get enough workers they tend to criticize church members for being uncaring. The problem, many times, is not uncommitted people but “layering.”
Do you ever feel that church is “too” complicated? If so, this article is for you. I first realized this truth when I was thirty-one. My awareness of this truth developed in the following way. I was serving a church in rural Mississippi. We typically averaged 100-150 in worship on Sunday mornings. As a young pastor I thought I had to visit each church family once or twice a year and every prospect who visited the church. In addition, I was preaching three sermons a week and teaching a discipleship class. Plus, I visited every person who was in the hospital, I was available for counseling, and I performed all weddings and funerals. Add to that list, deacon’s meetings, church leadership meetings, budget meetings, personnel meetings and the like. Plus, I was the only full time staff member in the church. I enjoyed all of these activities. I enjoyed being a pastor. However, I soon learned I was not superman. I began to feel empty. I began to lose the joy of ministry. Where did this come from? The technical name for my condition was burnout. The burnout was induced by a complicated lifestyle. When church becomes so complicated that you do not enjoy church, something is wrong! (I refer you to Dr. Thom Rainer’s book Simple Church.)
The story of Mary and Martha helps put this concept into perspective. “But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Jesus and said, "Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me." And Jesus answered and said to her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38-42 NKJV)
A girl’s high school basketball team from our area recently won their eighth consecutive state basketball title. Today I was thinking, “I would not want to follow in that coach’s steps. He will be a hard act to follow.”
In following Jesus I sometimes feel the same way. I feel as if it is hard to follow his example. A passage from Isaiah 53 shares one such example. “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth.” (Isaiah. 53:5-7)
Have you ever shot yourself in the foot? This old saying refers to an action or attitude that causes you personal harm or problems. As ministers of the gospel we can be guilty of shooting ourselves in the foot. We often do this with the best of motives and purest of intentions, but they cause us harm nonetheless. A few personal examples might help clarify the picture for you.
I remember an occasion when I got upset with a group of leaders because they failed to fulfill my expectations. Rather than sharing my disappointment with the group and letting that be the end of the matter I closed up and stopped communicating. This caused the leaders to close up and stop communicating. When all was said and done I shot myself in the foot. My self-justification blinded me to my part in the problem.
There were other occasions when I shot myself in the foot with my preaching. What preacher has not used words that came back to haunt him. For example, we might think that stern words will “correct the flock” and cause a wave of repentance. I found that stern words usually discouraged the faithful who were working hard and burdened those who did not need such a burden.
Do you ever feel like you’re climbing out of a pit when you get out of bed in the morning? I felt like that yesterday. I had two minor setbacks that threw me into a tailspin. The setbacks caused me to feel somewhat despondent and discouraged. I spent about half of my day in this pit and then God began to help me climb from it.
A number of different causes can send us to the pit: Monday morning blues, rejection by others, failed plans, a sermon that fell flat, conflict at church, burnout, family issues, just to name a few. The causes vary but the result could be the same - the pit. How do we climb out of the pit? I share the following resources that I have found over the years.
Pray - This resource should be an obvious choice for Christians, but many times it isn't. Pits can be a major inspiration to our prayer life. We tend to criticize people who turn to God in times of crisis. However, is it not human nature to pray more during times of trial? All of us are more spiritual when things are difficult. God desires to use such times to grow us.
Get out of your cave - When trials come, it often feels as if we are in a cave. I remind myself that caves are dark! Thus, it is good to get out of the cave. Visit a friend! Help someone else! Visit someone in the hospital!
Pursue fresh ideas - I find that fresh ideas refresh my spirit. Browsing a magazine, reading a new book or sharing ideas with another person always motivate me.
Share with others - When I got out of bed feeling despondent I didn’t know what the day might hold. Two ministry visits helped to change my focus. I visited a friend who had hit a deer while riding his motorcycle. After that I had lunch with a pastor friend who was struggling with church issues. This visit seemed to be a God ordained contact. That feeling always makes me say WOW!
As I type this article I am watching the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. As I watched the athletes I was reminded of the lonely path they must walk. Sure, there is glamour in what they do, especially if an athlete has the good fortune to win a medal. However, think of the demanding regimen of training, special diets and difficult workouts they must endure. In addition there are occasions when they miss family events or pleasurable activities to stay faithful to their training. Some athletes even move to locations that present better training opportunities. These unique demands are not glamorous.
The lonely path is the destiny of many Christians, especially those who faithfully serve Jesus in ministry. I include pastors, missionaries, deacons, elders, Sunday school/small group leaders, musicians and others who walk a similar path.
As I consider this thought my mind races to the times when God's servants walked alone, as recorded in the Bible. Abraham walked alone when he offered Isaac as an offering to God. Moses walked alone when he ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the revelation of the Ten Commandments. Esther walked alone when she represented the Israelite people before King Ahasuerus. Prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah walked alone. The ultimate example of walking alone was Jesus. He walked alone when He was tempted. He walked alone when He prayed in the garden. He walked alone when He hung on the cross.
“For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy.” (Col. 1:9-11)
Several weeks ago, while visiting Sears, I received a simple but profound message from a line that separates parking spaces. When I parked there was no car on either side of mine. However, when I returned to my car there were cars on either side. The car on my left was parked especially close to me. When I saw the close proximity of the car I became a little agitated. I thought to myself “how dare that driver crowd me?” I could barely squeeze into my car.
After closer examination I discovered I was the one who parked over the line. I was at fault for the close parking conditions. The other fellow was innocent. As I contemplated that incident I considered the lessons God had in store for me, a minister.
First, I should be careful about judging others because I may have a log in my eye. “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye?” (Matt. 7:3-4) When I preach or teach or talk, I should be careful in judging others without recognizing and confessing the sin in my own life.
Second, I should beware of my pride. As I work with others I may make quick judgments that are totally wrong. That was certainly true at Sears. In working with people it is easy to place blame on others when I need to look in the mirror myself.
Third, the Sears incident reminded me that I am a work in progress.
While talking with a young pastor a few days ago, I asked how he was doing. He gave a canned answer that all of us use. He said something like, “I am doing fine.” From that point he shared how busy he had been and hard he had worked. He proceeded to share how we are called to pour out our lives for Christ. I admire his enthusiasm and dedication. He is a hard worker.
The previous discussion started me thinking. When are we pouring our lives in dedication to Christ and when are we foolishly managing our emotional reserves? Failure to discern between these two concepts could have devastating consequences.
First, we are called to pour out our lives in service to Christ. After all, Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” (Luke 9:23) John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
Our hearts are stirred by great saints who poured out their lives for Christ. I am reminded of William Tyndale who was burned at the stake for his efforts to translate the scripture into the common man’s language. I am reminded of William Wilberforce who struggled for years with insult and persecution as he sought to eliminate the slave trade in England. I am reminded of Lottie Moon, the Southern Baptist missionary who died of malnutrition and exhaustion as she served the people of China. I am reminded of the great saints listed in Hebrews 11 who poured out their lives in service to Christ.
I share a couple of simple observations. People who pour out their lives for Christ seldom see themselves as making a sacrifice. Their surrendered life is a part of their identity. People who pour out their lives for Christ are like a galloping horse who is hard to reign in. Their passion is their life.
Last week my wife, Judy, and I stopped for lunch at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Our car has a hard time passing a Cracker Barrel! As we sat waiting to place our order I noticed two men being ushered to the table next to us. As I watched I thought to myself, “If I were a betting man, I would guess those two men are preachers.” My assessment proved to be right. (Please understand, I am not judging these men. They may have been totally Godly men, as far as I know.) This is not the first time I have made such an accurate assessment of preachers, simply by looking at them. This assessment occurred before these individuals ever opened their mouths. After they were seated their conversation proved me to be right.
The thought raised in the previous paragraph caused me to do a little soul searching. I wondered if I look like a preacher. If my behavior and conversation cause people to raise an eyebrow out of respect, then I praise the Lord for such a testimony. However, if people evaluate me negatively by my dress, demeanor, carriage and manner of speech, then I should do a little soul searching.
When the Lord called me to preach I rejected His call because of a stubborn heart. However, there were certain perception issues which encouraged my procrastination. These issues were based on the naïve heart of a teenager more than on actual fact. I list several of my issues: I thought all preachers wore Sunday clothes all of the time. I thought all preachers were loud and arrogant. I thought all preachers were gluttons and had huge bulging stomachs. There I said it!