Has anyone else spent time this past year thinking about what other career they could be doing besides ministry? The thought entered my mind a few times, and I am certain I am not alone. Many of us have experienced an exodus of people, hurtful comments, betrayal, depression, abandonment…you name it and EFCA East Pastors have felt it. As a result, we are left in despair and without ambition for the ministry in front of us. It’s easy to feel like giving up, but I think there is a much better option.
Shred everything behind us and set a new course for what lies ahead.
Over the past year our staff has taken the time to do some massive spring cleaning. We gave the most attention to the “no one knows what’s in there or how it got there” spaces. We found so many old pointless records that our shredder was asking for a raise. Honestly, I kind of enjoy shredding documents. It’s freeing to move on from something entirely, putting something out of thought and out of existence. So I say we shred it – shred the expectations of pre-covid ministry, shred the timelines for growth, shred the budget, shred the plans, shred the pain. Let’s shred our patterns and routines, even our philosophies and visions if we have to. The world in front of us has been drastically restructured and it’s time for us to shred the old and face the new.
I firmly believe God is doing something new within the hearts of His leaders to reposition us for His glory in what lies ahead. I think God is renewing us from a spiritual and emotional standpoint so that we re-emerge with an energy and passion to reach the lost and disciple believers in these unforeseen circumstances.
Here are 4 progressions we need to make to start shredding and start renewing.
1. UNDERSTAND THE MOVEMENT NOT THE MICROCOSM
What is happening in your church is in no way unique. This isn’t about one church, one city or one state. This is about a national (or even global) response to several major events in a short period of time that have been incredibly divisive. Recently, one of our elders (who happens to be a social scientist) shared with me an article that he felt very astutely defined the current climate of Christianity in America. Michael Graham’s The Six Way Fracturing of Evangelicalism is a must read for us if we want to understand the movement and not simply be dismayed by the microcosm of our congregation. For instance, I was hoping much of this would blow over like a storm and that we could get back to life as normal (and a few of us may), but by-in-large Graham points out a sobering reality. “The tectonic plates are shifting underfoot. This fracturing will likely be irrevocable not because our Gospel essentials are not unifying enough but because the divergence of ethical priorities, cultural engagement, racial attitudes, political visions/illusions, and their implications for philosophy of ministry mean that unity is fundamentally no longer tenable.” Graham’s point is that the average Christian’s response to these issues has become so engrained at the core of their identity that it is permanently polarizing.
Many people in our congregations have lost the ability to understand how you can still be a Christian and not hold passionately to the same viewpoint as them. They have no desire to worship in the same room as someone who does not think and feel the same. Graham’s article is really an incredibly insightful picture of what is going on around us. I found that it took some of the personal offense to what was happening away. It was not all my fault as it was an un-winnable situation for our leadership team. It happened, and it’s where we are. Trying to put it all back together again is as gargantuan a task as trying to slide the tectonic plates of America alongside Europe. If it feels like we are in the middle of a family feud destined to go on for decades or more, it’s because we are. We need to let go of the personal responsibility for it and let ourselves move on.
2. RE-EMERGE: WHY DO I ACTUALLY DO THIS?
A few weeks ago I wasn’t in the best place. Another family was leaving for a reason that seemed silly to me (something that has become all too common) and I was tired from a long week. I sat down to watch some youtube hunting videos just to put my mind somewhere else. On one particular episode the host interviewed a professional guide about his passion for hunting. Surprisingly the guide stated that he didn’t work as a guide because he liked to hunt. Quite frankly he admitted there was a lot about hunting that the he didn’t like at all: He didn’t like the cold, the long hours, the wind, the rain, the letdowns or the heavy pack loads he carried. The host doing the interview was as caught off guard as I was. He asked why the guide chose to be a guide if he didn’t like to hunt. The response seemed like a hand-tailored message for me straight from God about my own context that I was presently avoiding thinking about. He said, “I don’t hunt because I like it, I hunt because it’s who I am. I am a hunter, it’s who God made me to be and I can’t be anything other than that.” And there it was. That’s why I am a pastor…it’s not because I like it, because I enjoy it, or even because in a greater existential sense it satisfies me. I pastor because God made me a pastor. Anything else and I wouldn’t’t be true to something at the very core of who I am, a person given to God’s Church as a gift from God to see its growth through (Ephesians 4 for the reminder).
I don’t do this because I like to preach sermons or appreciate the joy of seeing someone saved or baptized. I do it because this is who He made me to be. So then I look at what is in front of me and ask what that means for my immediate context. For me, in this season, it means that I take the advice of preacher Gordon MacDonald to heart, “Be more of a priest than a preacher.” What our congregations need right now is the love and hope and comfort of a priest more so than they need a perfectly preached, vision-oriented sermon. They need someone to stand between God and them, carrying them on their shoulders in prayer. They need a leader who goes back to the grass-roots of this all and sits down and studies Scripture with people. They need someone who deeply loves God and wholly loves them. They need someone who abides deeply in the love of Christ, and lets His love overflow richly into the lives of those under their care. They need someone who does not miss the simple astonishing fact that God is at work through them. If we are going to shred the past and face the new, we have to re-emerge with an understanding of who we are and why we do what we do. Do we do it because we love what we do, because we love the success it brings, or do we do it because we simply love Jesus and His people?
3. GET HEALTHY AND BE THE HOST
Like an unhealthy patient at a doctor’s visit, we need to realize that some of our current unhealthiness was because of unhealthy lifestyle in the time leading up to the visit. When we tie our happiness to the attendance numbers of our church, our sense of self-worth to the post-sermon response, it is inevitable that bad habits will start to produce unhealthy symptoms. So when all the things we like go away, we are left with the symptoms of an unhealthy pastoral lifestyle and nothing to mask it. I came to this realization and spent some honest tear-filled time in the Scriptures reading over Isaiah 53 and letting the idea of the suffering servant minister to me. As that time drew to a conclusion I walked away with this thought, “You know what I really need to shred? My self-dependence.” I needed to let go of the idea that the results were tied to my efforts.
We have to shred self-reliance and its unhealthiness. We have to shred it and realize our task is to play the role of the host. No, not the role of the host as people pleaser who tries to satisfy every guest. I mean “host” like the follower of Christ “hosts” the Spirit of God in their life. Host like the temple of God hosted the Spirit in the Old Testament. Be filled with Him and filled with thoughts of His glory and goodness. We spend time in the Word and let the Spirt show us, step-by-step how to live it out. His fruit will show up on our branches and we will be a blessing to those in our congregation.
In the Ancient Hebrew world, a large tree in the right spot was much more cherished than it is today. Without the modern comforts of air conditioning, to sit under the branches of an old tree was the prime spot in town. Without the shipping industry daily bringing fresh fruit to put on the shelves, the ripe fruit of a large tree was life-giving. This is why the ancient Hebrews saw the tree as such a sign of prosperity and blessing. As Psalms 1 says of the person who walks with the Lord, “That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.” When we play the role of host to the Spirit our attenders are served the fruit from our life and ministry. They enjoy the kindness, love, and hope like a perfectly ripe and satisfying fruit. What we will discover is that when we put our focus on pleasing God by letting the Spirit work in and through us, we will have a peace that will be as pleasing to those under our care as if they were seated under the shade-bearing branches of a tree on a sweltering hot day.
4. REASSESS THE VISION AND PHILOSOPHY
Because this world is so split and so new, we would be wise to take a few prayer-filled months with our staff and elder boards to assess the landscape in front of us and discern who we are going to be as a church. It’s time to give fresh attention to envision what God is going to accomplish through us. I honestly don’t think these conclusions will be as numerically driven as they were in the past. I took note of several recent interviews where Tim Keller echoed something similar as he pondered about whether 10 churches of 500 would have a greater impact on a city than one church of 5,000. Likewise, it seems from those I have spoken to who have gone down this path recently, that vision now will be more focused on how our unique identity will impact the world around us in a different way than simply filling the seats.
At the EFCA national conference a few years ago, Larry Osborne shared in a breakout session that we as pastors should, “Pastor the church we would want to attend.” His point was that we will have the healthiest ministry if it is actually in line with who God uniquely made us to be. If you don’t believe it, stop and think about all those who left your church to go to a different church during the pandemic. How much would you want to attend the new church they now go to? Is it the style and philosophy you would be on board with? Would you want to attend a church that did church in that particular way? I personally wouldn’t, and if that’s you, that should be refreshing. It’s refreshing because we have the freedom to uniquely shape the church in front of us with those who are likely to be on board with our vision. After all, part of the beauty of our calling and our churches being so unique to our context is precisely that; we have so many different churches ministering to so many different people. We shouldn’t keep spending time under the burden of our old dreams, if it’s time to move on, let’s move on.
Look, we knew that a task of leading sheep wouldn’t always be easy. We knew it would make us weary. We also knew going into this that success would look different in every season. We have a brand new season in front of us and it comes on the heals of suffering, doubt, debate, and division. Let’s shred the old, take a step back, get healthy, refocus with our core group and be re-energized for the task ahead.
1. Share these concepts with your elder board so that you can all be on the same page about where things are at and where they need to go.
2. Talk to someone. I recently chatted with another EFCA East pastor about the pain I was feeling through this season. I wish I would have done it months ago. It’s healthy and keeps us from being self-reliant and alone. We all have felt pain in some way shape or form, and aside from God, our peers are the only ones that will really connect with it.
If you’re up for it, take a minute to list one pain you’re feeling in the comment section below.