trying to do everything everyone wants is killing us
Two books found their way into my world this spring, and their convergence has helped me understand why so many pastors are suffering short tenures (3-5 year average) and physical problems, and the battle each of us in professional ministry must face. The books are The Time Bomb in the Church and Ignore Everybody. The former is about pastors who have heart attacks because they’re doing too much; the latter is about creativity, which is a big umbrella under which many subjects can find cover, including “life management.” Taken together, the two books have helped realign me, and though I’ve still some distance to before I can say I’ve achieved these things, these are truths that have risen to the surface to challenge me and most of my pastoral peers:
Truth #1: Notoriety is overrated. It saddens me when I read about “rising stars” in Christendom, because I’m fairly well convinced that the people who do the very best job representing Christ in this world aren’t doing it for notoriety, but simply, like Brother Lawrence, out of love for God. I’ll be the first to share that challenges come about precisely when, for whatever reason, we’re granted a measure of exposure in the broader culture, because the temptation is to equate it with worth, even with wisdom. That’s what our world does – but what our world does is wrong. My favorite pastor leads a church that doesn’t even have a website. He loves his community and his congregation. He teaches well. And he’s been there for over 15 years! In God’s economy, the man’s work is golden.
The important thing is to find one’s worth in faithfulness, not sphere of influence, even when our world tells us otherwise in so many ways. Whatever sphere of influence happens because of that happens. But don’t tie it to your worth.
Truth #2: Conventional wisdom is overrated. The web is overflowing with material for pastors, telling them how to build churches. It’s bursting with advice for authors regarding how to increase readership. There are seminars, webinars, newsletters, and oh so many purveyors of “Pathways” which, if followed, will lead to the promised land of bigger churches, more sales, and “increased influence.”
Pardon me while I throw up. This “need for more” is what is killing pastors, not only in body, but in soul. As they walk the path offered by the purveyors, the 7-minute path to church growth leads to both unrealistic expectations and new demands on one’s time. And now, having embraced this path, along with the herd of others doing the same, we find ourselves shaped by techniques, rather than our own creativity. We plow through our new ‘to do list’, not even sure if we believe in it, but convinced it’s right because the herd is plowing too. This is not living, at least not the life Christ called us to pursue.
Truth #3: Intimacy with Christ is underrated. Jesus promises that those who abide in Christ will bring forth lots of fruit. It’s clear though, that fruit in ministry and life, like fruit in the vineyard, is a by-product of other things, like tending the soil of our hearts, our bodies, our significant relationships. It’s also clear that the scope of the fruit is God’s prerogative, not ours. Big church or small church? It’s the wrong question, and surely not a determinant of significance. More important is the abiding, as Paul would later articulate here.
Of course there are resource questions, and sustainability when it comes to church life. Of course publishers need to sell books to pay for work of publishing. Of course these aren’t questions to be ignored. But as objectives, they remind me of the story in The Great Divorce about the guy who once enjoyed nature for nature, but now only sees nature as a potential work of art for sales. When we view our craft as pastors, writers, whatever, as a means to an end, it’s the kiss of death, at least for me.
Truth #4: We are whole people. When the to do list is longer than the day, the first thing to disappear is exercise. The second thing is prayer and meditation. The to-do list has been long lately, and I’m sad to confess that these pieces of life have turned up missing as much as they’ve been present. Lately I’ve been feeling it – in ways described in that Ticking Time Bomb book.
It’s liberating to realize that if I’m neglecting the life giving disciplines that are central to my health, I’m doing something wrong. God’s not called me (at least not in this environment of abundance and freedom) to neglect a decent workout, and some moments of intimacy with Jesus. So, starting just recently (OK – yesterday) I made some changes as means of recovery. I made taking care of myself and intimacy inviolable, and have started considering what needs to be amputated from my day if I’m to save these important priorities. We’ll see how it goes, but I have a sense it will go well.
I hope there’s application here for people other than pastors, but I know there’s application for me. I welcome your thoughts.