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We must not let the work of God through us destroy the work of God in us.
That was a lesson I had to learn as a young pastor trying to launch a new congregation just outside Indianapolis.
I learned it the hard way.
North American congregations have traditionally cherished the virtue of hard work as a way to please God. If our goals aren’t being realized, our leaders will simply have to keep a few more balls in the air. Classically, a single individual is expected to generate church-wide progress in bringing people to maturity in Christ. That person is the pastor.
Members of the clergy are typically expected to be excellent preachers, teachers, worship leaders, counselors, committee chairs, hospital visitors, letter writers, pastoral caregivers, administrators, wedding and funeral officiants, part-time janitors, and the one who is asked to pray at civic functions and picnics.
The default consideration for a congregation thus becomes: How can we expose a maximum number of people to the work of our pastor, so that he or she can work a maximum amount of spiritual magic?
Early in the history of our congregation, I succumbed to this grocery list of expectations. At root was a powerful element of pride. After all, wouldn’t our church be impoverished by the absence of my remarkable gifts and insights, served up regularly seven days a week? Determined that I would never have to answer to Rev. Slacker, I found myself pedaling my inner bicycle faster and faster just to stay even with the demands of a growing congregation.
As I revealed some years ago in a book called The Disciple Making Church, the costs were high.
As a young Christian I had been thrilled every time I had heard someone share something of their personal spiritual journey. My heart had practically jumped. Several years into the rigors of church planting, however, I felt more like the mythological figure Sisyphus, pushing the rock toward the top of the hill again and again, knowing that it would inevitably roll all the way back down to the bottom, initiating another Sunday-to-Sunday cycle of total effort. More and more, when I heard someone speak of a spiritual breakthrough, my heart monitor seemed flat-lined.
When at home I tortured myself by thinking, “I ought to be out making calls right now. What kind of pastor am I?” When out making calls I couldn’t help but think, “I ought to be home right now. What kind of husband and father am I?”
Guilt became a 24/7 traveling companion. I was exhausted. Drop-in guests became interruptions. I frequently wondered how I would get through the next week’s obligations. Mostly I yearned to live out the fantasy of sleeping for three days straight.
On the outside I faked my way through my required church relationships, saving my major letdowns for those at home. It occurred to me that I was metaphorically living out the 1957 black-and-white horror movie classic, The Incredible Shrinking Man. In the movie a man is exposed to a cloud of radiation, whereupon he gradually becomes a smaller and smaller version of himself. Doctors and scientists are powerless to arrest his slow demise.
Ultimately this fellow takes up residence in his daughter’s dollhouse. The most familiar and friendly aspects of his home become threatening. The family cat begins to picture him as an appetizer. He tumbles down the basement stairs, wages war with a common house spider, and…well, you can catch the ending yourself sometime late at night on cable.
What was happening to me?
I was the man with the Incredible Shrinking Heart. My heart for God, my heart for ministry, and my heart for my wife Mary Sue and our four children was progressively getting smaller. The familiar surroundings of my own home actually became threatening, since walking through my own door reminded me that I wasn’t being the person God had called me to be. “Can’t you see how hard I’m trying?” I would snap.
In a perverse way I took heart from the fact that a number of Christian leaders have historically struggled with less-than-ideal marriages. I wondered if marital tension might not be a necessary price to pay for working in God’s harvest field. John Wesley’s wife allegedly once rode up on a horse behind his open-air audience and shouted, “Don’t listen to this man! He’s out of his mind!” When Mary Sue started taking horse-riding lessons, I thought, “Uh-oh.”
But what could I do? God seemed to be accomplishing so many things through my valiant efforts. He was multiplying our church’s ABCs: attendance, building, and cash. Wasn’t that evidence I was doing something right?
The problem is that all the church stuff happening through me was coming at the expense of God’s far more important work in me.
My domestic world finally imploded on a day that I was running off to help lead a weekend retreat. I remember standing on our stairs, holding a pile of papers under my left arm. Mary Sue was standing at the top of the stairs over a pile of laundry. We were yelling at each other in frustration and rage. I was conscious of the fact that the children could hear us. We were raising our voices because our worlds had grown so far apart. Emotionally we had taken our hearts off the table of our marriage.
I knew I had to do something. I had to make a point. Assertively I took a step up the stairs and spluttered something like, “I just want to know one thing: What happened to the beautiful woman I married?” Only a seriously lost person could ever ask such a question.
With eerie calmness Mary Sue said, in effect, “Oh, that woman. She died. But you were very busy at church. You didn’t see it happen.”
I wish I could tell you that I was wise enough to put down that armload of papers, back out of the retreat, and begin to make things right at home. But I simply didn’t know how to jump off the moving freight train that was crushing everything I valued most. Who could ever make things right?
Over time God presented to Mary Sue and to me the opportunity to heal our marriage. On the other side of some excellent counseling, the support of our small group, and a thousand small acts to put our hearts back on the table, we reclaimed the dream of being a couple who can know and experience the love of God together.
Things changed at church, too.
I had to reject the foundational lie I had been telling myself – that if I ever stepped back from my manic pace of life, the kingdom of God would be just one day away from collapse.
At one of our elder meetings I said, “Let’s try something different. It’s time to challenge the idea that somehow I’m the only player on the team who can carry the ball. What if we gave some of our lay leaders the training they needed and turned them loose in their own areas of ministry?” They had never heard me say this before. How would they respond to a pastoral request to step back from ministry?
The elders nodded, smiled, and said, “Why don’t we start immediately?”
Frankly it was unnerving to discover that my non-involvement was welcomed as such an asset. But they were, in fact, right on target. The members of our congregation felt freer and more valued as they were entrusted, in my absence, to invest in ministries and relationships that mattered.
Without realizing where we would end up, we had taken a vital step toward becoming a much healthier church. We had agreed that it wasn’t crucial for everything to cross my desk.
It doesn’t matter what hat you’re wearing today.
Whether you’re a shepherd or “just one of the sheep,” a leader or a volunteer, someone with years of experience or someone who is just starting out, the truth remains the same:
By God’s grace, we must not let the work of God through us compromise the work of God in us.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.