Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Two Little Words and the Cowardly Pastor

I recently had a pastor sitting in my office. We updated each other on things that were going on in our lives for a while, then spoke of plans and things on our radar for the future. He paused for a second, looked at me, and asked, “how do you deal with discouragement in ministry?”

Wrong guy to ask, brother.

I pastor two churches. My Sunday afternoons between services are spent driving 98 miles south to a border church and then driving back. I go down there for an additional Bible study once a month, and occasionally head down there as needs arise. When I first took on this blessed responsibility, it was weird for a lot of people (including myself). The fact that I would serve another congregation during those hours between the morning and evening service frankly bothered some folks.

I remember a committee meeting at my “main” church about six years ago. There was a man in that meeting who tended to openly oppose me (he’s no longer a member of the church). He was sitting by me, but addressed the rest of the committee like I wasn’t there: “Who’s going to pay for the gas for the pastor’s ‘pet project’?” No one challenged him. Not even me.

I tend to bury that stuff deep inside, and it becomes a nagging fear (I guess that’s the word for it) that manipulates me in ministry. Even after that guy left the church the following year, his words (“pet project”) haunted me. It moved me to seek sources of funding for the Sunday afternoon mission outside the church, just so I wouldn’t have to hear those words again.

I thought I had “cast a vision” (to use the modern terminology) that it was an opportunity for us as a congregation to bless a sister church...had I failed? Was I wrong in doing this thing?

Looking back, I realized that these words pushed me away from leading our church to be more missional than we were. The hurt had become fear, which had become disobedience to the Word and failure to faithfully pastor the congregation.

Even three years ago, when I was asked to be part of an annual international mission, this stronghold in my heart planted its flag when it came time to fund-raise. And it did it again the second year when it came time to fund-raise. And this year, the third, year, until...

...last Sunday in the pulpit one of our members, in announcing a pie auction to raise funds for the mission, called it “our Philippines mission.”

And with that one plural possessive pronoun (don’t tell me grammar’s not important) the stronghold fell. The hidden pain which had been fed in the darkness until it became a fear which became a disobedience in my life was demolished. Two words (“pet project”) were defeated by one word (“our”).

Sure, I’m probably a coward. But I know I can’t change hearts. All I can do is submit to God, Who called me to this place to preach the Word expositionally week after week after week, no matter how hurt and fearful and disobedient I am. I kept driving and preaching on my Sunday afternoons – not because I was brave, but because I knew it’s what God would have this little coward to do. I kept committing to the overseas trip, even though that meant I had to rely on others for fund-raising...which meant I was going to have to be vulnerable to the possibility of someone accusing me of raising money for my “pet project.”

What’s pathetic about those two words from six years ago is that it’s so far from the attitude of the church as a whole. They’ve always support me, prayed for me, encouraged me. But I’m small and weak, and derailed by two words.

God is merciful and good, and looking back I see what He’s done despite my weakness as pastor of these beautiful little churches in the remote Southwest U.S.A.

How do I deal with discouragement, fellow pastor? Not very well. Inside I tend to sit the ashes, while plugging on wearing a brave face on the outside.

So, maybe the lesson here is consistence, or perseverance. Don’t quit if the mission/ministry is God-given. You’re probably thinking, “TWO WORDS?! You’re all introspective and moping about TWO WORDS – from a guy who’s not even been around for five years?! I only wish it were just two words in my case!!”

You’re right. Both congregations are now thriving, both have a heart for missions, and both are more loving, supportive, and encouraging than I can tell you. It’s stupid and weak that two echoing words buried deep in my heart hampered me so much. I agree and confess it freely.

I was moved to take on the second church by a passage of Paul’s in 2 Corinthians: “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one - I am talking like a madman - with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches11:23-28). It’s not that I thought I faced anything even remotely close to the long list of outward struggles that Paul rehearses. It was the fact that his outward circumstances didn’t consume his heart – the churches did. How Christ-like! That motivated me to give my Sunday afternoons – just a few hours a week – to tending to this little congregation in the middle of nowhere.

A few verses later Paul gives us a bit of red letter that comes from the risen and ascended Jesus, Who ever lives to make intercession for those who draw near to God through Him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). The apostle’s “ the flesh,” a “messenger from Satan,” was probably more than two words. But the point is the same.

Keep on following the heart of Christ for His people, no matter how weak or emotionally crippled you feel. Even if you aren’t blessed in this life as I was this last Sunday when I heard the unexpected but gloriously reviving words “our Philippines mission,” the promise is laid out for His faithful (even if weak) servants, that one day they will hear the words “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:21,23; Luke 19:17).

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