So a few weeks back, I wondered if there were any other pastors who fret over whether or not they're "selling out." After spending a week at church camp, and trying to get ready for ministry this fall, I'm ready to answer. First, let me say a little more about what I mean by "selling out."
Obviously, I don't mean getting paid a huge amount of money because pastors don't really get paid much (more than some, but not a lot). What I mean is: do I stray from my ideals in order to please pew-sitters or denominational authority? My ideal is this: ultimately, my life is to please God. If others happen to be pleased as well, then that's great, but my number one priority is pleasing God.
Honestly and unfortunately, the answer is "yes." I have from time to time tried to keep people happy simply so they would keep filling a pew on a regular basis and give their money. Yes, I have done things simply because the denominational higher-ups expect something a certain way. Just confessing that is freeing.
Here's what really concerns me though: I feel like I have to give my attention to a lot of things that aren't really making an impact. So often, I feel like there are competing expectations. The congregation expects me to take care of the people who are already Christian-Church-Attenders, and the "membership," but I feel God calling me to reach people in the community who do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Now if I can mobilize the "membership" to join me in reaching the community, that would be awesome. That seems so difficult. Even impossible. In fact, I think Mark Love captures a bit of what I'm saying here:
Our [pastors] greatest fear is irrelevance...that what we say and do is making zero difference in your life.
So part of me is always wondering if I get too tied up in inward-focused churchy stuff instead of the God stuff. I ask myself: "Am I settling for less than what God intended?" Have I become okay with just allowing the status quo to continue because it keeps the "church people" happy?
The truth is, if keeping people happy is the goal, then I'll never reach it. I have to stay focused on pleasing God, even if it means questioning the status quo, changing things, rocking the boat...or leaving the boat...and even if it means some people are unhappy.
There's another voice that is speaking to me from Scripture right now. It's Matthew 25:21:
You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much
I think that's a reminder to me that little things can make a big difference. It's also a reminder to be patient and realize that the best results usually aren't immediate. That's encouraging because some of thing things that I think aren't making a difference...offered to God, who knows what He can do...maybe they're doing more than I realize. "With God, all things are possible."
This week's question is "Am I Selling Out?" By that I mean, do I stray slightly from God's call on my life to keep church people happy, or denominational leadership happy, or donors happy...etc.? Do you ever wonder about that? Or feel that tension? Please respond in the comments below. You can expand the question. You can tell of your story of when you've thought about this. It's open to you. I'll give my thoughts at the end of the week. Also, you can submit a question for future weeks here.
(This post is the first "answer" to a series of questions that haunt pastors. You can submit a question here. I have a great one to start next week, so check-in on Monday and discuss with me.)
Am I making a difference? I asked myself that as I drove home after church one Sunday afternoon. The question was still with me the next day when I woke up and went running. Running has always been a good time for me to think. So I started re-phrasing the question and being more specific about it.
Many pastors probably wonder about this, and we attach our value to "how church is going." If it's going up, we feel up. If it's going down, we feel down. That's not a very good recipe for longevity of effective ministry. Let's dive in and explore this a little more. What am I really asking when I ask "Do I make a difference?"
First, I think I mean specifically: "are there any changes in the lives of the people who hear me preach?" That is a question that I cannot answer directly. I can observe how people live and try to connect it to my influence. I can listen to people give compliments after a sermon. I even get compliments from people after months of hearing my preaching. But the cynical side of me has a hard time receiving them because I've always thought "actions speak louder than words." So what actions do I see among the people who hear me preach regularly?
Again, the cynical side of me has an easy time coming up with negative responses to that question. I'll be honest, it's hard for me to find things to celebrate. Maybe I expect too much, or I expect it on a faster time-frame. A friend and mentor responded to my question on Facebook saying, "Look for the small advances." That's great advice. In fact, at our last Church Council meeting I had people share things they thought the church could celebrate, and hearing the responses was very encouraging. I'll be honest though, I'm inpatient, and I want to see big things. So, looking for the small advances helps, but it's not always satisfying.
Another issue is how my denominational system tracks "fruitfulness." The main focus has been worship attendance, which can trend up over time, but has dips in between. So if you measure each week by that, it can be a stressful roller coaster ride. We also track "professions of faith" (a.k.a. conversions/commitments/decisions/confirmations), the number of people in "hands-on" mission & service, and the number of people involved in regular discipleship groups. We are always reminded that every number is a person, and every person matters, but a value ends up getting attached to the number. I just can't attach my value to numbers.
So, what's the answer to this question about making a difference? What am I asking? What do I really want to know? That my life's work is not in vain, but has a value for eternity. I want to know that the preaching, the visits, the evangelism, the youth trips and camps, the VBS, etc. has impacted people's lives in such a way that those who have not had a close relationship with Jesus, will know him for eternity. My experience with Youth Ministry has shown me, that I may not see that until the students have grown into adulthood and choose to live as Christ-followers. And some students I may never see again in this lifetime. I may not know the answer to this question until eternity. So why ask?
I think part of it is doubt, which we all face. It's one of those self-doubt voices that you have to be very careful about listening to. Too often, I forget that God in Jesus Christ has said "You, Ben, are valuable, my son. Your life is important to me. You will be apart of the great things of My Kingdom." In one sense, I already know the answer to my question: Yes, of course I make a difference. I am a beloved child of God. As long as I am faithful to God's call, God uses me to make a difference for the Kingdom of God. (If I am unfaithful, I am choosing to abandon God's call and kingdom even though God still offers it.)
I am also reminded of how much encouragement and appreciation people need. I'm not the only one asking this question. All of us want to know. Have you taken time lately to go out of your way and show appreciation and encouragement for the Christ-followers who have invested in your life? Let them know they make a difference.
Here's the answer:
I do make a difference. I know it not because of a number, and not because people like me, and not because people do what I say. I know it because God proclaims it through Christ's death & resurrection, and God's willingness to adopt me as His own. Through Jesus Christ, I know it more and more each day, and one day...one glorious day, I will know it fully and completely in eternity.
I thought I would do something to keep me blogging on ministry leadership. So I have "questions that haunt a pastor."** These are things that would keep a pastor up at night, or at least continually searching. The way this will work is, at the beginning of each week I'll post a question, and then you can post your thoughts about it. At the end of the week, I'll post my reflection/answer about it. To give things a chance to catch on, I'll ask the question this week, but I would love people to submit questions here.
This week's question is "Am I Making A Difference?" I ask myself that at least weekly. Do you ask yourself that? How do you measure your effectiveness as a leader, pastor, teacher, minister?
I don't want to say too much now because I'll save it for the reflection/answer later.
**(I'm stealing the title from my friend and theologian, Tony Jones. His series "Questions that Haunt Christianity" focuses on issues that deal with Christian Theology and Spirituality. People submit questions that bug them about Christianity, and then Tony and his readers answer. It's been pretty good discussion over at Theoblogy, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/.)
I am a Software Developer, a career shift made in 2018. So far, I have experience with C# .Net and Angular. I continue to let curiosity lead me into learning new technologies. I plan to share what I learn along the way about technology and personal/career life. Previously, my vocation was United Methodist pastor. So in addition to coding, I'll share about theology, the Church and The Bible. I also enjoy running, music, and I'm a deeply committed father and husband. Maybe my experiences will help you. I know it helps me to share.