With the new Omicron variant of the COVID virus, there is an all-too-familiar (and unfortunate) flood of thoughts, opinions, new “experts” (those reading and watching too much of either side of the issue) and tons of challenges for church and ministry leaders.
Over the last two years, we have witnessed and walked alongside many pastors and ministry leaders navigating the challenging waters of pandemic restrictions, political polarization and racial injustices. We personally experienced the pain of people’s words, actions and departures. The most challenging wasn’t so much that they left as much as it was how they left.
In all honesty, the last two years have been the hardest, not just for me personally, but for me to watch what my fellow pastors have gone through. It was harder at times to watch my friends be torn by people on both sides in a seemingly fruitless tug-of-war of opinions, thoughts and actions.
Just like COVID seems indifferent and impartial to who it impacts and when it comes, so too have these issues been impartial to church size, style and even denominations.
As a lead pastor of a small church plant, we have the spectrum of not just ethnic diversity like our beautiful city, but diversity of thought, political opinions and social viewpoints. Even as a small start-up church, we are shepherding a wide sampling of our community. The benefit of being small is that between my co-planter and I, we can have many of the harder conversation ourselves (at least for now). People can honestly share and feel like their pastor has heard them, even if we don’t always agree.
The downside of a small church is that every one of these conversations feels like a major win or a major loss. For larger churches, the issues and impact vary, but one fact seems to remain: the rope in this proverbial tug-of-war ends up being the pastors and leaders themselves. We are the ones who are pulled in every direction.
No wonder, according to U.S. News, “A recent survey of Protestant pastors by the research firm Barna Group found that 29% said they had given ‘real, serious consideration to quitting being in full-time ministry within the last year.’”
All of this upheaval should point us to a timeless truth: We need to preach the truth to ourselves first and foremost and on “repeat.”
“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 3:16).
Below are five truths and verses that help me to watch my life and my doctrine closely. These not only help me as I navigate next steps with a new variant, but they recenter our motives of ministry back onto Christ.
Don’t we shepherd? Absolutely, we are pointers to Jesus, but we aren’t the point. Yes, we shepherd His flock, but He’s the Great Shepherd of the sheep. Sure, our work is significant, but know that your significance and identity are wrapped in being His child.
“Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep…” (Hebrews 13:20)
2. You are not your own and neither are your people.
It’s painful and difficult to see people leave our churches, especially those we have invested in so deeply. My wife and I have a saying we remind one another of: “Invest deeply, hold loosely.”
“Keep watch over yourselves and the entire flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood.” (Acts 20:28)
3. Your job is an impossibility unless the Lord allows.
Remember that what the Lord is calling us to is not to change anyone or anything, but rather be a pointer and not the point.
Yes, I can write a sermon. No, I can’t get anyone to believe and obey. Yes, I can share my faith, but I do absolutely nothing to cause the growth. I encourage people with winsome words and ideas and yet I convince no one.
Somehow, I feel like if I prepare enough, proclaim the right way, or preach exactly what the text says, then people will change. This leads to the more obvious and yet less applied application of prayer.
“Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity… And this we will do, if God permits.” (Hebrews 6:1-3)
4. Listen to your people, but obey your God.
God’s Word and gospel are the filters we listen through when listening to people’s stories. Careful listening goes a long way and is crucial to pastoring, so take the time to listen to your people and build leaders who know how to listen. And make sure you are listening to your members first — those who are under your care — and not just opinions of online people.
That being said, allowing people’s opinions to be your guide (much less your church’s guide) will crush you, hurt them and kill your ministry. Consensus leadership that is opposed to God’s Word is terrible leadership (see Aaron when Moses went up the mountain!).
“For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)
5. Ministry isn’t worth it; our Master is worthy.
This one is the hardest for me to put on repeat. You aren’t doing ministry for ministry success (i.e., people coming to faith, lives changed, growth numerically, etc.) or the euphoria of influence, approval, respect or love. Those are wonderful outcomes, but they can’t be motivators.
Repent of ministry idolatry and believe Christ’s worth and worship are worth it!
“Jesus replied, “Truly, truly, I tell you, it is not because you saw these signs that you are looking for Me, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on Him God the Father has placed His seal of approval.” (John 6:26, 27)
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:12, emphasis added)
These truths and verses help me watch my life and doctrine. What are yours? Remember, they need to be on repeat because something is always on repeat in your heart and mind. Keep this list (or your own personal list) in a place you can see it over and over.
I pray these timeless truths help anchor you and draw you through the torn veil, into the arms of the ever-present One!