Perhaps you’ve seen videos like this: a guy at the gym tries to leap onto a fast-moving treadmill and face plants? The metaphorical equivalent of this blooper was my greatest fear coming back from my first sabbatical. Out of necessity, after 25 years as a pastor, my elders gave me three months off to rest and recuperate. I had concerns that after three months of slowing my pace to a crawl, I was going to get back on the fast-moving treadmill of my ministry and crash face first.
With two weeks remaining in my sabbatical, I returned home from one final getaway with my wife to a different context altogether. COVID-19 had shut down our world. Now my concern wasn’t the pace I was expected to get to, but that I was jumping into something that was completely unfamiliar. Like most in ministry, our church leadership had to learn quickly how to effectively minister to others during this unique time.
A Time to be Present
As is the case in all of life, God ordains specific purposes for each season (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). As a two-time church planter, I am fairly task oriented but also find myself enjoying many facets of being a minister. However, my penchant for vision casting and future strategizing often causes me to be less present in the lives of our people. This is one of the great challenges for anyone in Christian leadership.
Therefore, I have seen this “stay at home” pastor life as the Lord giving me the opportunity to focus on one-on-one relationships, albeit through technology. This has been an important service for me to perform, and our brilliant God designed a plan for me to ease back into my ministry. I sense the Lord wanted/forced me to shelve all the ideas, projects, and plans I wanted to implement. Instead, he continually reminds me that the people are my work.
For the hard driving, “likes to be busy” pastor, people sometimes get in the way of our labor. One of my seminary professors, Dr. Steve Brown, told a story of once complaining to God that if it weren’t for the people of his church, he could get a lot of work done. To which God replied to him, “Son, these people are your work.” For those of us whose default mode is set for projects, these are words we must take to heart.
Serving Those We Lead
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:3-4
During this unique season of ministry, I’m reminded of my charge to serve those whom I pastor, not use them to serve my vision. When I was a youth pastor, I once had a student tell me I often made them feel like a project instead of a person. That was crushing to hear, but it has always rung in my ears when I start getting irritated with a string of emails that I consider unimportant. I try to remember that on the other end of that email is a person who hit SEND, and my communication with them is another opportunity to be God’s ambassador to them.
This past week a woman in our church died. Kate was not just a congregation member; she was a friend of my family who had been connected to our church since our first year. She had a difficult life of both struggles born of poor choices and a history of health problems. Most church plants are demographically young, so having a person in their mid-60s was a joy to me, and I let Kate know that. I used to kid her (and she had a hearty laugh) that my frequent visits to see her at the hospital were God’s gracious way of keeping me focused on people instead of projects.
Kate’s death, combined with the COVID-19 restrictions placed on enjoyable and necessary aspects of ministry, serve to emphatically remind me that I am in the business of shepherding the souls of the men, women, and children in my church. Pastors are here to feed, guide, and nurse back to health when needed, the souls of God’s children.
No one hopes for difficult, even deadly times; I certainly didn’t want my friend to die. However, amidst suffering we have the living hope that Jesus has ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father with all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). It is with this understanding we can see how our gracious, sovereign God ordains all things that come to pass, and uses times like this to refine our pastoral skills to serve His people.