These days it’s a more complex and interesting picture. Of course certain things don’t change. The Apostle Paul’s words to Timothy (I Tim 4)still give a good framework for those in pastoral leadership. But beyond that it’s good to know what your specific assignment is from God. Then you can work under His authority rather than simply the paper authority of an ordinal or the institutional authority of your church network. There is another benefit too.
Because the goals of Christian ministry are so aspirational, because the example of Jesus, the Apostles and the highpoints of revival history show us the amazing potential of Gospel ministry it is easy to look on every ministerial engagement as a failure. Revival didn’t come. The church changed but wasn’t transformed. Such and such a venture didn’t spark or bring the growth anticipated. But do those measures mean you failed?
Looking back on my own experience in ministry positions I can see that each setting came with its own divine instructions. Even with an outcome short of community transformation those instructions can give me a grid by which to look back and say, “I obeyed what the Lord asked of me. Maybe not perfectly. Definitely not perfectly. But I did serve the purpose for which he placed me there.”
That perspective helps me be more intentional in seeking to follow the Holy Spirit’s specific instructions for today, and today’s setting.
I was talking the other day with my friend “Drew” – a senior pastor who was weighing up the question of how long he might stay at his current post. What he did not want to do was repeat the experience of a friend of his, who I’ll call Phil. Phil had worked his behind off trying to get a staid, elderly congregation to allow some innovations onto the church’s menu in order to help it reach new generations. Phil was really kicking against the goads, not assisted by the presence in the congregation of the former pastor who remained as a kind of unofficial gatekeeper, effectively vetoing all his successor’s best efforts. The stress began to tell on Phil until he suffered a stroke.
After significant time off work, his financial needs forced him to return to his pastorate and work part-time despite limited mobility and very low energy. The politics in his church had not eased in the least. He worked as hard as he was able until he died of a heart attack in his mid forties.
I have no doubt that Our Father will greet him in Heaven with, “My beloved Phil, well done thou good and faithful servant.”
But did Phil’s congregation deserve that? If they didn’t want what Phil was offering, shouldn’t Phil have felt free to move on? In times past ministers did not feel free to do that because the only paradigm was “Stay until your senior says that you can move. And in the meantime do what it says in the book!”
I believe that poor Phil suffered unnecessarily – in part – because of that paradigm.
By contrast, my perspective is that God moves us for more specific purposes than that. I believe he moves us for our gifts to be fruitful. I hope and believe that my millennial brothers and sisters lean more in that direction.
My friend Drew did not want to feel he needed to keep “banging his head on a brick wall” on an indefinite basis. So I encouraged him to ask the Lord what is his specific assignment at his current church. It could be:
A Timeframe: Use your gifts. Make your offering for a set time frame. Four of my church assignments have been time-framed by my employer.
An Outcome: Use your gifts. Make your offering until such and such an outcome has eventuated.
A Process: Lead the church in a specific way through specific transitions.
A Task: In my first church assignment my task was simple – create a student congregation. In my fourth church assignment it was equally simple – do whatever the senior pastor needs and asks of you.
A Placement: The Lord may simply say, “Do whatever I instruct you, in this place, until further notice!”
It is uniquely empowering to know which kind of assignment you’re on. It will determine the intensity and focus of your work. And it can make your work less burdensome by clarifying its limits. It can be reassuring because then, whatever your level of “success” (outcomes are almost always corporately generated) you can go with the assurance that you have done what the Father sent you to do.
This is important. It is not a luxury. In a line of work where failure can appear to be the unavoidable measure, because the potential of God and the Gospel are infinite it is vital to eat of the food that fueled even the Lord himself when he said to his disciples: “My food and drink is to what God put me here to do – and do it until it’s done.” (John 4:34)
That is a satisfaction so deep. One I aspire to. And one I wish for everyone I coach, and all my brothers and sisters in ministry.
Patrick Laughing, by Charlie Mackesy