Over the past 24 years of pastoral ministry I have had the privilege of attending various conferences, many purpose driven, some seeker driven, as well as training on leadership development. Perhaps we were even at the same events? If you were, I wonder if possibly you have already had this epiphany – I am a little slow on the uptake so things usually take a little longer with me. The epiphany I refer to is the one common denominator that seems to exist on paper, or at least in the presented seminar formulas: “the secret to successful pastoral ministry.” Even our seminaries promise us that when we graduate with our degree in hand we will be prepared for a successful career in church ministry.
Maybe it is the realization that paradigm shifts seem to be happening at the velocity of each passing moment – or possibly it was the realization of turning 51 this past year – I had to recheck my birth certificate to make sure I counted correctly. But I have had this nagging feeling for quite some time now that being successful is quite elusive. For instance, by what standard do we measure successful ministry? Do we measure it by the number of those attending our churches? The number of baptisms? Converts? (Not saying these are not important.)
Now if you asked me those questions 20 years ago, I would have had a formula for you (I may have told you it was my own – but it probably would have been borrowed from a book, some famous author, or perhaps one of those omniscient conference speakers). Today, well, I am not so sure what it means to be successful.
This is very important for me to get that out there – for various reasons. Probably the greatest being that I have never been much of a fan of the pedestal. I am very aware of my own personal foibles, shortcomings, and sin, in that my journey to pastoral ministry has involved at least one Jonah moment. Perhaps we’re the same, in that somedays we would rather be fishing (for real fish) than attending church. My wife assures me that as the pastor I might be missed during the sermon time, though some days I wonder.
So when asked to share what God is doing in our community, I was at first hesitant as I usually am. So it is important for me acknowledge that I am not presenting a formula for success, nor am I portraying an impressive display of pastoral competence. Those of you that know me well know that the latter rarely happens.
The story begins with an invitation to attend an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous three years ago. It is important to interject here – not because I have a drinking problem – so hopefully that clears up some misconceptions. A member of my congregation had been watching to see if I was “safe” to invite to A.A. and after almost two years of ministry in Kitimat, I somehow received the seal of approval. Yeah, I was surprised too.
I began regularly attending a Thursday night meeting. Some weeks I would just listen to stories of recovery – some weeks I would listen to the same story repeated from the week prior – other times I would be asked to share about the topic being discussed. My prayer each week was and still is: “God help me to build bridges for you.”
Now jump ahead to summer 2015. This summer I thoroughly enjoyed my summer holidays – I took a complete break from ministry, and as outdoor enthusiasts, Sharon and I climbed mountains, wilderness camped, fished, canoed, and spent as much time outside as possible. To be honest, I had a hard time going back to my office afterwards. When I reluctantly arrived back from holidays, Steve with his wife (I got to know Steve through A.A.) were sitting in the Sunday morning service. Two weeks later, another friend and his wife had joined him.
Now each September as a kick off to the ministry year we do a “catch of the day” outreach/fellowship potluck. On that given Sunday morning, more friends from A.A. showed up. I suspected the rumour of fresh BBQ’d salmon and halibut had got out.
As I got back into the routine of attending my weekly A.A. meetings this autumn, something had changed. During the regular Thursday meetings, it became somewhat embarrassing as members of the group began publically thanking me for the book I had given them (the Serenity Bible). They shared with the group how reading the book was changing their lives. Men were coming alive spiritually and began sharing the importance of getting to know their Higher Power and that the Alliance Church was a safe place where they could meet with God.
Now fast forward to the first Saturday in December, when we hold our annual Christmas banquet. Can you sense the anticipation for what God was going to do? I sure did! Well the story of Saturday actually began on Friday December 4th, where I was attending a weekly Friday morning breakfast with various men form my congregation as I usually do. About halfway through the breakfast, I was the recipient of an incredible (well there are other words that went through my head at the time but for the sanctification of our readers let’s use the word “incredible”) verbal assault. I pushed back from the table and had to excuse myself from breakfast. My hands were shaking so badly that it was hard to use my credit card in the machine to pay. I am sure some of you can relate, maybe not all, but it is this kind of stuff that cuts to the core of who were are in ministry.
Deep within the recesses of my soul I had this conviction that God was going to do something significant at our Christmas banquet. But now I had this major relational conflict, and it was eating me up; literally, my gut was wrenched. My initial thought was to call the elders together and get this resolved as soon as possible (okay it was not my initial thought – there were a few other less pastoral ideas that ran the gamut of my thought process). But through God’s grace, I called our leadership team together.
If you have ever been at the receiving end of “why don’t you tell me what you are really thinking?”, you’ll understand how difficult it is and was to move towards resolution and forgiveness. We had the offended party present and got things right. My emotions still need to be put in their proper place even a month later, so it is very much a continual process. It never ceases to amaze me how Satan tries to disrupt and continues attempts to get a foothold into our lives and undo what God is doing.
On December 5th, at the Christmas banquet, God showed up. Due to the size of our auditorium, we were limited to 100 guests and of those that attended, roughly 40% were unchurched or at least unchurched Alliance and 20% were from AA. We saw seeds planted on Saturday night that were reaped Sunday morning during our worship time. We experienced the presence of God and had the privilege of helping a friend acknowledge Jesus as his higher power.
So personally, I have three take homes from this. Again, this is not a formula, just perhaps a life lesson that I continue to relearn. 1) God is moving in each of our communities in spite of us. 2) It is fitting that we discover what God is doing and blessing and embrace it instead of asking God to embrace and bless what we are doing. 3) Satan understands number 1 and will do whatever it takes to knock us off balance and out of a place of ministry.
Saying “yes” to God and the moving of the Holy Spirit is scary (so is writing this article I might add). Most often I feel like I am white knuckling it as Satan buffets and God leads us on a journey to places we never imagined possible.