I started this flying back from speaking in Houston and then got bogged down with, uh, life. I think it’s time for some pastoral confessions. But I’m going to get to it through the side door of the confessional. Enter the booth with me.
Sometimes I think: I can’t believe I get to do this. By this, I mean be a pastor. Most weekends I get to stand up in front of thousands of people talk about how great Jesus is and why He deserves our unreserved allegiance. I mean, I’m just an ex-drummer from Kentucky. It rarely seizes to amazes me. Honestly.
And I’m not Pollyanna-ish. I don’t always see it that optimistically and it’s not always wonderful all of the time. One survey claims that over seventeen-hundred pastors leave the ministry every month. Ouch. But let’s get real: when I read Paul’s resume in 2 Corinthians 11, I’m reminded that it’s been a long time since I was beaten with rods or left adrift in a heaving ocean overnight (uh, like never). There is very little in America that causes radical discomfort for the Christian leader or, for that matter, the average believer.
But what I do wrestle with are two things. I talked about this at our last all-staff meeting. Once a month we gather the whole staff of over one-hundred people for a little envisioning, some cross-team information sharing, celebrate staff anniversaries, and a few updates. But I had been wrestling with a few of these thoughts.
During the Q&A time at a leadership training session in Florida a few weeks ago, someone asked me, “What do you think leaders should guard against or need to really watch out for?”
The obvious big ones are, of course, sex and money. It’s why we have stringent policies in place at the Vineyard. We’ve all seen too many people crash and burn. I don’t have any meetings with women where there are just two of us, not even in a crowded public place. And I do zero counseling with the opposite sex for a couple of reasons: I’m not a professional counselor and therefore pretty lame at it and second, I need to make sure nothing even suggests a psychosexual connection. As an aside, I think one-on-one counseling is a black hole for pastors; many of us pastors suffer from a messianic-complex and think we can fix anything.
We don’t allow two opposite gender staff members to be in a car, even if it’s just a ride to another building on our campus. Overly cautious? Not in my book. There are all sorts of moral and legal ramifications to be considered, and more importantly, we won’t risk a rumor of impropriety to be leveraged against the Kingdom. You just don’t mess around with that.
And, of course, pastors should never touch the money. Ever. A couple of weekends ago in the last celebration I auctioned off a joke Packers/Steelers t-shirt for the Healing Center. Someone yelled out “$100” and walked from the back row to the stage counting bills from his wallet. I laughed and said, “Stick it in one of the offering boxes. Don’t give it to me!” and threw him the t-shirt. Pastors should stay away from every penny and have their salaries set by boards not made up of their families. We have an independent audit done every year to ensure integrity. Paul covers it nicely in Ephesians: But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. (Ephesians 5:3). I’m not even allowed in the counting room.
But when I think about long-term ministry—that is, ministry over the long haul—there are two other danger zones that I think are more subtle and equally damaging: burnout and entitlement. There’s a burnout that comes from overwork and no margins. The danger with a margin-less lifestyle is when a crisis hits, there’s no emotional energy to deal with it.
But honestly, what I’ve observed pastors burning out over is often the monotony and, dare I say it, boredom of routine. The reality is that so much of our job is the same thing over and over. Big deal, you say—every job has monotonous routines. But I think most people going into ministry have an idealized view of it and most of us got into ministry because we wanted to see lives transformed, to make some kind of difference in our world. But instead, by year eight, it’s…
…setting up the same chairs for the same meetings every week.
…another weekend celebration to plan for—another worship set, another “life-changing” message, another cue-sheet for lighting, another weekend of volunteers not showing up…and knowing that it never ends.
…filing reports that have to be filed every week.
…entering data every week on the same spreadsheet.
…another parishioner upset about something (pick a number…).
…another meeting followed by another meeting followed by another meeting.
…or even in the messy world of people in terms of pastoral care or prayer, it’s another funeral and another wedding and another marriage blowing up and another person with impossibly screwed up finances…or whatever. It never seems to end. There are different faces, but the problems are basically the same and they’re endless. It’s not like being a carpenter and building something and seeing it finished; it seems you’re never done in the “people business”.
The reality is that any job has routine built into it, whether you’re a factory worker or a CEO. But the difference with ministry might be this: people entering it have very different expectations.
And here’s the dark side: because of routine, I think it’s easy for a slow drift toward entitlement…as in “I deserve this _______ (fill in the blank) because…”. Frankly, I think it’s where I see numbers of lead pastors slip into. And I think it’s dangerous.
You can almost hear a bit of this in Peter’s response to Jesus after Jesus totally blows their minds about money…
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
(The inference here is that prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing, according to Deuteronomy 28. So when Jesus said it was difficult for a rich man to step into the kingdom, this would have been as shocking as someone saying today, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a Spirit-filled evangelical to enter the kingdom…”. No wonder the disciples responded in amazement.)
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Peter said to him, “We have left everything to follow you!”
(I wonder if Peter wanted to make sure that he was entitled to something because of his sacrifice, as in, “Jesus, that rich guy couldn’t cut it. But look what we’ve done. And you are looking, right?”)
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:23–31)
Jesus responds with a reality check: in the New Community, you’ll have lots of “family” and lots of “places” that can take you in…and one other thing you can count on: persecution. This wasn’t a prosperity promise in the literal sense that we’ll each own hundreds of homes any more than we’ll all have hundreds of mothers in this “present age”. It’s life in the New Community that creates this new kind of prosperity. There’s a certain sense of: be careful what you consider ‘entitlement’…and He’s particularly speaking to those in “the ministry”.
One more thing regarding routine and entitlement. I go through dry seasons where it just seems I have this eight-foot wall with razor wire on top between God and me. But here’s what I’ve discovered.
There’s a whole lot to be said for simple faithfulness, for just putting one foot in front of the other. When I’m not sure I even feel like getting out of bed, it’s time to remind myself: this is not about me. It’s not about how I feel. It’s not about me getting recognition from God or anyone. It’s about faithfulness. It’s about perseverance. It’s about Jesus saying to His disciples during a tough point, “He who endures to the end will be saved.” If one has to endure, that implies there must be long, tough, dry times.
Maybe it’s even about us saying to Him at the end, “Uh, Jesus, when did we see you in prison? When did we see you hungry and we fed You? When did we see you naked and we clothed You?”—inferring that there are huge times in our lives when we have no “awareness” of God and we’re just bumbling along doing what we think is something we should be doing for Jesus and meeting Him without knowing it. And apparently, that’s okay. It’s not always goosebumps. We’ve got to get over that.
Here’s a favorite verse of mine that I quote regularly (which must say something about my state-of-mind!): Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)
So for all of us, not just pastors and leaders, remember: When you’re in your worst seasonal spiritual drought, simply put one foot in front of the other and don't look back. In my thirty-seven years of following Jesus, the rainy season eventually comes.