The morning slowly brightens, from black to gray to bright, and I am sitting in my room readying myself for the day. This day is busy. All of them are in the current season. My children are getting older and involved in more. We homeschool, which takes up a good chunk of each day. I keep chickens and have a garden to help with the grocery budget (and feed my secret farmer wannabe longings), I am training for a half-marathon, we are helping friends plant a church an hour away on most weekends, I have several young women who I am mentoring, we are helping with the start-up of a local scout group, and somehow we find time to travel a little bit, grocery shop, clean our house, run errands, plan for and pray about future adventures, and get our kids to basketball practice and scouts and all their other activities.
I find myself saying no quite a bit to friends’ requests to get together.
I find myself wishing for more time to write. To paint. To sew and knit and make.
I find myself constantly deciding to keep my priorities in their proper place.
Almost every weekday morning, I spend a couple of hours with Jesus. This has become my life force. It is a new pace for me. For years, I scurried about, trying to make everyone happy, caring what people thought about how I spent my time, ignoring prayer and Scripture and listening and quiet. My pace was out of control. It seemed like I got a lot done, but it was all in my own strength, on people’s terms, without supernatural impact. And I never had anything special to say. I was spiritually aimless and my schedule was selfish. My gift for words and clarity and communication was stunted and hard of hearing. What an oxymoron.
My pace was manmade and overfull of caffeine, stress, striving. And it lacked humility, peace, rest and freshness.
When we went to Mexico two years ago, for three months, and lived and trained on a missionary base, I very quickly realized that I could not keep up with all of the activities that were scheduled, maintain a close relationship with God, and take proper care of my marriage and family. It wasn’t possible. Not to mention trying to mentor and encourage all the young adults living on the base – something that I also very quickly realized that I had a love for doing.
In order to honor the convictions in my heart, I had to learn to start saying no.
To good people, who were mostly coming from a place of love and care with their expectations.
To the tendency to be busy doing good things that were noble and exemplary and helpful.
To getting caught up in the obsession (that writers can have) of writing more words and saying less.
These convictions do not make sense to many people who don’t follow Jesus. But also, they do not make sense to many people who do. In full-time ministry. Or even part-time ministry. There are many schools of thought about how those who are “working for God” should spend their time. I grew up in church, watching pastors embrace workaholism. Always at church, working on messages, visiting people, brainstorming ideas for impact, meeting with movers and shakers, writing books. I get how this could seem effective.
But I also watched many pastors burn out, or grow exhausted and fall into bad choices, to neglect their marriage and children. Some of them committed suicide. Had affairs. Heart attacks. Walked away from the Lord.
Since I was 15, when I really started to follow Jesus, I’ve known that ministering to others is part of my destiny. Through my writing, encouragement, creativity, hard-earned wisdom, my travels, His voice to me. But I’ve often watched those in full-time ministry with dismay in my heart, feeling confused by the seeming double standards. Pastors would talk about freedom, but then seem slaves to their own profession. I would watch them talk about following Jesus, but then attempt to control everything, at the cost of His presence. I’ve had friends in ministry who were afraid to share real struggles with their peers, after encouraging people to be honest and sincere. I’ve heard so many messages about prayer, but I’ve been in very few churches that were actually houses of prayer. I’ve sat in sermons about wholeness and healing and peace, but witnessed neglect and unhealthy lifestyles and crazy stress in the church leadership. I’ve seen racism and misogyny renounced, but then watched those in ministry avoid those with different skin, and refuse to empower women who were obviously gifted for leadership. Like myself. I’ve sat in many brainstorming sessions where brains were racked for good ideas, but so rarely was there time spent asking the Holy Spirit to inspire, and then waiting for it. I’ve watched services built on caffeine and hoopla and not Jesus.
Lighting effects are cool. Good lyrics are dear to my heart. Trendy paint is fun. But creativity cannot take the place of God’s presence. And truthfully, if we welcome Him, seek Him, fast and pray, His presence will set fire to our mere creativity and take it to unforeseen places.
Obviously, no one is perfect. No church is going to have it all together. We are all a band of misfits. Wallflowers. Rejects. Even the homecoming queens and student class presidents have their issues.
But today, I am watching my culture reject church. Americans don’t really want to go to church anymore. The crazy thing is that they are rejecting God too, as a result.
To tell you the truth, I still haven’t digested all I learned about ministry and pace in Mexico. What I learned growing up in church. What I still see today. I’m still asking Him for insight about balance and obedience and sacrifice. My perspective may not be yet what it should. Always, we are in process. I resist cynicism on a daily basis because I know it is the wrong path for me. But sticking my head in the sand is ridiculous too. Especially as someone who writes. There is a fine line between realism and hope. Shadow and light. Tension and release. In this world, at least until all is made right again, both are necessary for story to take place.
And I should emphasize that these things I am criticizing – the people who I’ve watched struggle with them were precious. Some of them lifelong friends who have handed wisdom freely to me. I’m only pointing out these issues because they were the reason I was always so hesitant to jump fully into “ministry”, or even to fully engage in church.
Perhaps they are the reason for others’ hesitation.
And perhaps He never meant for me to fully jump in, but the fringe of ministry is where I’m meant to stand.
But it was my thinking that a person fully alive, inspired, freed, and pursuing Jesus, would seem different. I am not talking about wearing one piece bathing suits instead of bikinis, or not drinking alcohol, or only listening to music that is about God. Okay, fine, if those are your convictions. Hopefully they come from a place of heart and Voice. But for me, if that’s what it was about, I was out. In my childhood, rules were offered instead of relationship, and if you have experienced this kind of childhood, it kind of ruins you for rules. You become a rebel. Rules leave a bad taste in your mouth and you can smell those who would rather have rules than a relationship a mile away. It is not a good aroma. (And by the way, God wants a relationship with you. First and most.)
So it was more that I was searching for what C.S. Lewis describes: “How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing, it is irresistible.”
It was this that I searched for in those who were in ministry, and every now and then, I would find it. I would encounter a person, so free, so full of Jesus and inspired and kind and simultaneously full of unique identity, that I would be rejuvenated and move closer to Jesus. I would understand Him better. These people would always be a little odd in a wonderful way, not a creepy, alienating, rude way. Different and refreshing. And they popped up in the least likely places.
You know, I am probably not qualified to write about ministry. And with all the things that I haven’t quite figured out yet about effective ministry, it has taken years and three strong months in Mexico to realize that there is only one way to be fully alive in your calling. And fully alive in ministry.
Wherever he leads you. He often speaks, tiny and quiet, to our hearts in times when we are being tiny and quiet, and the ideas He speaks can be outlandish, counter-cultural, random. We can pray about these, and some of them will fall away because maybe those were just wishful thinking or something we ate, but the real ones will float to the surface. He will use us in these seasons, and begin to confirm things to us, through His Word, other people, nature, circumstances, and more.
He will speak. It is up to us if we will follow. He loves us even if we don’t. We get to choose. He will even still protect us and bless us, oftentimes. It depends. But our growth might be hindered. Our calling might grow stunted. Detours might occur. He works it all out, yes, but Plan B might be called upon…
I want Plan A.
I learned this well and good in Mexico. He started to talk to me about a slower pace, more listening, more prayer, writing what He spoke and not engaging in ear-tickling. I started to notice that this offended some people, usually those who were not on the same page. But it also spoke poignantly and aptly to those who I was called to reach at that moment of that day. I started being able to encourage people supernaturally, speaking life and wisdom into their hearts. If you’ve ever had someone encourage you like this, it is a life-giving experience, and it lasts, offering encouragement sometimes for years. Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul tells the church at Corinth that he desires that they prophesy more than any other of the spiritual gifts.
As a result of this new pace of my life, some of the friendships that I had have changed and some of them have grown distant, because they could not survive if I was no longer trying to please people. New ones have sprung up, built on this foundation. Truthfully, there are more people out there that are living like this, in harmony with Jesus present tense, than you think. It is kind of exciting.
It has been a bit of an upheaval.
Thus, for me, the first rule of effective ministry has been to follow Jesus, personally and specifically. Right now, whatever that looks like. To put every piece of advice and wisdom before him, ask him if it pertains to my current season. To be confident about this. And to pretty much ignore everything else.
“His mother said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.” John 2:5
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” Proverbs 25:11