I was leading a seminar for a group of pastors and lay leaders serving local congregations when a pastor asked me a provocative question. She said, “You work with pastors all over America and Scotland now, instead of serving one congregation. From your experience with these pastors, what advice would you give to us who are serving local churches?” My answer surprised me! I replied, “I recommend that you stop trying so hard to make things happen… and rely more on the Holy Spirit.” I had everyone’s attention! Everyone in that room could relate to trying too hard. You could have heard a pin drop!
The pastors and lay leaders I have worked with in Macedonian Ministry over the past nine years are some of the finest leaders I have ever known. But, many of them rely WAY TOO MUCH on their own giftedness and hard work…and not enough on God! I told these pastors and lay leaders that if I had another opportunity to serve one congregation, I would trust the Holy Spirit more. I would pray more with open hands… asking God to lead and guide the congregation and not feel that everything is on MY shoulders. I realize now that when I was in parish ministry, I was trying way too hard to please people and meet the expectations of the congregation. I found it almost impossible to say, “no!”
The eagle is a good illustration of what I mean. Birds flap their wings in order to fly…but eagles really don’t fly…they MOUNT. (See Isaiah 40.) Eagles catch the flow of the wind currents and literally allow the wind to carry them. They go with the flow of the Spirit. So often in the parish ministry I have tried to “make it happen” by my planning and hard work! But what I am discovering is that God is way out ahead of us. If we can simply “get in tune” with God’s plan for our local community and our congregation, we can save ourselves a lot of needless effort and disappointment.
So… as a pastor of one congregation, I would gather the lay leaders and any other staff that I had available and ask them to faithfully pray this prayer every day for 3 months: “O God…what are YOU up to in this city and this region of the country…we want to be a part of it!” As my friend Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Seminary, says, “The question is not WWJD (What would Jesus do) but WIJD…what is Jesus doing?” Barnes admonishes us to remember that being a Christian is not about trying to imitate Jesus…but rather opening ourselves to what Jesus is doing so that we can get on God’s agenda…rather than trying to get God on OUR agenda. Frankly, I have spent so much of my life praying that God would bless my agenda or our church’s agenda…rather than seeking God’s agenda. Do you relate to this?
This is the difference in being called and being driven. Driven people try to make something happen by flapping their wings, learning the latest techniques, applying best practices and trying harder. But… called people go with the flow of the Holy Spirit. If I were to say the one characteristic of healthy churches today, I would say that it has very little to do with techniques and best practices, as valuable as those things are. The key to a healthy church in my opinion is that the congregation is experiencing the presence of the living God when they worship and when they gather with their Christian community. In that kind of congregation, people come to worship filled with anticipation that they are going to hear a word from the Lord believing that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is available to us today!
In a congregation that I served in Texas, we gave one dollar to the needs of the world for every dollar we spent on ourselves. We were deeply involved in social justice. At the end of the calendar year, I always felt the pressure to try harder to make our dollar for dollar goal. I thought that it would reflect poorly on me and the congregation if we did not make it every year. For a long time, I thought that making our dollar for dollar goal rested squarely on MY shoulders.
One day, a couple in our church asked me if they could sponsor a series of prayer meetings, during Sunday school hour and after church, concerning the needs of the world. They invited recipients of our mission dollars to come and share stories of how their lives were changed and how they got out of poverty and free from a life of sexual trafficking because of the generosity of our church. When we all prayed specifically for these needs and asked God to help us to be a part of meeting them…it was amazing how we received the dollars that God wanted us to have. We didn’t always make our overall financial goal…but some years our expenditures were much lower than planned… so we always gave the same amount of dollars to mission causes as we spent on ourselves. God allowed us to meet our dollar for dollar goal.
I learned a great lesson there. Instead of wringing our hands and pulling out our hair at things that are beyond our control, I learned to faithfully do all I can…and have the congregation do all we can…and trust God with the rest.
Are you trying too hard? If so, I recommend that we spend more time praising God, singing, praying and thanking God for what the Spirit is already doing, and then, opening ourselves to the wind of the Spirit! And…remember that when we catch the wind of the Spirit…we are ready to SOAR! May it be so!