February 12th, 2021
I'm going to hit the pause button on my discussion of metrics for self-assessing your church’s spiritual health. One reason is that it’s Valentine’s week, and a good pause would be to ask you to redirect your focus and ask yourself, “How can I demonstrate Christ-like love to members of my church?” Another reason I wanted to push the pause button was that I needed to acknowledge that the basic tools I have mentioned the past few weeks have overwhelmed some pastors.
Let me lean into my Wyoming ranching heritage for a couple of analogies that speak to the realities of life in which many of us in ministry dwell. So let me address two broad issues. The first relates to how we love people in our world who make it hard for us to love. The second is how can we respond better when we are faced with overwhelming and unmanageable circumstances.
To address the first issue, I will use a verse that everyone who has been around me the last few years has heard me quote: Proverbs 14:4. Some of you even have it memorized: “Where there are no oxen the stall is clean, but great gain comes through the strength of an ox.” I can remember growing up on a ranch the times when the loafing shed needed to be cleaned out. Now we didn’t have a big fancy ranch, so I didn’t have to learn how to handle a skid-steer or a tractor and front-end loader. I just had to know how to use a shovel. But I was blessed with the fact that Wyoming is a low humidity state, so what I handled was dry. And of course, we couldn’t afford a spreader, so I got to load the pickup and then spread it with the same shovel that I had used to load it. Even though it was dry—it was a messy job.
A very loose paraphrase of Proverbs 14:4 for a pastor and church leaders would be, “Ministry would be great if I didn’t have to deal with messy people; however, ministry ‘by definition’ is caring for the messy people God sends my way.” Every pastor can name the “high maintenance” people that are part of his world. Some of them are constantly making bad choices, and until and unless they begin to make better choices there is NO ONE in this world who can help them—not even God. The soft heart of a pastor can make it difficult for him to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). A pastor’s response for those individuals should be something like the concept found in the Hippocratic Oath of “doing no harm,” or the phrase “benign neglect.” So, in love, quit hitting your head against the brick walls that are the hardheaded people in your world. When they are ready to listen to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, then you can be of help to them. But until that takes place, stop beating yourself up and stop thinking that you are a failure.
At other times it is hard for a pastor to be direct with “high maintenance people” because doing so would offend a family member or friend who has enabled that person for years. In these situations, my task-oriented personality would recommend an intervention. The admonition “Speak the truth in love” does require us to “speak the truth!” But to do that correctly, it means things are going to get messy! My caution here is that until and unless the family and friends are willing to support you in a Biblically-based intervention, your efforts will fail.
There are other situations where people find themselves in the “high maintenance” category through no fault of their own. In my small world, there are several who have recently found themselves in this category. I know of a pastor whose wife is struggling with severe, chronic, and disabling health issues. In this situation, the primary causes for those physical circumstances are their genetic makeup. I also know of a young mother of two who was the victim of a violent drive-by shooting. She is confined to a wheelchair and is doing long-term rehab. Her father happens to be a pastor. I know of a mother of three whose house burned to the ground. They escaped with their lives, but only with the clothes on their back. Her father also happens to be a pastor. I also know a young church planter and father who started chemo treatments this week to deal with his Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis. Again, a physical challenge linked to his genetics.
In these situations, another Biblical passage comes to mind: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (II Corinthians 1:3-4). Yes, praying for them. Yes asking the right people, “How specifically can we help in this situation?” Yes, stepping in and stepping up as God provides an opportunity. And yes, doing so will require us to get messy!
In my next post, I will touch base with the situations where ministry becomes overwhelming. But until then, use the season of love, Valentine’s Day, to show love for “high maintenance people” in healthy and helpful ways. Do it in ways that don’t enable their bad decisions. Do it in ways that support and encourage those who genuinely need a loving touch. Do it in ways that permit you to feel God’s love and affirmation of your call to serve messy people
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Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.
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