In my previous post, I pushed the pause button on a series about diagnosing spiritual health. I did that so in this season of love, Valentine’s Day, I could speak to two issues. Last week’s article focused on loving “high maintenance” people. In it I suggest that we love them in a way that permits us, at the end of the day, to still love ourselves. I want to discuss the second issue today: the need to feel God’s love even during times when the challenges of ministry are overwhelming.
Everyone agrees that 2020 moved us into a world of uncontrollable change. So, doing “church” is different AND difficult. As pastors we are called to be under shepherds with Jesus who is the Good Shepherd, for a few moments I’m going to ask you to think of yourself as a Wyoming rancher. Now for those who are not rural oriented, sheep and cattle are VERY different and when the Bible describes us as sheep it is usually NOT a flattering analogy. But for a moment I want you to put down your shepherd’s staff and put on a pair of cowboy boots.
Having done so, you have now found yourself staring at an oncoming herd of stampeding cattle—obviously far more intimidating than a herd of sheep. This stampede is the kind you have seen in western movies. So, what do you do? You could ignore that the stampede exists, and the inevitable result will be that you WILL get trampled, and the stampede will continue. Or you could stand your ground and wave your arms like crazy. Maybe even take off your hat or jacket and wave it over your head. You can shout at the top of your lungs, but let me warn you, the result might be a few seconds slower in coming, but it will be the same. “You’re going to get run over, and the stampede will continue!”
Maybe you’re real lucky, and you’re on your trusty steed. And you’re fortunate enough that he’s a fast horse and you can outrun the herd. But that still does nothing to stop the stampede. Now if you’re an experienced cowboy and you’re on a good cow horse, what you’ll be able to do, over time, is get to the outside front edge of the herd and slowly move the cattle into a circle. It won’t be done quickly, but you should be able to get them to settle down. The stampede will be over.
Jesus encountered people whose life circumstances overwhelmed them, and Matthew records His response: “When He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (9:36). When God called me to be an Associational Mission Strategist, one of the responsibilities He gave me was to be a “pastor to pastors.” In today’s world, pastors, who are called to be under-shepherds, are caring for men and women whose lives have become wearied by the ever-changing landscape of life. Plus their own lives have become weary. So let me draw some implications from my stampede analogy in an attempt to encourage you.
First, let me say that standing and waiting for the stampede to stop so that you and your church can get back to normal is not a winning strategy. You and your sheep are weary today, and no one knows if, or even when things will be “normal” again. Second, we can cry out against the darkness that has consumed us. But simply denouncing or complaining about our circumstances will not help either. A third option is to run from the difficulties. Because of the stress placed on pastors today, I believe we will see an unusually high number of resignations in the months ahead. But my prayer is that if you are considering this option, remember you are not a hireling (John 10:12), but a man called by God. My prayer is that you will pursue a fourth option. Make a commitment to address the stampede. Then prayerfully and lovingly begin to apply the basic ministry and pastoral skills and principles you have used throughout your ministry.
Let me expand my analogy for just a minute. Even if you’re a good cowboy and you’re on the best cow horse that’s ever lived, you’ll never get a large herd of stampeding cattle turned by yourself. Too many pastors try to do ministry Lone Ranger fashion. In the book Finishing Strong, the author points to research done by Dr. Howard Hendricks in which he identified three key reasons pastors fail. One of them is that they were not involved in a small accountable support group with other pastors. Don’t try to turn the herd alone!
Cowboys who can get the stampede stopped are those who are simply doing what they have done hundreds of times. They learned in Herding 101 class to make sure the cattle out front are headed in the right direction and that the stragglers aren’t wandering off. Researchers tell us that it takes 10,000 hours of experience to master a task. If you’ve been pastoring very long, you know the basics. They are second nature to you. And getting back to the basics is THE BEST thing that you can do in times of duress.
When things get dark and difficult, stop and look up to God until He refreshes your call. Then look out unto the fields that are white unto harvest and unto the sheep that are weary and scattered. Then reach within yourself and find the strength to keep doing the things you already know need to be done. Get back to the basics. Keep the main thing the main thing. Being “exciting and exotic“ might be something God can use in a different season, but TODAY is not that day. My prayers are with you.
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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