Is God fickle?

You are just toodling along doing your ministry thing and–BAM!–suddenly God is Paths-to-success-shutterstock_88995475-500x290calling you down another path. Really? What’s up with that? Did God suddenly become fickle? Did the unchangeable God change?

Does any of this sound familiar? You invest time discovering your unique design for ministry, identify a serving role that energizes you, engage in equipping through reading or training, and now you are joyfully and faithfully serving in a ministry you love. It all fits together perfectly. But then God throws a monkey wrench into the whole thing through this niggling thought that just won’t go away, “I want you to do something else.” You read scripture and you hear the whisper. You have a conversation with a friend and there’s the whisper again. And then someone actually voices what you really don’t want to hear: “Have you ever considered serving in this ministry? I think you would be perfect for it!”

Did God change his mind? Well, I can’t really answer that for you, but I can share with you my experience with change and where it has led me.

During the summer of 2013, I began to suspect that God was up to something. I had been on a path of conviction about prayer ministry for several months. God had been bringing to mind past training in prayer ministry, as well as my own experiences of both emotional and physical healing. Over coffee with a friend, he mentioned a local healing prayer ministry that he thought I might be interested in. Before I got home from the cafe, my friend had connected me via email with the director of that prayer ministry! Out of curiosity, I met with Jeff and, as he described his prayer ministry, I sensed God nudging me towards healing prayer. My response was a flat “no way.” I had spent 20 years in equipping ministry. I loved helping people discover their God-given design and identify where/how God was calling them to serve. (Still do!) I had a significant investment in this ministry, even coming alongside other church leaders to help them develop healthy equipping practices in their churches. God surely couldn’t be calling me to something else. I wasn’t tired of doing this yet!

That same afternoon, my pastor told me that he believed God was calling me to establish a healing prayer ministry in our church, and offered to release me from any other ministry that would impede me answering that call. I was completely confused. And yet, I knew in my spirit that God was calling me to something new.

In 2014 I began offering prayer ministry during Holy Communion each week. Since that time there has been only one Sunday when no one came for prayer. I am developing a team of prayer ministers and equipping them through books, seminars, and conferences. Last year we began exploring moving our church from a suburban location where we rented space from another church to a downtown location where we would rent space from a faith-based non-profit ministry seeking to meet the needs of the poor and marginalized. We had our first worship service downtown on January 3 of this year. Since then, two more people have expressed interest in serving on the prayer team, and our new host is very excited at the possibility of having a church meet there who will actually pray with people who need any and all sorts of healing! In hindsight, it’s obvious that God has been redirecting me, as well as our church.

But here’s my biggest “ah-ha”: When dealing with people who were hesitant to serve, I would become frustrated. God is showing me that often the underlying reason for that hesitation lies in a need for healing. When one experiences the deep healing power of the love of Christ, the desire to serve the One who heals will soon follow.

one pathDid God change his mind about my ministry? Not really. He has simply opened yet another avenue for equipping ministry. He has provided a way through my former frustration into a wide open space where I can better serve his people as I pray for their healing and then help them find the ministry that God is calling them into.

Is God fickle? I don’t think so. Scripture says he is not. We just need to yield to his plan as he unfolds it, trusting that he knows what he’s doing!

 

Reflections From a Funeral

Funerals are important events. I’ve been to plenty of them over my lifetime, several during my childhood. Most of those were fun–I got to hang out with cousins I didn’t often see, telling stories from past adventures, stifling our giggles so as not to draw unwelcome attention from our parents. But as I grew up, funerals became occasions for grieving the loss of someone dear, or coming alongside a friend in their grief. Not fun, and therefore something to avoid whenever possible.

Frau auf Beerdigung mit Sarg

Now that I serve as a pastor in my church, I don’t get to avoid funerals anymore. In fact, yesterday I helped lead one. It was the first time I had served in that role, and I found it to be very meaningful.

I was blessed to visit with Diana in the days leading up to her transition. Admittedly, I have only known her for a half-dozen of her 82 years, but in that short time I came to respect and love her. Diana was probably the most grace-filled woman I have ever known. Her son confirmed this in his remarks at her funeral, reflecting that Diana accepted whatever life brought her way with quiet grace. This was certainly true in her last days. My final visit with her, just 48 hours before she passed, she greeted me with her sweet smile and gathered strength to thank me for coming, grace-filled to the end. Indeed, I was told that her transition from this life to the next was one of grace-filled peace.

On the way back from the graveside service yesterday, the funeral director commented that people often question the need for funerals these days. I can understand that–it’s expensive, it requires thoughtful planning, and it takes time away from things we would rather be doing. Moreover, it forces us to face our own mortality. And that is exactly why funerals are important.

As I ponder Diana’s life and death, I remember that my life grows shorter each day, too. I am now much closer to my own transition to eternity than when I first began! And I find questions arising out of that truth…

What am I doing with my life that honors God for his gracious giving of it? Am I living true to my calling? Where am I missing the mark? Am I taking full advantage of this life as training ground for the next?

As I ponder these questions, I know this: I want to be more like Diana, full of grace. Too much I rant and rave and shake my fist at God, to no avail. I want to be like soft clay in the hands of the Potter, that he might cultivate a quiet grace in me that blesses others and allows me to hear God in the stillness (think Elijah, 1 Kings 19:1-16). I want to accept what comes my way with unwavering faith in the God from whom all grace flows.

Everything teaches…even funerals. So I won’t avoid them anymore. Rather, I will seize the opportunity to face and reflect on my own mortality. I will welcome the hard questions and yield to God as he equips me for the good work he has called me to do, both here in this life and in the life to come. Amen and amen!

 

 

Joseph’s Bones

And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt… Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.”  -Exodus 13:18b-19

In her Advent devotional Lighted Windows, Margaret Silf suggests that the Israelites carried the bones of Joseph because “he was their dreamer, the symbol of their God-dream.” She goes on to encourage us to carry our dreams with us, too, because it gives us the energy we need to continue our journey. Ministry is hard work. Indeed, it is joyful work…but hard, nonetheless. When we get tired, it’s easy to lose our way, to forget why we began this journey in the first place. Our vision becomes cloudy and the Voice that called us seems so distant now.

Advent is a notoriously busy season for anyone in ministry.  For those serving on the staff of their church, there is a church to decorate, extra worship services to plan, Christmas celebrations to attend, and visits to the homebound and the sick. For those in ministry outside the church walls (i.e., all Christians!), there are angel trees to coordinate to provide gifts for the poor, Christmas banquets to feed the hungry, coats and blankets to collect to give some measure of warmth to the homeless. Add to all of that the decorating of our homes, the gifts we purchase and/or make, the extra baking for cookie exchanges… Suddenly we find ourselves tired and confused, wondering why we began this journey in the first place.

That’s when it’s time to take out Joseph’s bones.

Create space for some quiet reflection. Remember the times when God unmistakably touched your life, when he called you to this particular ministry path–whether it is in the church, in the home, in the community, or in the marketplace. Remember when you knew beyond a doubt that God was leading you purposefully. Margaret Silf refers to this place of remembering as “a sacred space and a still center in all our confusion,” and she encourages us to return to it regularly for replenishment.

God’s voice is still there, even in the midst of the busyness of this Advent season. We just need to remember the sound of that Voice in our ears, then wait quietly and listen patiently once again.

advent

Watch Your Step!

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.   -Acts 6:1-6 [ESV]

This passage is often cited in reference to the establishment of deacons in the church. It has long been a favorite passage of mine–appropriately so, since I am ordained a vocational deacon. But I remember years ago reading this passage and how it left a bitter taste in my mouth! Before I gained an understanding of spiritual gifts and calling, I thought the twelve were exhibiting no small amount of arrogance by insisting that it wasn’t right that they give up preaching the word of God to “wait tables.” I wanted to shout, “Watch your step there, fellas! If Jesus washed your feet, who are you to think that you are too good to wait tables?”

The more we progress in our ministry, the easier it is to step into the trap of believing that we (clergy) are above doing the seemingly menial tasks of ministry, particularly if the priesthood of all believers is not one of our fundamental values. Gifting and calling applies to every believer, not just the clergy–and all ministry has value. There are times when we need to be willing to serve by doing whatever needs doing, whether it’s below our “pay grade” or not! There is no room in the church for a spirit of entitlement–not from clergy, staff, or ministry leaders.

(Before I go any further, I want to be clear that arrogance was not what motivated the apostles–obedience was! They were being obedient to the calling that Jesus had placed on each of their lives to preach the word of God.)

As equipping leaders, we can set the example by occasionally helping out with tasks that are outside of our gifting and calling. My senior pastor and I decided to give our facility team a “summer vacation.” All summer we’ve been coming earlier on Sundays to set up and staying later to put away. I confess that I’ve grumbled a few times, but it’s given me a deeper appreciation for the ministry of this particular team! I also encourage our ministry team leaders to schedule themselves in their team’s rotation, serving alongside the team members they lead.

I once heard a bishop remark that his consecration as bishop was not a move up the ladder of success, but rather a move step_downdownward into deeper humility. What an exhortation! If it is true that an organization can rise no higher than its leadership, then let’s be leaders who side-step the spirit of entitlement and instead journey downward into deeper humility, that every member of our church will be truly humble, serving others according to their gifting and calling so that we all rise to the example set by Christ!

Roles and Responsibilities

In response to my last post, my good friend commented that his baptism was his ordination. So true! Baptism is the ordination for every Christian in that we are given “holy orders” to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). This is the universal calling for all baptized Christians. How we each fulfill or carry out that directive varies, depending on how the Holy Spirit gifts and equips us for ministry.

For some, there is “further” ordination as they answer God’s call to accept formal responsibility for a body of believers within an ecclesial structure: in other words, they step into the “clergy” category. Is their ordination better–somehow more valid–than the ordination of baptism? I don’t think so! It is a different role with a different responsiblity. I know plenty of saints who do not bear the title of “Reverend” and are absolutely faithful to the ministry to which God has called and equipped them. And I have known a few “Reverends” who were more enamored of the title than the responsibility inherent in that role.

(c) Can Stock Photo Inc. / Andres

(c) Can Stock Photo Inc. / Andres

Is the clergy role more important than the role of lay ministers? When I watch our Welcome Team greet people as they come in the door, I’m so grateful for their ministry. It’s of vital importance that everyone–especially guests–feel welcome in the church. And I’m very grateful for the Altar Team member who carefully prepares the altar, sets out the bread and wine, and lights the candles to prepare a reverent setting for worship and communion. When our Music Team starts singing, I’m incredibly blessed by their ministry, especially since I don’t sing well at all! I could go on, but you get the point. All of these ministries are important very The people who do them are called and gifted to do what I am not–and what I cannot do by myself. Is my clergy role of deacon more important than theirs? Hardly! My responsiblities are just different.

Every ministry role in my church is valuable. (Admittedly, some are more necessary than others, at least for a season). However, some of those roles have more–and weightier–responsibilities than others. Our nursery and children’s church ministers are responsible for the safety and well-being of the children in their care. That is a weightier responsiblity than our facility ministers, who are responsible for the orderly placement of chairs in our worship space. We need and value both of these ministry roles, however, and I look for the same dedication from one as from the other.

Valuing roles equally is absolutely necessary for a healthy church. And it is one way to avoid falling into the entitlement trap, the subject of next week’s post!

Return on Investment

A couple of weeks ago I was in Georgia and saw flowering trees.  As I look out my window I see daffodils and tulips trying to emerge.  All this gives me hope that our harsh winter is about to end as spring erupts.  Just as these flowers are responding to their environment, I have found I must create an environment for my team that allows them to flourish.  I operate on the premise that a happy staff is a fruitful staff.  When I equip them to do the ministry God has called them to and provide the kind of support they need, good things are released.  From this perspective, I don’t need to push and prod, but create opportunities and an environment that releases ministry.

That was written by my dear friend and colleague, John Criswell, in his recent newsletter. John currently serves as a Regional Director at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship but, as I reflected on John’s words, I remembered that he had this same philosophy when we served together on the staff of a large church not so many years ago. What’s more, it worked! As my supervisor, John didn’t have to push or prod. Rather, he invested in me and good things were released in and through me.results

As a leader, what are you doing to create opportunities and an environment that releases ministry? Here are a few investments that will yield good results:

  • Help those you lead discover how God has uniquely designed them for ministry. I know I write this over and over, but this understanding is critical to fruitful ministry! Teach them to listen for and recognize God’s calling on their life.
  • Regularly re-visit that discovery process with those you lead through reflection exercises designed to reveal their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their current serving role. Don’t be afraid of losing your volunteer minister! Instead, set them free to pursue something more fulfilling, all the while trusting that God will bring someone who is better fitted to that role.
  • Provide opportunities for ongoing equipping. This can be in the form of conferences, workshops, seminars–if they can’t attend a live event, consider purchasing a video or audio recording for your volunteers. Instructional materials can also be found in books, magazines, ezines, blogs, YouTube, etc. Consider that volunteers have limited time, so be strategic when choosing these resources.
  • And speaking of resources, make sure your volunteers have what they need to do what is expected. Case in point: At the end of the Toddler Church lesson, our little ones look forward to their snack. Believe me, it’s not a pretty sight when the Goldfish snack container is empty! It makes for some pretty unhappy Toddler Church teachers.
  • Be accessible. John had a comfy blue chair in his office that held many of his supervisees when they came to share a frustration or recount a moment of fruitful ministry, and everything in between. John was always willing to listen, counsel, exhort, and celebrate. Yes, he was my supervisor…but he was also a trusted friend.
  • Dream with those you lead. Don’t just settle for the low-hanging fruit. Encourage them to dream bigger dreams for their ministry. Help them reach for more of the kingdom.

How are you investing in your people? What kind of return are you getting on that investment? If ministry isn’t being released–if you aren’t seeing good fruit as a result–perhaps it’s time to review your investment practices.

I got it already! … Really?

My last few posts have been aimed at laying a foundation for thinking, talking, teaching, and preaching about true vocation–that is, the call of God on every believer to participate in missio Dei. I hope you are saying, “I got it already! Now what do I do about it?” Wise question. Helping people understand that they are called to ministry is only the beginning. The next step is to establish a clearly defined pathway that leads them to understand and step into their true vocation.

In Luke 10:1-24,  Jesus provides a model from which we can learn.

  • Cast the vision: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…”
  • Give directions: “Pray earnestly…carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road…remain in the house where you find a person of peace, eating and drinking whatever they provide…heal the sick and proclaim the nearness of the kingdom”
  • Provide companionship for the journey: “…the Lord sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.”
  • Prepare for failure: “…whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you…shake the dust of that town from your feet”
  • Rejoice over success: “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name! … In that same hour, He rejoiced in the Holy Spirit…”
  • Give thanks: “I thank you, Father…”

For the next couple of weeks, I will address necessary steps to provide a clearly defined path for your people to step into ministry. Whether you are serving a large congregation or a small one, it is absolutely essential that people can easily identify where the journey of discovery begins as well as the steps along the way.

Larger churches often have an established a process by which people get “plugged into ministry.” Usually the volume of people makes this a necessity. The problems that often arise, however, are due to gaps in the process where people get lost. For example, a common gap is to confuse pointing with directing. Another is to ignore the follow-up.

Smaller congregations have their own set of problems. They often make the mistake of thinking that, because they are small, it’s easy for people to see how to “plug in.” After all, there’s always a lot to do and not very many people to get it all done! The attitude can be, “Just do whatever needs doing!” This approach is haphazard and often leads to unsatisfying ministry experiences.

So, no matter the size of the church you are leading, a clearly defined path is critical.

Hold on… There’s a bigger problem with the examples I just gave than gaps in process and assuming it’s obvious. Did you catch it? If not, you’ve missed a critical first step: the paradigm shift from ministry as avocation to ministry as vocation. (If you need a refresher, read this.) This change in paradigm is absolutely critical to developing a clearly defined path to participation in missio Dei! Get that right and you are ready for the next steps!