Monday, March 5, 2007

Working for a church of working for God?

Ok, I'm going to start with a little bit of self disclosure: I've been involved in one form of ministry or another for as long as I can remember. I've been leading singing, teaching class, conducting camp, doing visitation to shut-ins, leadinng spring break campaigns, doing Vacation Bible Schools, preaching sermons, writing curriculum, publishing daily devotionals, doing one-on-one studies, and baptising those who respond to God's call. I've hiked the tallest mountain, swum in murky lakes, cleaned shaving cream out of places I don't shave, paintballed, rappelled, canoed, bivouacked and eaten spam cooked over an open flame, alll to trying to be a reflection of Christ in the flesh to teens seeking to find their place in this world, to seniors trying to cope with a terminal illness, to couples my age dealing with the stresses of life change. While you might look at that list and conclude that I've worked the miracle of combining high adventure with ministry, you'd only be partly right. You see, probably 15% of all that was personal enjoyment and the rest was lots of hard work, planning and angst.

I'm not going to try to convince you that I am a spectacularly talented minister, but I do believe that God has been able to use me to touch the lives of people who needed to know the love of God. I'll tell you that the best thing about ministry is the people God brings into your life, to minister to and to be ministered by. I'll also tell you that some of the most painful, hurtful, awful moments in my life have happened in conjunction with my ministry. I've been dismissed from a ministry job, fired from one, let go due to "lack of funds". I've had parents hate me, elders sabotage me, people outside my ministry area criticize and revile me. I've had anonymous letters accuse me of theft of church funds and question my eternal salvation. I've had deacons dress me down for imagined offenses. I've suffered some slings and arrows.

I've worked hard to try and learn and grow from these experiences so that God will be able to better use me in the future. I've gained great insight and maturity by wrestling with these struggles and glowing in the triumphs. But the reason I've told you all of this is to ask this question:

Why does working for (with) a church seem to be at odds with working for God?

Perhaps it is the struggle that shapes and forms us more closely in the image of Christ? I've worked with some wonderful individuals at churches over the years. I've been blessed beyond measure with relationships with special people who have sustained and encouraged me, even when the suffering I was going through was legitimately from my own stupid mistake(s). But by and large, I feel that in every ministry I've been a part of, I've had to work against someone with an agenda. It has been an influential parent; I've seen elders who have no business being elders; I've had to work against the spectre of a previous minister whose ministry poisoned the hearts of those he left behind. I just don't get it. In fact, I think that one of the greatest miracles in scripture is mentioned in Acts 2:40-47.

The day after I lost my youth ministry position in Enid, I got a call from an Elder at a nearby church. He offered me a position at their church and told me that in his opinion, the reasons behind my dismissal were unjust and hurtful and it shouldn't have happened. He was trying to comfort me, as I was still reeling from some shock at the unexpectedness of the whole situation. I remember he said to me, "Jeff, it is not like that at every church." I thanked him and told him I would consider his offer and get back to him, but as we ended the call, I recall thinking that he was mistaken. I told my wife that night that I didn't want to work with a church again in a way that would jeopardize the security of my family if I lost my "job". It was overwhelmingly clear( from my perspective) that the congregation at large didn't want me to stop ministering there. It seemed to be the opinion and efforts of a few key individuals who had enough influence and authority to make it happen. I resolved that I would seek out ministry opportunities that allowed me to "work for God, but not be subject to the caprciousness of powerful individuals in the church". I decided that if God wanted me to work in a full time ministry position again, he'd make it abundantly clear.

So... what do you think? Am I in a place where I'm responding out of my own personal bitterness? Can any other ministers validate my experience with their own? Would any elder type folks like to repudiate my claims? I can only imagine the blessing of working in an environment where everyone is together and had everything (goals, visions, ministry styles, grace and tolerance, good intentions and talents) in common and used them for work in the Kingdom. And yet, God is still good and His kingdom advances... so maybe there is still a lesson here I need to learn. >grin< Perhaps God knows what's he's doing after all, and I'm just along for the ride.

God, you've brought me to a place where I believe you want me to be right now. The path has been terribly wonderful, but I've seen your hand guiding me the entire way, though sometimes I've had to look back to see how you guided me. Father, I pray for those who minister. If my experience is a common one, my prayer is that you will sustain them by your grace. I pray that you will give them key individuals who minister to the ministers and act as a fountain of refreshing in their ministries. Lord, I pray for those you've set in authority in your church. Being an elder, deacon, preacher or other leader is not easy, I know. I pray first and foremost for humility for them (and me). Next I pray for discernment as they guide the church, plan for the future and model your love in their lives. Finally, I pray that you will sustain them as well, by your grace. Father, I pray for those whose hearts long to serve you. I pray that you will accept their hearts and mold and shape them to be your instruments in this world. Temper and refine them, and help them to come through the fires of church work, they can better reflect your glory in their lives. This is my prayer for them, and for me.


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