Friday, June 18, 2010

Advice to Young Christian Leaders #1 of 10

Over the next few weeks I will be writing a ten-part series addressed to younger church leaders. It will include some of the things that I wish people had told me when I started vocational ministry 15 years ago. (I should say that I was probably told these things when I was younger and simply didn't listen.) I tend to not be very didactic on this blog. I am much more comfortable processing aloud with you than assuming the position of an expert. I am not an expert on these matters, but I have spent a decade and a half living a unique life with various expressions of paid and non-paid Christian ministry. It feels like a good time to talk about my learnings.

Once we get into this, my list might grow beyond these, but here are ten things I would want all young leaders to know. I'll list them for you here and then dedicate a post to each one this summer:

1. Prepare to struggle.

2. It's a calling, not a career.

3. Big dreams are a tricky thing.

4. Make sure you are preaching the right gospel.

5. Woo your city.

6. Decide whom you will offend before offending them.

7. Get serious about a hobby.

8. Influence.

9. Be part of your own church.

10. Don't let people need you too much.

Advice to Young Christian Leaders #1: Prepare to Struggle

This was a daunting list to create. It was especially difficult to know what to write about first. I really wanted to start off with a nice dose of positivity, but I am not sure that would be the most honest place for me to begin this discussion. From my perspective ministry has been, more than anything else, a marathonic struggle. That doesn't mean it hasn't had amazing moments of joy and fulfillment. It has very much so. But I have also wanted to give up time and time again. Sometimes it has been hard to pay the bills. Sometimes it has just been good old fashioned hard work. I can deal with those hardships when they come. For me, the real hardship is that ministry is consistently emotionally overwhelming. Everyone is different, but my "cross to bear" is a constant unshakable heaviness and sense of ineptitude that can be paralyzing. It is a struggle sometimes to simply continue. We will talk more about this in the next post, but ministry as a career choice is a death wish. It has to be a calling or it will end very badly. The calling is what sustains me.

I have noticed that people either young in years (in their twenties) or young in their faith (newer Christians) have an amazing amount of energy to devote to serving the church. I think this is a gift from God. Embrace it. Go for it! But just know that you will someday grow tired. Right now you probably see being tired as a weakness. You think that you have enough faith, love, and determination to push through any future season of exhaustion. "It is, after all, a life and death struggle we are in," you say to yourself. "I have to keep going."

But someday you will simply not have the willpower to push through. If you are like me, you will wake up one morning and question everything. The people your ministry was changing for the better will revert back to being the same hot messes they were when you met them. Your partners in ministry will give up or move onto a "better" opportunity or simply emotionally shut down. Your mentor or hero will be suddenly exposed as an utterly flawed human being. God himself will seemingly fail you. He won't necessarily reward your sacrifices the way you thought he should. You may even question his character...or even his existence. You will see all of your previous efforts and sacrifices as either misguided or meaningless. This day must come. This is the day when God truly invites you to share with him in his way of ministry. For some of you the day will come quickly - mine did. I was "burnt out" in my mid-twenties. For some it will come later. But it will come.

Think for a split second about Jesus. His ministry was a roller coaster of "success" and "failure." After three full years of ministry he had grown his church from 12 to 11 people. Then he was murdered. Ministry is a daily reminder of The Cross. The Cross will begin to loom over your life as a daily shadow - a future reality to bear - not just some bit of ancient history that set you free centuries ago. Your cross is coming. So, like Jesus, set your face like flint to Jerusalem and embrace the journey of The Cross.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the transformation of Jacob to Israel. Jacob means “deceiver.” Jacob was not a good guy. He was a jerk and a con artist, but God loved him and pursued him. The story goes that Jacob met an angel and wrestled with him all night long. Jacob refused to let go until the angel blessed him. The angel touched Jacob’s hip and wounded him. Then he changed his name to Israel, which means “struggles with God and man but overcomes.” Jacob walked with a limp the rest of his life, but he was a transformed man and a different kind of leader. There is no transformation to Israel without the struggle of Jacob. I firmly believe that every follower of God has to struggle through  his or her own wrestling match and overcome. You can recognize us ex-wrestlers by our limps.

My earliest ministries were quickly successful. Then a time of struggle came. I learned more in the struggles than in the successes. At this time in my life many might say that I am "successful" again. To be completely honest, I never ever think about that. I don't care if I am or am not successful in anyone's opinion, including my own. I had to learn to think that way when I was a failure. God loved me then. He loves me now. If God calls me to "fail" again, I will follow him. It is all about him and what he wants.

You're only real job is to be faithful. Being a leader doesn't mean that you stop asking hard questions about God and life. It means you ask more of them. Being a real leader means embracing the struggle. And the best leaders in my life have been the ones who have been brave enough to struggle in front of me...and allow me to struggle with them. This is why Jesus invited his disciples to the garden to weep with him. I have a theory that you aren't really someone's disciple until they have wept with you.

I hope this little experiment of mine proves helpful to some of you. My next post will deal with an issue that is rarely discussed. I will explain why viewing vocational ministry as a career is a sure recipe for disaster.

4 comments:

Joe said...

Joe,

Wow. I can't begin to tell you how timely this post is. Must be a God thing.

Thanks for doing this. I'll be glued to the monitor as you run down the list.

Tara Bullington said...

Thanks Joe! I look forward to all of your advice to those of us who want to be movers and shakers in the kingdom! Love your realness. :) Can't wait for part 2.

佳梅 said...
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Laurie said...

Joe,

You don’t know me but my husband and I attended the Vineyard there in Cincinnati for 10 years. We grew in our walk with Christ to the point that this past February my husband took early retirement and we now serve full time with the organization MMS (Missionary Maintenance Services) here in Coshcoton Ohio. We are not young in age but we are young in the leadership role of ministry and so are finding this blog post very helpful and I am looking forward to what else you have to say.