This is the seventh post of ten in my series of advice for younger leaders. Here's the working list:
7. Get serious about a hobby.
9. Be part of your own church.
10. Don't let people need you too much.
Advice #7: Get serious about a hobby.
My life changed the day I allowed myself to have a little fun. I was clinically depressed most of my first five years in vocational ministry. Church work can destroy a person in a hurry. Church leaders know all too well the stakes for which we play. Most of us are drawn to ministry because we a have a sober understanding that people are hurting, lonely and in need of Jesus and his Kingdom. Every decision we make has eternal consequences to the people we serve. It is an emotionally heavy burden to be a minister.
As a result, many of us tend to pour our entire lives into our particular ministry. "It is worth the sacrifice," we say. The younger we are, the faster we can run. We don't think about the pace of our lives when we are young. We sprint...until we collapse. The thought of doing something simply because it is personally enjoyable feels selfish and shallow compared to the life-and-death calling we have received. I get that. I still, at times, feel a little guilty when I go on vacation or skip a "ministry" event for personal reasons. But, for the most part, that's an unhealthy approach to all of this. God doesn't need me to be everywhere to do what He wants to do.
Almost a decade ago, at the height of my depression, Debbie gave me the greatest Christmas gift of my life. She enrolled me into the introduction to improv class with The Second City in Las Vegas. I had confessed to her on multiple occasions that, had my life taken a different turn, I would have loved to have been an actor. I was captivated by improvisation most of all. I felt like, given a chance, I could do it well. But, at that time in my life I felt as though I was destined to be a pastor and a pastor only. Any hobby or interest outside of the church would surely prove to be a distraction. In her wisdom, my wife took matters into her own hands.
Within five minutes of my first improv class I knew everything had changed. I clearly remember thinking, "so this is where people like me end up." I had always felt somewhat out of place at church, but not at The Second City. I was with my people - my tribe. I was home. I never loved anything so quickly and deeply as I did improv. I scheduled my week around those early classes. I thought about improv all the time. It was filling something important missing in my life...more accurately, it was fulfilling something important missing in my faith.
As a result of my new hobby, within a year I had things I had never had in my life: I had a safe place to be me. I had a new group of friends who did not self-identify as Christians. I had a new discipline and tradition to learn. But most of all, I had a place to have fun.
I also had a breakthrough. I realized that I should not call anything impure or unclean that God is willing to redeem. My improv classes were the holiest part of my life in those days. It was where I met God every week. Most of my improv friends weren't the church-going type, but I was able to bring Jesus with me and introduce him to them. I now have friends from years of learning and performing improv all over the world. I'd like to think that some of them know Jesus a little better because I brought him with me into the process.
The biggest breakthrough of all was this - that though I was a professional pastor, most of my actual ministry was being done within the reality of my hobby. It was within the improv and acting communities that I formed genuine real-world friendships with people. It was with these new friends that I had the most genuine and authentic conversations about God. They became, in many ways, my first church.
Since the day I walked into The Second City first level class, I have never stopped improvising. Even when I was acting professionally, I made sure to keep improv as a hobby. Improvisers are my people. I love them...and for some reason, they love me - even the most militant atheists among them. We have something in common - an art and belief system that keeps us together.
Obviously, improv isn't for everyone. What is your thing? What is the thing in your life that you would love to do, but it sounds too shallow or selfish to be considered ministry? I have friends who have found their first church in basketball, poker, garage bands, golf, role playing games, fashion design and paintball. What if God himself has put that seemingly child-like desire in your heart for a reason? Maybe he is calling you into a community where you can love and be loved, know and be known. Maybe hobbies matter more than work sometimes. Find your holy ground...find your bliss and you may also find your greater purpose as a missionary.
And a side-note for leaders who have vocational ministers working under your responsibility. I would encourage you to make it a top priority for your staff to engage in a hobby they love. If you have to, make it part of their "work hours." It will only make them better missionaries, more connected in your community and more engrafted into the culture. It will grow your ministry.