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Pastor, You May be Important but You're Not Essential

Pastor, if you think you’re essential to your church’s health, growth, and success, you may well have an inflated sense of your own importance.

I’m not saying that to be insulting, mind you, but I know from 20 some odd years in pastoral ministry that being “essential” is the unexamined motive that keeps many of us on the ministry merry-go-round, where we go round and round doing all the right leadership things, while failing to notice that we haven’t really gone anywhere—where we end the day with a sense of having been really busy, but unsure as to what we just did.

The problem with feeling “essential” is that the merry-go-round of ministry becomes a prison, where our real self becomes locked in a maximum security role characterized by knee-jerk cheerfulness, false-front compassion, pious posturing, and inspiring preaching that is more about feeling good than being good. Where we find that we’re alone with our thoughts, and realize we don’t have any. Where talking about prayer has replaced prayer.

At this point, in pieces like this, the author (in this case, me) usually starts citing the latest research on how burned-out many pastors are. I am, of course, equipped to do this, if you like, having just come across yet another study about pastors and discouragement. But, chances are, you don’t need another study or survey to tell you what you already know. We’re swimming in gloomy data, and if the data doesn’t discourage you, your next elders’ meeting probably will if the previous hasn’t already. (Or if all is well with the powers that be, there’s always last Sunday’s attendance and financial summary, but let’s not go there.)

Can it be that what keeps us in place, ministry-wise, isn’t so much dedication but arrogance, a sense of self-importance where no one can do it better than we can (whatever “it” may be)? A pride-full attitude that we’re essential, that God really isn’t speaking to anyone else in our church as clearly as He’s speaking to us? That everything will fall apart without us?

Someone who really is essential, someone without whom everything really would fall apart, is Jesus, and Jesus went missing for a few days now and then, especially when it looked as though he would be so successful that everyone would make him the messiah they wanted, the one on the white horse, sword in hand, who would drive out the Roman administration and establish the Kingdom of God as just another imperial power. John tells us that Jesus withdrew into the mountains after miraculously feeding the five thousand, knowing that the people were seeking to make him king (John 6:15). Instead of building momentum and creating a successful mass movement, he went into hiding. Instead of starting the First Century equivalent of a TV ministry, he spent time with his Abba.

Likewise, after driving out an evil spirit at the Capernaum synagogue, and then after healing many at the home of Peter and Andrew, he disappears to a “solitary place.” Then, when told that everyone was looking for him, he goes somewhere else instead of returning to his success (Mark 1:21-29). Here is someone who, by all accounts, is a successful religious leader, but here is also someone who is marching to the beat of a drum different than the one many of us hear.

The drumbeat that energizes Jesus’ march to Calvary is the desire to stay close to his Father and entrust the consequences of his obedience to Him. Jesus was a busy man, and, at times, very busy indeed. Yet, Luke repeatedly tells of Jesus going off, away from ministry, to spend time alone with his Father. His busyness was rooted in prayer so that what he did and said reflected his quiet, alone-times with his Father. Jesus was more concerned about staying in relationship with his Father than in activity for its own sake, even ministry activity. Knowing his Father, he trusted Him with the consequences of his obedience and didn’t need to be “essential.” As a result, he was not the smothering presence so many of us pastors can be.

Jesus did not seek to dominate or control. He sent out his disciples to do the same work he did. He sent out the seventy in Luke to do the same. With the cross imminent, he tells his disciples on the night of his betrayal that it is “to their advantage” that he goes away (John 16:7, ESV), despite the fact that they will be facing persecution (John 15:18-25, 16:1-2). Jesus’ faith in his Father was such that he was able to entrust his disciples into His care and let go of his life. Instead of controlling and holding on to his ministry and to his disciples, he lets them go. He trusts the Spirit of God to complete the work he started.

As busy as Jesus was, he made sure that his busyness was rooted in his prayer life, and not vice versa. Why is it so hard for us to be like Jesus in this regard? Why is it, pastors, that we hold on to ministry activities with a death-grip, unable to “let go and let God” as a former prayer partner of mine often said. Truly, as you read John’s account of Jesus’ last conversation with his disciples, you certainly get the sense of someone who had deeply “let go and let God.” It’s almost as though we follow Christ but forget that he let go of his ministry in order to die, trusting God with the results. Jesus’ ministry was one of obedience that came out of a deep relationship with his Father, not one of doing what he thought his Father would appreciate.

Jesus’ ministry transcended busyness. He could leave the crowds behind and even his disciples so he could spend time with his Father. That’s why we see his Father in him: “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). What do people see when they look at us? Do they see a series of pious activities and a lot of religious busyness, or do they see Christ taking shape in us?

Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” One could rightly paraphrase his words by saying, “Where you invest your time, there will your heart be also.” When we invest our time in activities alone, even with the best of intentions, we end up playing a role rather than being the person God created us to be, and our joy withers and our heart becomes brittle and tired. When we invest our time in knowing God first, then we find that Jesus was right about the Spirit of God flowing out of his like a river of living water (John 7:38). Then, we experience Isaiah’s words:

“Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles. . . “ (Isaiah 40:30-31)

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