When I concluded my time in Houston mid August of 2014 I was confident that I would be serving somewhere else by the Christmas break. Why would I think otherwise, there were several conversations in play with indications of other opportunities yet to be formulized? By this time I had already received and declined a great opportunity to which I just did not feel called. A couple of conversations had begun with great gusto from churches interested in me, which was received with much enthusiasm on my part. Many quickly come to nothing and I saw the days drawing into weeks and on into months. By Christmas Eve I was seeing myself in a situation that I had not been in before. For the first time in over seventeen years of full-time ministry I was without a place to serve and no services to plan and with which to be involved. I was, I confess, very frustrated with God. As the day unfolded Christmas Eve was a mixture of anxious disappointment and moments of anger, yet, as I did not have any responsibilities that day my time was significantly more relaxed than it had been in previous years.
We dressed to go to worship without any sense of rush. I did not have to be at the church all-day and ready for services that would go from mid afternoon beyond the midnight hour. We drove as a family to church, not in two cars which was the norm, and our dinner plans had no time limits. I did enjoy sitting with my family during the beautifully choreographed and orchestrated worship experience. It was our first time as a family to attend this particular church, which added to the strangeness of the experience. I tried to worship with an open heart seeking to offer my thankfulness for the gift of the child born in Bethlehem, but I had still in the depth of my heart an unhealthy amount of resentment. I heard recently in a sermon a commentary about our walk with the Lord and how its healthiness can be judged by our negativity. Apparently my walk was in a shambles.
Dinner was wonderful, the sense of freedom knowing that our next stop was not rushing back to church having gotten agitated with the waitress for not brining my check as quickly as I expected her to do so. I was not preoccupied thinking through my sermon, already mentally absent from the festivities. No, we laughed and talked all while being right there in all facets of existence. It really was a blessing. Later that night seeing the various posts from collogues in ministry around the world my mind led my heart right back into a place of despair and frustration. I have read articles from psychologists who describe the danger of Facebook and how it can produce pain upon human self-esteem. They are correct. I was excited for friends yet terribly aware of my own situation of what I believed to be my ‘non-service.’ I am sure I was not easy to be around even on such a wonderful holiday as Christmas.
It was much later that I realized what a gift I had wasted due to my own self-centeredness. I had been given a gift by the Lord to simply serve my family in a way I had not in over seventeen years. God had created space, which I had arrogantly believed I did not need because I was a gift to him, preaching and leading worship through one of the High Holy seasons of the church. My identity had become so wrapped up in what I did for God that I had lost sight of who I was in God and the true nature of his call upon my life.
I was advised many years ago as I began pastoral ministry that I have three callings in my life. First I am called to be a child of God, second to be husband and father and third to be a pastor. In the process of those months I had, not the first time I confess, flip-flopped the order of my call. I had, again, placed my calling as a pastor to be the most important and the highest priority. It is a stupid notion when one realizes that at the time I wasn’t actually pastoring a congregation and my priority was falsely established in my mind without a formal call. I had lost sight of the first calling to simply enjoy being a child of God. Encapsulated within that calling is existence in the presence of God without any responsibilities. I am his beloved child and he expects nothing of me to maintain that incredible position and title. While that struggle raged my second calling also suffered as my family endured my skirmish with my self worth and my creator. Over these months I have been given a gift, time with family with no one else to worry about, such sick parishioners to visit, church board meetings, staff team meetings, worship services to plan and funerals to conduct. I have had time to take my children to school in the mornings, time to go to the gym with Jennifer, time to read, study and write, time to get FroYo after school. Time to attend choir and band concerts on time, not having to endure the rush hour traffic. I have also discovered what it is like for the normal, non-pastor’s families who attend church just as churchgoers (that will be another post soon). I have learned a great deal.
Hear me correctly, I am honestly still struggling with these issues, but I am very aware and have been confronted and redeemed as I am convicted by the Holy Spirit and forgiven.
To my collogues in ministry, I share this as a warning to prioritize your true callings correctly so that you do not over estimate your presumed value in the Lord, but simply rest in the assurance that he worries only about you and not your ‘performances’. Second, to ‘churchgoers’ keep your pastors accountable to their true identity. Create for them real spaces where they can reconnect with their first two callings as a child of God and then as spouse and parent. Some of our best family times have been when church members have blessed us with trips, given us tickets to events and brought us out to dinner with their families. We have been so thankful for these opportunities. Most of all love your pastors for who they are, not for what they do for you or the church. It will help everyone long term. And for all of us, remember he chose you before the foundation of the world to be his child, way before you were called to be anything else.