Monday, October 19, 2009

Thoughts on keeping your eyes open

A friend recently shared this reflection with me, and I thought it offered great insight into this sort of situation-- when you're not sure if you should be looking for an opportunity for transition or not. I posted a version of what he wrote, but he wanted to re-work it a bit after I posted! Here's his updated story:

Ed, I hope the following reflections on my transition are helpful for some of your readers.

First, a bit of background... My wife and I took our first job out of seminary in a very expensive metro area. It was great experience, but the cost of living was very high. My dream of providing for my family faded as my wife had to begin working full time and as we were dependent on her for providing health insurance. I began to compartmentalize—I served the church with as much emotional energy as I could afford, but also began looking for a way out (that is, a different job).

The Lord apparently had lessons for us to learn because another job didn’t open up for quite a while. We were left feeling the crunch for a couple years. However, another opportunity eventually arose; and when it did, God’s guidance was clear and unmistakable.

This is not an unfamiliar story, I know. What I’d like to share below are some of the lessons I learned, or at least hope that I’ve learned. After years of feeling like victims of an unfair salary and (what felt like) uncaring leadership, we realize that most of the problems concerned our attitude.

Here are some reflections:

God's timing. What struck me most of all, in retrospect, was that when it's God's time...things happen. Nothing opened up for us as we were trying to “settle down,” but when it was time to move on (and there were more objective indicators by that point) it was as if the red carpet was rolled out. While I don't understand God's timing, it seems He was pretty rigid concerning His plan for us: he simply would not yield to our desire to escape our uncomfortable situation. I see this now as a token of his love, like a father who refuses to give their child something that is not in their ultimate best interests. I do not regret searching for other ministry positions, out of a desire to be proactive concerning my wife's/family's (real or perceived) needs--but I wish I would have done so with less anxiety and more trust in God's ultimate best for us.

God's release. One time, a fellow pastor spoke to me about sensing God's "release" from a ministry position. He told me not to look for another position until you know in your heart God has released you from your present one—until you know your work there is complete. For me, this sense of release came eventually…but not until after I’d spun my wheels trying to get hired at numerous churches (where I always ended up being their “second choice”). Had I waited for this sense of release before sending out my resumes, I could have saved myself a lot of time and a lot of postage.

Heart issues, heart issues, heart issues. I am so embarrassed to say that I allowed myself to feel like a victim during my time in this ministry position. Now that the smoke has cleared my wife and I have had discussions about "idols" in our life that were the real problem. We had idols concerning the American dream and others too. I can look back in retrospect and see how we could have served the Lord so much more effectively had we trusted God more (as I've already stated) and been less anxious...less frustrated...less idolatrous. Had we limited the emotional energy spent on fixing our situation, I could see myself taking even greater advantages of the discipling/evangelizing opportunities that were present for me in this metro area. Another way of putting this same point is, “Don’t panic.” Or, if you do feel panicked, explore whether it may be because an idol is being removed from your hands.

Money: Another heart Issue. God provided for us wonderfully once we made our move, but financial issues still plagued us. This is because issues such as being gospel-centered, planning well for the future, etc, are present no matter how much or how little you make. This is not to say that churches shouldn’t pay their pastors better; they should. But we have to be careful about feeling entitled.

As you can see, most of these lessons involve attitude. I can see now, as we face another transition, that having a much more patient, trusting attitude--and trying to discern what God desires for us to learn right here, right now--is a much better way to go. It doesn't mean I'm not praying about, and investigating opportunities for, the future. But I feel more trust than panic.

At the same time, I'd like to note a few things on the "other side"...

Pastoral/session care. I would have benefited from greater pastoral and sessional care, even though the responsibility was ultimately mine. This hit home to me when, near the very end, I asked the senior pastor to speak to the session about a serious concern we had--only to find out down the road that the request had been utterly forgotten. I personally believe that better communication concerning financial struggles would make many pastor’s situations 90% better. Trying to serve while feeling that no one knows or cares—that’s where bitterness and hard feelings develop.

Tourists don't make the best missionaries. While I wish we had been less concerned about our finances and getting “settled down, it was a simple fact that our church was located in an area where the cost of living was far higher than our income. We always felt like tourists because we could not really live like the people we were trying to serve--meaning, we could not own a home or even rent one near the church. I realize now how pastoral ministry is greatly aided by being part of the everyday, "normal" culture. I'm not saying that you cannot do ministry otherwise, but I would think twice before taking a position where you’d be an immediate outsider to the typical rhythms of life.

I don’t know if these lessons will resonate with any of your readers. But if it leads someone to greater self-examination and even a sense of hope, that would be great.

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