(Photo: Paul Tripp)
God's words of commission to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1) have a powerful and practical application to your commitment to a daily lifestyle of reconciliation in your ministry relationships. Yes, I know that God's call to Jeremiah is individual and specific, since he was being called as one of God's prophets. It isn't God's call to Jeremiah that's interesting and helpful; it's the content of the call. Embedded in God's words is a model for how real and lasting change takes place. It's wonderfully helpful for diagnosing and correcting your ministry relationships in the places where both are needed.
The words are brief but beautifully and accurately descriptive: "See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant" (Jer. 1:10). If change was to take place in Israel (and it was desperately needed), God is saying that this is how it'll have to happen: pluck up and break down, plant and build. God is saying that change always has two sides to it: destruction and construction. Change is needed because there are things in you, or in your ministry situation or relationships, that need to be uprooted or torn down, and if change is actually going to be change, there are new things that need to be planted or built in the place of what was uprooted and torn down.
For your ministry relationships to be healthy, you must have destructive and constructive zeal. I know that this sounds funny, but for these relationships to be what they were designed to be, there are things that need to be destroyed. But like the problem of weeds that keep jutting their heads out of once-clear ground, this destructive agenda cannot be a one-time commitment. In some way, there are always things, little and big, in the way of what our ministry relationships should and could be. I'm going to suggest what some of these may be, but it's important that you know that what I'm giving you is a general, pump-priming list that you need to expand and apply to the specifics of these important kingdom-work relationships.
It really is there in all of us – selfishness – because it's the DNA of sin. Perhaps nothing is more destructive in ministry relationships than this. Perhaps it's the root of all the dumb and nasty little things we do to one another. Maybe it's the reason we make those big, disastrous choices that have the potential to end ministry trust and partnership. Doesn't Genesis 3 point us in that direction? At the bottom of it all, what's wrong is that we want our own way, and, in wanting our own way, we want to be sovereign over our little worlds, making sure that what we want is exactly what we get.
All this is a horrible reversal of God's design, so it will never work. We were constructed as social beings, made to live in vertical communion with God and horizontal communion with one another. Nothing works in life (let alone in ministry) when the human community is comprised of a bunch of self-appointed little sovereigns seeking to set up their own little kingdoms. That way of living precludes relationships and guarantees war. The other-centeredness that we were designed for and that God uses to rescue us from ourselves is the only way of living that makes us able to live with one another in respect, appreciation, and peace.
There's no doubt about it: too many of us are trying to have hundred-dollar conversations in dime moments. Too many of us have left little time in our schedules for meaningful conversation, tender connection, and focused problem solving. Too many of us have little time for relational reflection and introspection in our ministries. Too many of us are doing ministry relationships on the fly. Relating to one another, too often, is what we do in between all the other things we're doing that really determine the content and pace of our schedules. But the ministry community doesn't function very well as an in-between thing, and it surely doesn't tend to thrive when we leave it alone and ask it to grow on its own. A ministry community that's going to grow, change, and become increasingly healthy needs cultivation. Like a garden, it doesn't do well when it's being neglected.
Think of your physical body. Healthy people are healthy because they pay attention to their bodies. They pay attention to what they eat. They pay attention to signs of illness or disease. They pay attention to the need for regular exercise. They don't expect to be healthy without paying attention and responding to what they see and feel. I'm deeply persuaded that many local church ministry communities get to an unhealthy place simply because they've been neglected. Sadly, many of us are better at responding to crisis than we are at working on prevention. We're all guilty, in some way, of taking our ministry relationships for granted and, in so doing, taking one another for granted.
Do you welcome those moments when a fellow pastor or staff member approaches you with a criticism or concern about something you said or did? Are you glad that God has placed you next to someone who helps you see yourself with greater accuracy? Do you embrace and act on the thought that you could be a better pastor, leader, shepherd, or friend? When you're approached with a criticism or concern, do you ever redirect the conversation, working to convince the other that you're not the only sinner in the room? Have you actually invited your staff to confront you in places where they think it's needed? Do you ever blame your words or behavior on your staff? When you feel a twinge of guilt, do you work to relieve your guilt by self-atoning arguments for the rightness of what you said or did? How active is your "inner lawyer," internally arguing in your defense, even as the other person is speaking? Have you tended to think that all the weeds in your ministry relationships were brought in by others?
You and I are probably more motivated by fear than we think. Fear is most often not an experience of trembling dread. It is most often not an experience of hand-wringing anxiety. Fear is most often a way of looking at your world that shapes the thoughts of your heart and, because it does, structures the way you respond. Perhaps your struggle is with the fear of failure. Perhaps you spend too much time thinking about the "what ifs." Perhaps you're all too skilled at conceiving the bad things that may result if this or that happens. Perhaps you've spent so much time meditating on and preparing yourself for potential difficulties that you unwittingly fulfill your own prophecies. Maybe you're not actually responding to the people with whom you minister based on what they are doing but on what you're afraid he might do.
Or maybe, for you, it's the struggle with fear of man. Perhaps you've attached too much of your inner sense of well-being, your security, and your hope to the esteem, respect and appreciation of your staff. Maybe you're all too skilled at riding the daily roller coaster of their responses to you. Perhaps you work too hard to read their thoughts and emotions. Perhaps what they think simply means too much to you. Maybe the people who work with you are too able to make or break your day. Perhaps you work too hard to please them. Maybe the truth is that their affirmation means more to you than it should.
It's hard to admit, but laziness is a big issue in our ministry relationships. We know that we shouldn't leave a meeting angry, but it seems that it will take too long to solve our conflict. We know that we need to clear up this morning's misunderstanding, but it won't leave us much time to get other ministry work done. We know that we're not on the same page financially, but working it through simply isn't very exciting. We know we need to discuss what's happening in our departmental relationships, but we simply don't want to face the uncomfortable nature of that conversation. You know that you're bitter, but there just doesn't seem to be time in your schedule to examine and confess it. You know that things aren't right, but you tell yourself you should wait for a better moment. You walk away from an argument, and you know you should go back and ask for forgiveness, but you don't know what you'll get into if you do.
It's a fact: laziness is rooted in self-love. It's the ability to take ourselves off the hook. It's the willingness to permit ourselves to not do things we know we should do. It's believing that good things should come our way without our having to work to get them. It's opting for what's comfortable for ourselves rather than what's best for the ministry community we've been called to work with. Laziness is always self-focused and self-excusing. Laziness is undisciplined and unmotivated. Laziness permits us to be passive when decisive and loving action is needed. Laziness allows us to avoid when we should be engaged. Laziness expects more from others than we require from ourselves. Laziness demands good things without being willing to invest in them. I'm persuaded that laziness is a much bigger deal in our ministry relationships than we've tended to think.
But pastor, here's the good news. You don't have to be afraid of examining your ministry community, no matter how weedy it may be, because God meets you in your difficulty with his amazing grace. And you don't have to deny your failures because your standing before God isn't based on your success, but on the perfectly successful life of Christ. So even in failure, he blesses you with the grace of wisdom, patience, strength, and forgiveness. If you're God's children, it's never just you and your ministry partners, somehow hoping that you can work your way through your problems. No, there's another Person who inhabits every situation and location of those relationships. He's with you, he's willing, and he's able to come to your aid. In fact, in his grace, he's made you the place where he lives. Perhaps for too long you've let the weeds of sin choke the life out of important ministry relationships. How about standing up and beginning to pull out the weeds? How about believing that, as you do, your Lord of love and mercy will give you just the grace you need at just the moment you need it?