As a brand-new minister, I was part of a small group of recent seminary graduates who met weekly with an incredibly wise retired pastor. One week we asked him, “If you could go back and do anything differently as a young pastor, what would it be?”
“I would go out back of my church and sit in a chair and watch the grass grow more often,” he answered. We all expected something more practical or exciting.
Doing less is probably good advice for those of us who have just survived that North American liturgical season: Church Kickoff. In August and September, churches are a flurry of activity as congregations return from a summer of vacations and lazy Sunday mornings to begin the “program year.” Pastors have finalized the last-minute details of volunteers and schedules for Sunday school and youth group and the big calendar events. There’s a kickoff Sunday packed with activities: special food, music and maybe a bouncy castle or two. And plans are in place for whatever new and exciting program or study or small group is going to re-energize the congregation this year. Now that all of this is done, it’s time to plan for Advent and Christmas. There is so much work to be done!
A church that expects its nourishment to flow solely from the pastor or staff is lost.
In a recent Washington Post article, Jen Hatmaker, a pastor’s wife, worries about the health and well-being of our church’s pastors. She takes note of frightening statistics about clergy health and speculates that our consumer culture might be to blame. Church has become a place where the paid staff is expected to do everything for everyone. And this, she suggests, is running pastors ragged:
I wonder if a “Come to us and we will do it all, lead it all, organize it all, calendar it all, execute it all, innovate it all, care for it all and fund it all” framework is even biblical? It sets leaders and followers up for failure, creating a church-centric paradigm in which discipleship is staff-led and program-driven.
I think she’s on to something. A church that expects its nourishment to flow solely from the pastor or staff is lost. It sounds like the time the people of Israel got fed up with manna and demanded that Moses find them some meat. In Numbers 11, Moses offers to the Lord what must be one of the greatest laments of faith community leadership in history: “I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me.”
God’s response is to appoint elders to help Moses lead the people. It doesn’t matter that Moses’ way of calling out to God for help is a bit peevish. God gets it. Moses is exhausted. He needs help. I’ve read that passage whenever I feel overwhelmed in ministry. It’s a reminder to me that I can’t do everything for everyone in my church. God doesn’t call us to carry everyone through the desert alone. We’re supposed to walk through this place doing ministry together.
It’s possible for pastors to do too much and take the opportunity of doing ministry away from the rest of the Body. I wonder if this is what my mentor was trying to say: sometimes the work of ministry is simply no work at all. We need to sit back and watch the grass grow, trusting that it can do so, by God’s grace, without us.