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Is It Time To Back Off?

Rev. John Simpson, General Superintendent
Baptist Union of Victoria, Australia

Number 281

 How many of your great ideas have crashed and burned lately? Have any ministry wheels fallen off at high speed? What do you do with the disappointment, or the frustration, or the anxiety which accrues at a marvelous rate of knots when things don't quite work out as you planned?

Mind you, any pastor who imagines that every grand initiative is going to achieve lift-off is either a wonderful idealist or very wet behind the ears.

The Reality of Self-Destruction

Life is filled with cart loads of inspirations and well-motivated, sacrificial endeavours which have not come to full bloom. Some of our best brain waves grind to a halt or self-destruct.

Find a leader who has not wrung hands in quiet desperation and you will find someone who is essentially comatose. The truth is that for every vision which takes off, there are several more which fail to fly. For example:

* A specific need emerges (among the young people, or the unemployed, or single parents) and creative plans for a fresh program are hatched to meet this. The only problem is that, while the opportunity is widely affirmed in the congregation, no one offers to do the running and the critical moment slips by.

* After years of expensive maintenance on the church property, it becomes obvious that good money is being thrown after bad. It is time to do some major overhauling. The people are consulted, the plans are drawn up, the budget is shaped and the church meeting is convened. Suddenly there is a passionate outpouring of missionary fervour with a chorus of "Shouldn't we be spending this on overseas missions?" type speeches. The plans are shelved and the maintenance costs continue unabated.

* The church has been blessed by a great core of youth (or young couples and families, or senior adults, or singles) and there is clearly a need to capitalise on this by considering a new position on the pastoral team to nurture this growth within and beyond the congregation. However, the leadership team check the weekly giving and decide that this is an initiative which should wait "until we are in a stronger position financially." The dream falls in a heap (probably because the money is going on the maintenance!).

What Do I Do Now?

There are endless examples of aborted schemes which had enormous potential but turned out to be fruitless. So, what does the pastor do here? Is this a time to:

* Berate the congregation for their failure to take a risk?

* Get stuck into the leaders for their lack of faith?

* Keep pushing on regardless (If no one else will do it, I will)?

* Assume that the whole concept was the result of an unfortunate rush of blood to the head and that a little more reflection would have consigned it to oblivion any way?

There comes a time when every pastor has to decide what they will do with the often mixed bundle of feelings which surface when a carefully considered proposal is brushed aside by the church. Some choices range from venting one's spleen to writing yet another letter of resignation (at least for the bottom drawer if not for the letter box).

These responses can play havoc with sleep patterns, or trigger depression, or bring extended gloom to the manse. They can also seriously erode relationships especially with those who are seen to hold the franchise on the status quo.

It is time to ask some leading questions:

* How well did I establish the extent of the need for this initiative, or was the idea offered without even basic reflection, consultation and testing?

* Who did I ask to be the "devil's advocate"? To whom did I give permission to check for both possibilities and liabilities? Did I listen? Did I make any changes?

* How well-prepared was my presentation (to other leaders, to the church)? Was it clear? Did it make sense? Did I motivate and excite or unnecessarily confuse and confound?

* Was I in too much of a hurry? Did the need for speed lead to sloppiness, or a lack of thought? Did I try to push others into the making of hurried decisions (a position which I don't like being in myself)?

* Did I invite others to own the proposal with me? Or did I surreptitiously insist on this being seen as "the pastor's idea"? Was I inadvertently too territorial? Was the lack of enthusiasm simply an absence of invited participation?

Is the Lord of the Church Around Here?

And, more particularly, where is the Lord of the Church in all of this? It is astounding how frequently we act without any real consideration of what the Lord may be requiring of us. Indeed, the idea may be just right, but not for now. Its time is yet to come. Or, it is a worthwhile initiative but not for this place no matter how good it may appear. It simply is not a priority for this congregation.

Yes, it does happen that wonderful opportunities are lost from time to time because the people of God fumbled the pass. However, the desire for growth and change alone may have helped to prepare the environment for a future openness which would otherwise have not been there. Additionally, the stimulus of fresh ways forward can nurture a dissatisfaction with the present which, in turn, can create the appetite for new strategies. In this sense, no new idea is ever barren.

There are times, though, when we need to back off, when we need to cool it. Pushing hard may be the most inappropriate course of action. Having done well what we believe we were called to try, let's take the time for the Spirit to move among His people. They are His, after all, and without His touch upon their souls, any initiative (creative and informed as it may be) will be unhelpful even if it does come to pass.

Watch Out for the Big Agenda!

It all seems reasonable: check for good process, involve others, hang loose a little, mix in a dash of patience for good measure and that should turn all the dreams into reality. Right?

Wrong. There may be a much more important agenda in the mind of God. It's easy to see why some plans go astray. Simple review will highlight most of the weak links. We learn and do better next time. But what about the situation where:

* prayer has surrounded the entire enterprise

* there has been much consultation among the leadership and the congregation

* there is strong and general agreement regarding the needs to be addressed and the ways to do this

* no obvious tension or misunderstanding is to be found at any level

And what about when, after doing these things and frantically scrambling to make something work, there is still no progress?

Nothing seems to be coming together at all and this lack of headway emerges as a mystery, a frustration of the first order, an inexplicable disruption to the exercise of ministry.

Await The Unexpected

But there is also the truth that, if something is right for the church in the here and now, it will happen but perhaps in another, unexpected way. It just may be that the Lord has moved into a higher gear and we did not hear the shift. Perhaps He has chosen this moment to go far beyond what we had in mind, to go well ahead of our prayers, to out-flank our best creative urges.

It would not be the first time: Joshua would never have dreamt up the wall-falling technique for Jericho and Gideon was surprised by all that could be accomplished by breaking clay jars at the appointed time. God does have the right to do new things, after all. It is His church. It is His work.

Tuning into the Lord's Way

So, how do we tune into a new paradigm, a divine flavour which we may not have anticipated at all, a fresh strategy which never crossed our mind? Some suggestions:

1. If nothing at all is shaping up despite attending to all the obvious angles, then back off and take your hands off as well. This is not simply a time to be patient. It is a time to leave well alone.

2. Choose to do something which most of us find genuinely difficult: relax and let God have room to move. This is a tough call for people who suffer from the let's-fix-it-now syndrome. This may be a time of testing: do we really believe that the Lord is able to act without us calling the shots each time?

3. Become a spectator! Watch what the Lord chooses to do. But you better have a truly open mind. Our ways are not His nor are our thoughts His thoughts. His priorities may be different. He has a habit of arriving like a puff of cloud on the horizon not a full-blown thunderstorm with a lightning spectacular. For all you know, He may have already commenced His work. It's just that you have not discerned this yet.

4. Get on and do the things that can be done. There are always any number of other ministries which need to be nurtured.

5. Reorder your priorities. Leave aside the big one and simply ask for both wisdom and patience to help you cope until there is a resolution. It is always hard to live with a key issue unresolved since there will always be those anxious to act regardless. They may even call your leadership into question. Security for some is in doing rather than in trusting. This can be a very seductive temptation indeed.

It is foolishness of the first order to attempt to force the Lord's hand. He may well let us have our way if only to teach us the value of waiting when our seemingly well-laid plans go astray. What point making demands upon Him if these are woefully wide of the mark?

Our love of organisation and process (good as these things are) ought not to have the last word if it means that we rule out the possibility of the unexpected, the remarkable, the divine surprise.

Don't Give Up...Back Off!

Feeling a bit discouraged lately? Uncertain as to why there is a slowness out there? Take heart! Our one fall-back position is to accept that the Lord knows we are trying to be responsive to Him. If we have missed a cue a long the way, or shot up a dead end, He will be there for us.

It is not time to give up. Just back off, take a deep breath and offer a prayer or two. The Kingdom is not about to collapse (believe it or not!). God loves to give good gifts. He knows our heart and our longing for the best for His Kingdom.

Many times the way forward is clear and we do well to push on happily. But there are other occasions when we do better to stand aside, put on our hiking boots and get out our trumpets. Some more walls may be about to fall.

Rev. John Simpson

This article is reprinted by permission of the author. It originally appeared in Ministry Perspectives,
a publication of the Baptist Union of Victoria, Australia.

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:40 PM