(It’s Pastoral Ministry Tuesday on June 30, 2020. On these PMTs I try to make some notes about this pastoral life and the lessons I’ve learned in the midst of my story. I’m still deluded enough to think these notes might be helpful to others. Don’t dispossess me of that notion!)
In local church ministry there’s this thing, this indefinable vibe that you recognize when it’s present and you know it when it’s not.
If I were to give it a name it would be “momentum.” Good things tend to compound with other good things happening in ministry and a string of these good things establishes a momentum that produces better health, growth, progress, and generally causes people in the church to feel good about their own participation with their local church. When pastors are working with the momentum, everything just feels easier and it feels like you can get a lot more done and you can observe a lot more happening without exerting a lot more effort.
If you’ve ever played with a band, it’s like finding the ministry groove.
The sweet spot.
When it’s not there ministry in the local church can feel like plowing through six foot snowdrifts. You can still be doing all the right things and doing them the right way and still it feels like you are moving in slow motion. This is generally the time people tell you that the Holy Spirit has left the building or it’s time for a building program or the senior pastor needs to move on and make room for some “fresh vision.” While I believe that it’s good to discern all those things, more likely it’s just a season between the waves.
In my failed attempts to surf, my instructors taught me about picking the right wave and how waves would come in sets and if I could learn to read the sets I’d be able to pick the right wave. I managed to stay up for about a second and a half, that’s my best time, but I had a lot of fun trying and failing at surfing. But I think there is a correlation to ministry momentum and sometimes, when the momentum wanes, it’s just a time to wait, prepare, discern and read the sets. And I’ve been surfing these ministry waves a lot longer than I’ve been able to stand upright on a board on the waves in the ocean.
With the pandemic hitting, everyone in pastoral ministry has had their momentum disrupted. Our rhythm is off. And it is going to take us time to get our momentum back.
And for me, as a pastor, that’s scary. The momentum can be elusive in the best of times.
I was pastoring a local church once, we had the momentum, we were in the groove, and then an individual with serious but untreated mental health issues melted down all over the lives of other church members. Disruptive does not begin to describe the impact of the events surrounding this person’s ongoing episodes among a small community of faith that was unfamiliar with people experiencing such a profound but untreated illness. The ensuing chaos was collective and in subtle and overt ways, our momentum was disrupted. Stopped in its tracks. The waters were stilled.
Another time, we had momentum, and then a couple who my wife and I had invested a great deal in personally and as a congregation, suddenly announced that they were “out” and would be happy to have anyone follow them who wanted to “go where God was.” I’d failed to applaud the latest charismatic “kairos moment.” Nothing had changed at our local church, we were doing what we had been doing with the momentum but this announcement was like a kick in the tender bits and you could see the momentum leave the room, the hearts, the lives.
And sometimes it’s a pandemic. Sometimes you find yourself in a pandemic of one kind or another and momentum is gone like a fart in the wind.
For charismatics, of which I would say I am one, our first impulse is to look around for the big tent and move. “Where is God moving?” is the way we often ask it. Where are there waves we can catch? For others, this is exactly the time we’re taught that you need to start a big capital campaign and start raising funds for a mission or a building program, something that can artificially create a sense of purpose and energy and excitement that everyone is working towards.
Because the simple truth is that the kingdom of God comes mostly through a long obedience in the same direction. And when you maintain that long obedience in the same direction, you’ll see the set of waves coming again and you’ll be in the right place with the right preparation to make the absolute most of the wave when it comes. Doing things Jesus’ way means that momentum will come in waves but the waves are NOT the kingdom coming – the kingdom is ALWAYS coming on the wave and in the valley between the waves. We’re not called to generate the waves and call them Hagar and our new momentum, Ishmael. We are called to something harder.
Because the truth is we discover who we are in between the waves more than when the energy of the wave transfers to our board and we feel the momentum grab us and we feel weightless and unstoppable. Right now, we’re all looking for the wind, waiting on the momentum or trying to gin up something that feels like Spirit and progress. The momentum will come back as we keep making the faithful little choices that we need to make every day. As we re-focus ourselves on what God is saying and doing during this season and embrace that rather than fight for what we WANT God to be doing in this season.
In the blizzard of a million voices telling me what we need to be doing right now, I’m trying to slow down and listen to that One voice, be still and to wait because in my experience, faithfulness always leads to better days ahead.