My blogfeed fills with solutions every morning, all from smart people. But no one seems to have an answer to the one solution out of our reach. What do you do when the efforts you are making stop working? What do you do when people don’t seem to want to do much of anything?
The Memphis Conference of the United Methodist Church, my home conference, pursues solutions with a great deal of zest. Ministry in varied locations evolved and exploded into fruitfulness under intelligent leadership from District Superintendents and Bishops over the years. Pastor colleagues around me developed insightful means of inviting people to Christ, enfolding new members, equipping saints, and deploying them for ministry. I even did a little of that myself.
Lately, we’ve discovered that churches can solve their own puzzles with a bit of adaptive thinking. Rather than handing a program to our people. we now focus on processes. The same process applied to the same problem by different churches almost always gives over a completely different result, unique to the team that devised that result.
In short, we’re moving from technical solutions to adaptive solutions as a conference. While I’m seeing some success at Grace UMC here in Jackson, there are plenty of times in my history that I’ve felt helpless. And I have more than one colleague who complain of “what do I do when I’m the only one doing anything?”
My question is simple: What does a leader do when the processes break down? At the core of every problem-solving exercise, there are some basic components that have to be present. Without turning this into a post on adaptive solutions, I can tell you that one of the foundational pieces involves “a sincere desire to make a difference.”
The Elusive “Want-To”
The world laughed and raged when the country song “My Give A Damn’s Busted” was released. Jo Dee Messina soared through the charts with that one. And I’ve had more than one disciple confide in me that theirs was either busted or severely cracked. How can we function with a broken desire to make a difference? Modern Christians are being worn down by so much.
- Endless conflict over personality differences
- Endless conflict over sexuality and doctrine
- Endless conflict over partisan politics
- Endless conflict over worship styles and venues
- Endless conflict over power and authority
To be frank, my “give a damn” started to crack as I was typing that list. Can you imagine those who have been embroiled in that conflict since the 80’s — or longer?
How Can We Want For Someone?
There are no quick answers to this one. In seminary, the concepts of inspiration and leadership elicited hushed tones and murmured advice. In the last 20 years, I’ve read one leadership book for every other tome, novel, or reference I’ve picked up. Adam Hamilton has taught me incredible lessons about clarity of vision and succinctly stated mission statements. Jorge Acevedo has done so much to illuminate the process of transforming individuals by bringing them into the presence of the Holy Spirit through personal relationship. I’ve tried to emulate Bill Hybels and help folks want to move from Point A to Point B by honoring where they’ve been, describe it as untenable, and then move them towards a better option in Point B. I’ve been encouraged to create plans of action that were self-described by the folks who were actually doing the work, thereby creating a sense of buy-in. I’ve been schooled in the failure to communicate, the option to succeed, the educational opportunities of failing, and movement of cheese.Find the books listed and linked above, as well as dozens more on a variety of topics.
But no one has ever been able to tell me how to make someone want Jesus. I can give them the reasons and I could make the introduction, but I couldn’t cause them to want Jesus. I could go so far as to carry a struggling person to the feet of the Christ when they can no longer stand, but it means nothing if they didn’t want to make the trip.
Neither can I go in the place of those who have dropped their nets to follow, but have stopped to rest and forgotten to get back up.
You see, we believe in free-will. Coercion becomes sinful in light of the fact that our ability to choose and decline is a God-given gift. When we try to move someone to faith before they are ready, we take on more responsibility than we have been given. When we seek to punish those who have declined to follow God, we cut off the chance for redemption that is implicit in the text of Matthew 20:1-16. The master didn’t think anything of paying less for someone who came late to work in the vineyard. Neither should we punish those who come late to the Kingdom.
A Tough Place
When we offer Christ and the listener says no, how we respond to them says more about who we are than about who they are.
What that means to me, gentle reader, is that I’m in a tough spot. I have to honor the choices made by others, even when I realize a consequence that they may be ignoring.
That has some far reaching effects for me that go well beyond a profession (or denial) of faith. When a family decides as a family that athletics is more important than worship, I have to honor it. When a man takes a position of authority in the congregation, but fails to fulfill his responsibilities, I have to accept it first before I can take any other action.
But what does that look like? Remember, how we respond to them says more about who we are than about who they are.
It Doesn’t Have to Be Me
My job isn’t to save every relationship. My job isn’t to drag sinners out of the mouth of Hell. My job isn’t to preserve the Church. There are millions of Christians. There are hundreds of thousands of pastors and ministers. I fully understand that I may be the only Bible that some people read today. I fully understand that I may be the only voice that ever speak truth into the life of a sin-sick soul. But I also don’t have the unmitigated ego necessary to think that I have to be the one to whom a newborn saint says, “Yes, I want Jesus. Will you pray with me?”
It Doesn’t Have to Be Now
I’m told that it can be a longer chain than one link to get from sin to salvation. And as sure as I am that we don’t have tomorrow guaranteed, I can’t assume that God hasn’t sent someone to build on my work. In fact, as an itenerating Methodist pastor, I depend on that.
It Doesn’t Have to Be
My job is to make disciples for the transformation of the world. But my Bible doesn’t say that I’m going to be 100% effective. In fact, depending on how you read the Parable of the Sower, I can really only expect to be about 25% effective. And that means I have to be ready to hang in there despite the fact that folks are rebellious or stubborn.
Not everyone who lives will accept Christ.
Not everyone who accepts Christ with their mouth will do so with their heart.
Not everyone who wants to make a difference for Christ will be able to do so.
Crushing, isn’t it? But, this is real life. This is how people respond. And there’s a precedent for this.
Ezekiel 3:9 The Message (MSG)
7-9 “But it won’t work that way with the family of Israel. They won’t listen to you because they won’t listen to me. They are, as I said, a hard case, hardened in their sin. But I’ll make you as hard in your way as they are in theirs. I’ll make your face as hard as rock, harder than granite. Don’t let them intimidate you. Don’t be afraid of them, even though they’re a bunch of rebels.”
Not my hands. Not my tongue. My face. We have to be able to weather the storm, to endure the desert. And that will take a face of granite.
Do we wait for that one person to join the church? Do we stop all that we are doing to go after the lost? Yes. But what shall we do when that one hundredth sheep looks up and says, “No thanks. I’m good here.”
Pastors, how do you deal with those who take a pass? And what does it say about you?
The Work of the People
The work remains, and there are still those who haven’t yet heard the gospel. And there are plenty within the church who have yet to rise to the challenge of daily, accountable discipleship.
I ask people regularly: If the task of discipleship isn’t the most important thing in the world, I’d like to know what is because I intend to focus my life on doing the most important things.
If you’re only interested in watching your pastor burn, literally or figuratively, then there is a deeper problem. Discipleship is not about watching others serve Jesus by serving their neighbor. Discipleship is about community, and we are one less without you.
If you are only showing up to complain, something should change.
If you are only showing up to hear something you agree with, something should change.
If you are only showing up to keep up appearances, something needs desperately to change.
One of the responses I tend to get when I consult with a church friend on these things is, “But our pastor is so bad at [this skillset] or [that skillset].” And the answer I give isn’t always well received: “Is that something you could do for him or with her?”
Before you get riled up about what your pastor can and cannot do, every church member should ask yourself if you are doing all you can do? Are there any jobs not being done, any tasks that are not being fulfilled that could be done by someone who isn’t ordained?
Church members, how far down the list of your priorities would you have to go to find your church? Your discipleship?
You’ve Got to Want To
I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again. No one is going to do your discipleship for you. Whether you are a pastor in the pulpit or a disciple in the pews or a chaplain in the halls or a missioner in the fields, God wants to use you in mighty ways. But your work will not be done without your consent and your commitment. You still have to want to.
Author: Joey Reed
Joey is married to his best friend and they live in Kentucky. Joey serves Mayfield First United Methodist Church, the Purchase District, the Memphis Annual Conference, and the world is his parish.