We’ll be back w/ the Sunday Post next week. Something really important we wanted to highlight this week…
The article below is adapted from a chapter of the new book, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure, by our friend J.R. Briggs.
Ministry failure is something that every Christian leader experiences to some degree at some point. It’s also almost never talked about. Worse, the scorecard for Christian “success” is so very often colored by values that themselves fail to reflect the character of God and God’s kingdom, that many Christian leaders are labeled (or label themselves) as failures for all the wrong reasons.
We think this is likely one of the most important contemporary books Christian leaders will come across and strongly encourage you to pick up a copy. In fact, our friends over at IVP are even offering the Missio Alliance community a 50% discount on the book!
You can get it here.
Here’ a short video of J.R. talking about the book.
A few years ago one spring afternoon, our oldest son wanted to help my wife start the seeding for our small backyard vegetable garden. Carter (age three) put on his gardening boots and gloves and helped mommy until I called him inside for his nap.
A few hours later he woke up – and the first thought on his mind was the garden: “Daddy, are the vegetables ready yet?” I chuckled at his naiveté and told him that the vegetables would take a few weeks before we would see anything poke up through the soil – and several weeks before they would grow large enough for us to eat. He was deeply disappointed.
Could this not describe how we oftentimes feel in ministry – though we might not verbalize it as such? “Is ministry growth evident yet?” we might ask. “Where is the fruit?We are prone to disappointment when we don’t see much poking up through the ministry soil – especially when the vegetables down the street are already waist-high. We can grow impatient by a lack of results on our timetable of expectation and become disillusioned in the comparison. It can feel like we’ve failed when there are little to no results in the short term.
As many of us know well, most of the time pastoral ministry is a slow, arduous process that involves faithful – and sometimes mundane – plodding. But faithfulness is not an excuse to sit back and do nothing. It requires work – hard work. This hard work involves cultivating the soil for long periods of time. It can be backbreaking work that requires a deep faith and stalwart trust. While others may have specific job evaluation forms and quotas, pastors have a call to lean into what we know to be our calling, but a letting go of results. This is the pastoral calling – and sometimes it can be the most difficult part.
Health is the word I use when describing what we’re after in ministry. Healthy organisms are fruitful. Healthy organisms flourish. Healthy organisms reproduce – but not all at once and not often when or how we want them to. Sometimes it takes several seasons of plodding and tilling and digging before we start to see anything tangible. The vegetables just aren’t ready yet. They are designed and expected to grow and mature, but health looks different depending upon the kind of organism – and its life stage.
To grow enormous tomatoes, we can spread fertilizer and other chemicals on the plants. The tomato plants can reach impressive heights – and if we do it right, each tomato might grow to the size of a small grapefruit. The neighbors down the street might be impressed, but if we cut the tomatoes open and look at them under a microscope their structure would not be what tomato plants were intended to be. It would be unnatural. Large and impressive, sure, but unnatural nonetheless. If, however, we wanted to grow healthy tomatoes organically, we wouldn’t use chemicals, but instead we would naturally cultivate the soil and patiently care for the plants.
No doubt, over the past decade we have heard – maybe too much – the word organic used to describe how church should be done. Some ministry leaders assume organic means unstructured. Organic gardens are not free from structure or form. Sometimes organic gardens require more structure, time, energy and attention. Organic gardens are not unstructured gardens. We don’t throw seeds and water in whatever direction we desire. Organic simply means all natural – without artificial enhancement.
We’re called to cultivate our local churches as workers in spiritually organic gardens. The problem remains that what people often want are grapefruit-sized tomatoes – and they want them immediately. We may even want that ourselves. We must be true to our calling and refuse to grow them unnaturally. Living out our call faithfully means inviting people to taste what real, all-natural tomatoes taste like and challenging others to join in the cultivation.
The last verse in the first chapter of Daniel is a seemingly inconsequential verse: “And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus” (1:21). But, if my math is correct, that would mean Daniel served at least 65 years in royal service. I wonder how often Daniel participated in seemingly mundane tasks and trivial duties. I wonder if he questioned whether his actions were producing the kinds of results he desired. Or, maybe he didn’t. Regardless, he remained faithful to his calling – even when the vegetables weren’t ready yet.
In the Introduction to his book Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson shares what a faithful posture to Christian calling looks like:
The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God.
Faithfully embracing our call to be soul gardeners is not filled with efficiency and instant results, though others may desire (and even demand) it from us. We, instead, remember that God’s call on our lives involves taking the long view of ministry. The investment of Jesus’ earthly life reminds us of this reality: three decades of relative obscurity followed by three years of world-altering ministry. Letting go of dreams of overnight success and embracing a posture of patient plodding helps us pay attention to God as we also seek to help others pay attention to God. The hard work of faith comes in the doing – and in the waiting – until the vegetables are ready.