Smiling. The pictures he swiped through his phone had lots of smiles. “Wait til you see this one from Christmas. Oh, and that one is so adorable!” Some were candid, others were staged, but all were—well, perfect. In my mind’s eye, I fought hard not to compare what I had to what he had. After all, we were in different places, stages of life. But the glossy pictures beamed back—a whole year of amazing stories and visuals that captured them. It was then that the thought seeped into my brain that somehow I missed God’s advertisement for squeaky-clean blessedness. I peered closer.
No, I was not looking at baby pictures.
I was looking at pictures of his church.
And I put on a plastic smile.
If we took off the plastic smile and dug deep, many of us church leaders would have to admit that we have church envy. And we don’t like it. We mentally know and understand how the pictures we see posted about people’s lives usually capture the glossiest, happiest moments of someone’s life that we wind up comparing to our own B-roll dirt behind the curtain—and we even preach about it. But we often forget that the same happens with leaders of churches.
Some of us are relatively new to ministry and gain an impression that “blessedness” and “fruitfulness” are synonymous with “easy.” Those of us who have been serving the Church for a while, whether starting a new church, resurrecting one, or expanding one, drown in the clergy meetings, blogs, conferences, and glossy stories of individuals in our ministry field who tell about numerous conversions, events where the masses showed up, surprising financial gifts, and amazing facilities with coffeehouses and lights. Then we go home to what feels like our cardboard box—the church or ministry or launch team where the most numerous thing is drug addictions, where five of us showed up to run the last outreach event—including two of our own kids, where financial happiness comes from making the budget, and we’ll be spending next Saturday out in the 100-degree heat digging a trench through the asphalt parking lot. New to ministry, we gain an impression that “blessedness” is synonymous with “easy.” Click To Tweet
Four Images of Jesus Ministry that Would Bomb on Social Media
Comparing our behind-the-scenes grit to the glossy photos, stories, and writing, we can’t help but wonder what made it so easy for them and not for us. We look at the people who are not smiling in our ministry and how long things are taking and wonder if we are, in fact, doing something wrong. What we don’t realize is that what’s happening is that we have been given a view of the Ascension without any glimpse of the three-year roadtrip to Jerusalem and the Crucifixion that came before it.
The Road Took Longer.
Just as most of us can read through all of Jesus’ ministry in one sitting, we can get the impression that ministry happens in one or two sittings too. It looks like a church was planted overnight, a youth ministry grew in two weeks, and a community-wide revival happened in the blink of an eye. What we miss is the deep, plodding groundwork that was done beforehand.
John the Baptist paved the way and began discipling a group of men even before Jesus came on the scene. Jesus and his team made circles around Galilee. Peter didn’t “get it” for years.
A few years back when I attended a workshop conducted by the pastor of a college ministry turned church plant on a new creative space they were opening, I remember the pastor clarifying that the whole thing took years to come together, that it was “in no way like we hit a light switch or cracked a glow stick but rather kept blowing at the kindling of a fire that smoldered.”
What we see in the photos came with high mileage and countless hours. What we see in the photos came with high mileage and countless hours. Click To Tweet
The People Were Difficult.
Often the stories we hear are of transformational leaders, loyal teams, and outsiders who are not only receptive but jump at the gospel. But for every smile in a picture, there are usually two (or more) difficult people.
Nobody shares about the people who quit on us, the lady who yelled at us, and the neighbors who get upset when church people park in their spaces (especially when it snows). But Jesus didn’t have an easy time with people—even the ones who stood by his side. Everybody liked the Jesus the miracle worker, but they began to have issue with him claiming heavenly authority or worse—disrupting their religious expectations. People left him after being with him for years, and the unlikely ones proved to be the ones there ’til the end.
Starting a church or restructuring one or venturing into a new ministry involves tears—yours and the tears of others. Ask the photo-bearer to tell you a story of someone who didn’t like them or impeded their ministry, and they’ll tell you four. Venturing into a new ministry involves tears—yours and the tears of others. Click To Tweet
There were Detours.
None of the men and women in my life who I look up to as mentors in ministry had a straight path to the place they entered today. All of their paths resemble more of a child’s scribble than an architect’s line. It’s interesting to me that the most meaningful stories recorded by the gospel writers are the ones not on the disciples’ itinerary—the detours to Samaria, to Mary and Martha’s home, to feed 5000 people.
Sometimes I wonder why I hadn’t started on this journey sooner, why things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to a few years ago, and why I feel so frustrated when the plan isn’t “working out.” But detours are not only ok in ministry, but they’re where we receive direction from the Holy Spirit to get where He wants us to go.
You may see the picture of the mountain summit but not the winding path that was taken to get there—and the perseverance and trust involved to put one foot in front of the other.
God Showed up in Unexpected Ways.
As much as we spend time and money to hear and learn from the celebrations and transformations of other pastors, churches, and ministries, the better stories tell where God showed up outside of plans, procedures, and even prayers. Cracking the picture’s glass to reveal the struggle behind gathering a launch team, you share so much more with me when you reveal how a bartender became an ally and did the work equivalent to three launch team members without making a single meeting.
God showed up in a Bethlehem garage, on the way to a visitation, in an old ritual meal. He might just show up when I’m pulling my hair out in the office or standing in the grocery store line.
Smiles hide lots of things—including stories. Ministry envy is usually based on a picture that has fewer than three dimensions. The picture we frame from one another’s ministries has a story that’s longer, more difficult, more circuitous than depicted.
But it’s also where God shows up.