At the peak of my influence, I was speaking at camps, colleges, and conferences all over the world. My church was finally moving away from “average” size to a more “significant” size in attendance. I was being sought out for writing and publishing opportunities. All this was taking place as I was simultaneously falling apart in my mental health. After a nervous breakdown, some major health issues, and a global pandemic, I’m finally back to less than significant, and I’m so glad to be back.
I still pastor, but my church remains small, albeit healthy and happy. I still get to minister beyond my community sometimes, and it is sweet and refreshing when it happens, but is happening less and less these days. I did get to publish a book, although the book I published about my mental health has marked me as damaged and dangerous to any would-be ministry suiters that would want to give me a “larger platform.”
I can say with certainty and honesty that I am happier in ministry than I have ever been which I’m sure would be shocking to pastors in my shoes. What makes me so happy in my current ministry paradigm is that I’m increasingly understanding more of what it truly means to serve like Jesus. Jesus is and should be our preferred ministry model, and Paul detailed precisely what that model looks like that we should want to emulate in our own lives.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. Philippians 2:1-7 (ESV)
This model for pure-intentioned ministry service is allowing me to appreciate certain scenarios taking place in my life that would have caused depression and anxiety for me just a few years ago.
Scenario 1: Recognizing I can’t do all the things and be all the things.
I used to be so frustrated when I didn’t “nail it”. My identity used to be wrapped up in my performance, and I wanted to deliver a perfect or near-perfect performance in every part of my ministry with every person in my ministry. The single greatest gift to me in my ministry career has been the open and public falling apart of my mental health. It wasn’t that people didn’t know I wasn’t perfect, it was that I needed to accept the truth that not only was I not perfect, I really was a mess altogether. Once I knew what everyone else knew, it allowed me to see my ministry as a privilege, not an earned responsibility. Jesus nailed it for me, so I don’t have to nail it. His righteousness is my identity, so I can now freely admit to other less-than-perfect humans that I am in process as I seek to live out his perfection.
This attitude allows me to freely accept that I will not be able to do all things perfectly, and please all the expectations of people perfectly. I’m even okay with publicly admitting my deficiencies and asking for help or grace. It also helps my church know that I’m going to be gracious with them.
Scenario 2: Being accused of being less than relevant.
I haven’t been invited to speak to teenagers in about 5 years now. It honestly happened as soon as I turned 40. I used to speak to teenagers all the time! Yup, I’ve come to realize that there are better options. There are younger preachers who know the language better, know the music better and know teenage humor better. (I seem to be stuck in the dad-joke matrix.) I can either respond by wearing skinnier jeans, or I can champion the guys who seem to be making the connections. If my ministry is about the Gospel, I can decrease so that Jesus’ name increases, even if someone else’s ministry platform is increased in the process.
This doesn’t mean I pass along discipleship of young people to our youth pastor. I will certainly enjoy whatever opportunities God gives me to impact the generations behind me. I’m just thankful for the privilege to witness God’s work, even if I’m not the tool he uses.
Scenario 3: Seeing those I have discipled reach a broader and bigger audience than me.
There comes a point in a pastor’s life that if he has done his job well, his church should be able to carry on without him. A pastor should be discipling future pastors. There are some incredible men of God doing some incredibly renowned works of Gospel ministry right now, and I know that I was able to be one of the influences in those lives. Very few people know the reality of the investment I’ve made, and to be honest, even some of these incredible men have forgotten, but I haven’t forgotten and instead of feeling like I deserve recognition or a shout-out, I’ve come to grow thankful for the knowledge that I was used at all.
In reality, we deserve no credit for the ministry we get to do. None of us are worthy or deserving. We are a very small part of God’s incredibly larger ministry plan. Our ministry worth is measured in faithfulness, not fruitfulness. Fruit is God’s return on his investment, we are the farmers who continue to spread the seed of his Word.
Scenario 4: Accepting that I have already peaked and being thankful I’m still being used at all.
The happiest pastors I know are pastors like an uncle of mine who has pastored the same small church in the heartland for 50 years. It has never grown in attendance to more than about 100 people, but my uncle has married, buried, baptized, and served 4 generations of families and has felt fulfilled in that purpose. This has truly my re-aligned life goal. I want to be laid to rest by the people I’ve laid my life down for.
I’ve let go of that mega-church dream, and in so doing, I’ve opened my heart to the depth of relationship that comes with truly giving my life to a group of people who will bear my weaknesses with me. There is always the possibility that God will change the plan, but it won’t be because I wanted a greener pasture and larger flock, thereby communicating that the flock I have served all these years actually wasn’t worth loving with my life.
Scenario 5: Being passed over as the preferred advice or wisdom giver for someone else.
Another sign that a pastor has discipled and led well is that he will be less and less the only source of trustable wisdom. More and more I am finding that I’m not the first phone call in my ministry. This isn’t because I’m less valued, it’s because the members of my church are growing in wisdom and discretion, and are often more available and accessible than I am. This is a big win for the body of Christ! If I’m insecure as a leader, or a narcissist for that matter, then I might tend to be jealous or threatened, but if I have done my job well, I will see the joy of knowing that if I died tomorrow, there would be others to move the flock forward to green pastures beside still waters as they follow Jesus.
I’m being forgotten a bit these days, and it is allowing me the freedom to forget myself and remember to talk about Jesus. My prayer is that when I die, there will be only Jesus to remember.