When I first started in youth ministry I thought fruitfulness was measured in numbers: the number of people attending my events, the number of people who professed faith in Christ, and the number of times I got invited to speak somewhere. I served as a volunteer for Young Life from 1988 to 1998 and on youth ministry staff in two churches from 1991 to 1998. During that time you could say that I was working hard for God in an effort to validate my significance to God and God’s people by securing the attention and admiration of others. This led to what my friend Fil Anderson would call a compulsive approach to ministry.
Henri Nouwen described me perfectly in an article for Leadership Magazine in the Spring of 1995: “So often in ministry I wanted to do it by myself. If it didn’t work, I went to others and said, ‘Please!’ searching for a community to help me. If that didn’t work, maybe I’d start praying.”[i] But even then, the content of my prayer was largely some version of “God, help me accomplish my ministry will.”
This approach to ministry always leads to burnout. It’s a me-centered, works-based form of living that is constantly looking to created things for the validation only the gracious smile of God made available to insecure sinners in the face of Jesus can achieve.
Nouwen points out that Jesus’ ministry methodology took an approach that was diametrically opposite to mine. In Luke 6:12-19 we read,
During those days he went out to the mountain to pray and spent all night in prayer to God. When daylight came, he summoned his disciples, and he chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; James and John; Philip and Bartholomew; Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called the Zealot; Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. After coming down with them, he stood on a level place with a large crowd of his disciples and a great number of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon. They came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those tormented by unclean spirits were made well. The whole crowd was trying to touch him, because power was coming out from him and healing them all.
The word of God not only contains the message of the gospel but also reveals the methods by which it is to be proclaimed. We have much to learn from Jesus here. As Eugene Peterson explains, “(Jesus said) “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The Jesus way wedded to the Jesus truth brings about the Jesus life. We can’t proclaim the Jesus truth but then do it any old way we like.”[ii]
So notice the order. Jesus moves from solitude to community to ministry. He teaches his disciples to do likewise:
The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a remote place and rest for a while.” For many people were coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat. So they went away in the boat by themselves to a remote place (Mark 6:30-32).
Exposing Our Need of Grace
One of the advantages of being a “senior” minister is I can now look back on my ten years in youth ministry and see the real fruit of it because, as Jesus promised in John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce fruit and that your fruit should remain.”
The primary fruit which has lasted is the way God used ministry to expose my need of grace so that he could change me. Many of the things I wanted him to change around me were actually things he was using to bring me to an end of myself. He had to break me free from my addiction to accomplishment, attention, approval, and impact before I would open myself up to the gracious intimacy with the Father and the people of God Jesus had purchased for me with his blood.
So how did he do that? By surrounding me with a community of people who weren’t impressed with my performance. Much like Jesus in Luke 10:20 God would use the teenagers I served, my wife, my best friends, my mentors, my fellow presbyters, and my counselor to remind me not to rejoice in ministry accomplishments or wallow in ministry failures, but instead to rejoice that my name was written in the Lamb’s book of life. They loved me in a manner that made the gospel real to me so that I could learn deep down that because of the finished work of Christ and the gracious love of God, I have nothing to prove and nothing to lose.
It was out of the overflow of this realization that I slowly learned to stop praying, “God help me” and to start praying “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” To paraphrase Bono, instead of asking God to bless this ministry of mine or bless that talk I was about to give, I started asking God what he was doing and whether or not he wanted me to be a part of it because it was already blessed.
From Ministry to Solitude to Community
So how can you learn to care for your own soul in ministry? You’ve got to follow Jesus’ instruction to walk away from ministry to a remote place of solitude where you can rest for a while and hear from God. This can take a wide variety of forms from regular exercise to regular vacations to regular retreats or to regular visits to the doctor, dentist, counselor, or spiritual director. But wherever you go, the goal is the same, to put yourself in a place where you let God love you the way you are instead of the way you think you should be and where you listen for His voice.
As you experience God’s unconditional affection for you in the person and work of Christ you will find yourself surrounded by a group of people God has chosen to be your community. Again Nouwen is helpful: “Community is not easy. As someone once said, ‘Community is the place the person you least want to be with always lives.’ In Jesus’ community of twelve apostles, the last name was that of someone who was going to betray him. That person is always in your community somewhere. In the eyes of other people, you might be that person.”
I have been that person. This is why the community that God forms around you will be just right for you. We form community with people that are sin-compatible with us. Jesus forms communities of people that are sin-incompatible.
For example, I’m an Enneagram 8 surrounded by Enneagram 1s. 8s like me love impact and fear vulnerability so we hide behind exaggerations. 1s like my wife and my coworkers love impact and fear vulnerability so they hide behind the precision of living by the rules. In my community God uses the 1s to invite me to be a truth-teller, and he uses me to invite them to lighten up. Consequently, we both need a lot of grace.
Gospel-centered community flourishes on forgiveness and repentance. It grows when we humble ourselves in the sight of God and trust him to lift us up in due time by giving our community permission to not be God. It’s humbling to admit to my wife, my family, my friends, and my brothers and sisters in Christ that I am an idolater. Namely, that I am prone to ask them to love me and validate me in a way that only God can do. Once I free them from that burden, I can take the next step and admit that apart from the work of the Holy Spirit I won’t love them as much as they want me to either and to ask them to forgive me. But as I do so God can and does use this community to bear much fruit. First, in me, and then, in those around me.
Then we are ready to join God in the work of ministry. This ministry displays Jesus’ ability to multiply loaves and fishes, which takes place as we allow God to multiply the small things he is doing in us and in our community to feed the hungry hearts of the people in the world around us.
As God eradicates poverty of soul in us through the riches of Christ, he invites us to move out in joyful community and alleviate poverty of soul in our church, city, region, and world. Understanding this allows you to work hard for God with a relaxed heart. And when you see God use you and your community in the lives of others it brings you joy.
As I look back on my years of ministry I can now say without reservation that the fruit that has lasted has been that which came from my intimacy with God, my vulnerability with those God has chosen to be my community, the supernatural ability to forgive them and receive forgiveness from them, and the joy that comes from the privilege of joining with them to be part of what God is doing in the world. My prayer is that God will use some of what I learned to invite you to abide in Christ in a manner that will bear much fruit in your life, too.
[i] Nouwen, Henri, “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry,” Leadership Magazine, Spring 1995.
[ii] Peterson, Eugene H., The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 2007).