Forget about giving up chocolate donuts, Starbucks, or your favorite TV show this Lent. This year, maybe it’s time to dig deep and give up something that truly gets in the way of spiritual renewal. Are you ready? Take a deep breath and let’s start with this one: Give up working for God.
Yes, you heard me right. Give up working for God. But, you say, that’s my job! Re-presenting God here on earth, being the hands and feet of Christ, doing all that God has given me to do. What do you mean give up working for God?
I get it. I said the same thing for years. Until a lay person, someone I barely knew, called me out: “You ministers,” he said. “You spend all this time working for God, but you don’t spend time in the company of God. How can you lead us to be closer to God?” I protested weakly. But he was right. (It’s not just ministers, of course, lay people are prone to this too.)
Not exactly an inspiring example of congregational leadership, is it? If you find yourself in the same boat as I was in, please keep reading. I want to offer a new way I have found of leading, and three spiritually-grounded ways to filter the unending needs of ministry.
After that uncomfortable conversation with the lay person, I took notice. I began to see that the more I worked for God, the more overextended I became. I never knew if I was doing enough. Since there was always more to do, I thought I had to do it. The worst part, though, was how tired, grumpy, and unavailable I would become. Especially to the very people I was supposed to be serving.
Over time, I’ve come to believe that there’s nothing more seductive than working for God. And nothing more damaging.
All my working for God was really a form of playing God: pretending as if it all depended on me, trying to stay in control of everything, and depleting my own soul. Not to mention disempowering the laity.
That lay person was right. How could I lead others in their relationship with God, if I continued to substitute working for God instead of spending time with God? I got so burned out, I found I had no choice. I had to intentionally enter the realm of the spirit and work on my own spiritual formation. Without turning it into a job.
There are all kinds of ways to do this. Here are some of the things I found that have helped me develop God consciousness:
- Spend time in and appreciating nature
- Read the Bible and insert my own name into relevant passages
- Honest conversation with God
- Listen to what my soul is really trying to say to me
- Meditate and focus on my breath
- Work the 12 steps
- Clear my calendar and having time to simply be
- Write out a daily gratitude list
- Spiritual and inspirational reading/affirmations
- Sabbath—time away from work, even the work of the church
Any 2 or 3 of these spiritual disciplines can change a life. There are others of course. The key is choosing the one or ones that call to you. Then do them. Regularly.
Congregational renewal begins with spiritual renewal. Spiritual renewal begins with us leaders, both clergy and lay. This work is too big, too demanding, too important to leave to our unaided will power and ideas. Besides, if we are not in deeply connected spiritually, how can we model it for our people?
Here’s the hard truth, though. It’s not enough to have spiritual practices or disciplines. We also need fences around them, the same kind that Jesus and the Pharisees relied on. (Read more about this in The Jew Named Jesus), Otherwise, they’ll go by the wayside.
Here are 3 fences that will help you protect your quality time with God. So that you’re not just sucked back into working for God. They’ll also help you sort out what is yours to do, and what is not.
- Put it in the calendar. Count your God-time as every bit as important as conducting a funeral, writing a sermon, or calling on parishioners. It is. I think of the story, perhaps apocryphal, of Martin Luther who had so much to do each day that he spent 3 hours in daily prayer first.
- Not every need is a call. I encountered this Maxie Dunnam line years ago and it still sticks with me. Just because there is a need, doesn’t mean God needs me to address it. As of this writing, there are almost 7.3 billion humans on the planet, and an untold number of creatures. God has lots of avenues to work through; it doesn’t need to be me. To think it all depends on me is arrogance. It’s also a surefire way to slip back into working for God. As I spend time with God every day, I am better able to know if I’m the one God is calling, or not.
- Get a coach, a friend or an accountability partner. Share what you are up to. Have someone hold you accountable. These are tough changes to make. It helps to have someone in your corner.
Breathe deep and stick with it! However uncomfortable you may be with this new way of leading. It works. Take it from me. And the results are well worth it. Not only for your soul, but the soul of your congregation.
If this is an area of growth, shoot me an email and I’ll pray for you. If you need more than that, I coach church leaders as well. Blessings for a spiritually deepened Lent.