December 21, 2011
What God has in store along the journey
One theme has stood out to me in 2011: waiting. For the first time in my life, God allowed me to experience an extended time of waiting with no clue of what he had in store for me at the end. It was different from waiting a week for something to go on sale or waiting two weeks for the next paycheck. That kind of waiting involves little mystery about the outcome: I will buy the item I waited for and we'll pay the bill when the money is deposited. It is waiting for something we expect. It is simply delayed gratification.
It's much more difficult to wait for long periods of time for an unknown destination or answer to prayer. Instead of delayed gratification and discipline to stay calm and wait the prescribed amount of time, waiting for the unknown requires a heavy dose of trust in God as we push out the doubt that creeps in, force ourselves to wait instead of make our own way, and deal with the hurt, bitterness, and frustration when we've waited longer than we would have liked. We must keep reminding ourselves that God does want what’s good for us and that he will answer our prayers—even if the answers look nothing like we expected.
The theme of waiting seems especially appropriate during Advent as we learn again how to wait on God. In an entirely new way, I am able to understand Sarah (Genesis 16). Usually when I read the story of Sarah (or Sarai) telling her husband Abraham (or Abram) to conceive a child with Hagar, I have felt shocked and amazed. Why would she tell her husband to be with someone else? Why can't she simply wait for God to deliver on his promise? Now, though, I understand how beautiful the idea of making our own way can appear. When we've waited and done all that we feel God is asking us to do, we begin to get tired of waiting. We assume that if he really were going to deliver, he would have done so by now, and we begin to plot how we can make things happen in our own power. Until this year of waiting, I never understood how someone could get to that point. But now I do.
What I've learned in all this waiting, though, is that the blessing comes not only when we reach the destination, but also as we journey—in the work that God does in our lives while we're waiting. As we wait on him, we get a true picture of our hearts and souls. We learn just how little we trust God and how human we truly are. And we learn that God's way isn't a prescription (take this pill, do that dance, and everything you want will come true). Instead, it's a journey—and the best gift is God's presence along the way.
In all this waiting I've realized that many times we approach small groups with set goals, timelines, and expectations in mind. We follow set "prescriptions," waiting for the expected outcome to happen in the expected timeline: we'll discuss confession, confess to one another, be healed, and be amazing Christians afterward. Or I'll identify an apprentice, train for eight and a half weeks, and birth a perfectly healthy new group. We wait in a delayed-gratification kind of way. But I think our wait for spiritual growth is much closer to the unknown-destination waiting I've experienced this year. There's no guarantee that life with God will be easy. There's no guarantee that if we follow the prescription we'll experience amazing life-change. There's no guarantee that everyone in our group will even want to grow spiritually. And there's no guarantee that once we experience change we won't return to our old ways.
We can, however, stick together as a community as we journey, waiting on God. When we begin to feel like Sarah, wanting to make our own way, we can encourage one another to continue to lean into and trust God. We can help one another to see the work God is doing in our lives. We can pray for one another and carry one another's burdens. In doing so, we will be a true vision of biblical community.
As leaders we must hold out this truer definition of waiting—waiting on God, opening our hearts and minds for what he wants to do in our lives, without always knowing the destination. As we help our group members understand how to wait, I believe we will see real growth and change—I just can't tell you when or how. But maybe that's the beauty of it all.
December 19, 2011
Many church leaders struggle to identify significant relationships in their lives
As the weather grows colder and the days become shorter, I isolate myself more. When I get home, I throw on warm, comfy clothes and snuggle up in a chair with our dog. My husband and I make simple meals of warm comfort food and spend the evening talking or watching our favorite television shows. Gone are the days of summer when the warm temperatures and long days meant there were extra hours to spend meeting friends for dinner or taking long walks through the neighborhood, connecting with neighbors. During the cold winter months, we have to nearly force ourselves to be social and connect with friends—to choose to live in community and invest in meaningful relationships.
While spending more time at home is natural when the weather is less than desirable, what if your life were always a winter of isolation? In his article for our resource Accountability for Church Leaders, David Augsburger writes that isolation is a serious issue for church leaders:
Shrinking personal networks have come to characterize Western life. The healthy person needs 20 to 30 significant relationships—five or so each drawn from family, church, work, play, neighborhood, and relatives. These are partially interlocking, yet richly varied networks of friends with commitment to intense, positive, reciprocal relationships with history and continuity. Many church leaders are hard pressed to name more than a few friends who are truly mutual and reciprocal. The constant temptation to be a helper in nonreciprocal and non-accountable relationships leaves a caregiver impoverished relationally, with less community than is necessary for healthy functioning.
With so many commitments to investing in others, without necessarily participating in mutual relationships, church leaders may struggle to identify many significant relationships in their lives. For many church leaders, relationships are ministry-based, transient, and somewhat superficial. For instance, a small-group leader may be friends with one of the small-group members. The two may e-mail regularly (mostly related to the group meetings), talk weekly at church services and at the group meetings, and share some meaningful prayer requests. At the end of the small group, though, there is a good chance that the relationship will turn out to be less close than originally thought.
This is a problem. Church leaders, like all Christians, need to know and be known. We will struggle in life, and we need to have friendships that hold us accountable and help us grow. And perhaps church leaders need this even more. James writes that those "who teach will be judged more strictly" (James 3:1). Yet when we feel isolated, it's difficult to identify close friends who we would want to begin an accountability relationship with.
Check out Accountability for Church Leaders to learn how you can intentionally build accountability relationships into your life. You and your ministry will be healthier for it.
Share with us: how do you avoid isolation as a church leader?