Sometimes we can get discouraged. I mean, we can have weeks and months where it seems like we're just plodding through each day. We feel like joining Rolling Stones' lead man Mick in singing, “I can't get no satisfaction.” And discouragement seems to dominate our emotions. Week after week.
I want to be an encouragement to you today. What you do matters. I know it can get mundane and at times each week blurs into the next with no end in sight. But, the work you're involved in, whatever it is, is making a difference. Though you may not see it, others around you do. Sure, they aren't saying anything, but they're watching you and how you work, relate to others, and respond to challenges.
I know that discouraging times are difficult to understand and figure out. It’s easy to be discouraged or feel restless – and it’s difficult to interpret what these periods mean or intend to do with our lives.
Every week it seems like I talk with a leader who is contemplating a move to something new. He or she has either been contacted about a new opportunity or they’ve become restless and begun “looking around.” I get that. I’ve been there more than once through the years. It’s sometimes difficult to know if it's God leading us through the restlessness, if we're just bored, or if yesterday's sushi is having an effect.
I also know that periods of long slow obedience in the same direction (ala Eugene Peterson) are shaping and maturing forces and part of what it means to be an adult. Every year I watch college students leave the campus for regular 40-hour jobs and it's like a cold shower shock. “What? Am I to show up every day at 8 a.m. all year long? I only get two weeks off? Gosh, I wish for finals week stress again!” I also watch young leaders hit difficulties in churches and ministries within that first year and face the temptation to pack it in at the slightest twinge that it's not easy.
There are a few books that are annual reads for me, books that have so shaped me that I conclude I need to read them each year to “stay on track.” Eugene Peterson’s book, Under the Unpredictable Plant, is a part of that stack now. Written toward those in Christian pastoral ministry, its themes are applicable to other vocations as well. Peterson’s work addresses the difference between a “religious career” (he makes the case that this seduction is idolatry) versus a holy vocation:
These conditions in which pastors work – institution, congregation, and ego – are inescaple and powerful. Braided together, they make a huge hawser that pulls us away from vocational holiness. If we are to repudiate a promising career in religion, avoid impressment in the production of idols, and escape Aaronic vanity, we are going to have to put together a strong defense that is at the same time a winning offense. (88)
Peterson writes out of his own experience with the ministry as a vocation, “I discovered that I have let culture dictate my opinions and practice of prayer, at times treating it as an oppressor to rebel against (in favor of ministerial action) or unnecessary” (11). I’ll write more on this at a different time.
3 Litmus Tests for Discouragement
I think there are three “litmus tests” we can use to quickly see if we need to step back and reevaluate. Not only do these questions prompt us to look back at how we’ve been doing, but we can watch our reactions to their results and learn from those responses too.
How common is prayer and Bible study (not just reading) in our lives? Peterson describes this as the slow leak or “spirit loss” that will sink effective pastoral ministry. (56) Most of us with forward-oriented skills can become self-sufficient in a hurry. Any gap of time in our week's schedule and we fill it with “doing” rather than spiritual practices. What would it look like to read an extra five hours each week and from a stack of books we choose prayerfully?
How do we respond to the mundane each week, the people with whom we’re placed? Is there a persistent impatience combined with a self-focused desire for something more attractive? I've been reflecting on I Cor. 12:18 lately, “But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” Sometimes we're kicking against situations and people that God has purposefully placed in our lives for greater purposes (both His and for us).
What ambitions and dreams do we have, the kind that make us feel undervalued or unrecognized? Is there a desire to be known, or as Peterson describes to “expand our influence” (89) or “hog the show” (85) from what God is trying to do where we are currently planted?
I was interviewed last week about THE SELF-AWARE LEADER and mentioned the influence of the social media audience we carry around with us. Much has been written from experts about the way that the “crowd” on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter shape how we think, our habits, and how we shop. Social media hotwires us for “more” and more doesn't equal contentment. A smartphone is a useful tool that is here to stay, but it also has a downside in that it facilitates discontentedness if we aren't careful and able to distance ourselves regularly
There is a health in thorough contentedness. I’ve had to learn that. Ok, I’m learning that. Being contented to serve in what Peterson describes as the pastoral soil where we are placed. Yet, some of us wrestle at times with discontent. We can easily become focused on what’s next in our career steps versus making the most of the day and week before us. We can let our consumeristic culture, which champions the next big “thing”, to shape how we think about ministry as a holy vocation and make it a religious career instead.
There is a richness present in your work this week. Nothing is too mundane for you. It is the “human soil” within which we in ministry toil. And our field is enough for this week. God is big enough to lead us to another field when it’s time. In His time. We don’t need to be looking over the fence while weeds are growing behind us.
A Special Opportunity
If you're in a Christian leadership position and facing a period of discontentedness in ministry or thinking about a potential transition, I'd like to invite you to prayerfully consider being a part of my mastermind coaching group this fall. I've been equipping and launching Christian leaders of all ages for over 25+ years now and I'm excited to pull together a small group of like-minded leaders who want to take a big step forward in their lives. I've put all of the details on my website about it and I'm personally excited for this high-level opportunity. I hope you'll consider it or share it with someone who may benefit from it. Space is limited.