Last week I was on vacation. Other than a night away with my wife, I had nothing planned. I spent the week doing those things that I enjoy and which enhance my life. I read a couple of books. I wrote a few pieces. I rode my bicycle. I ran several days in preparation to run a road race with my son. And I rested. I didn’t call the office to check in at church. I didn’t go in each night, after everyone else had left, to check the mail and clear my desk as I have done in the past. I stayed away.
Though it has been a long and hard lesson to learn, I have discovered that I am not nearly as indispensable as I once thought I was. When I first began my works as a pastor, I believed that just about everything in the congregation was my responsibility – from the care of the building and grounds to the physical and spiritual well-being of the members. If the water fountain wasn’t working, I needed to make certain it was fixed. If someone quit coming to church, I needed to fix that as well by discovering what I had done to discourage their interest . . . because surely it was something I had done. If a new ministry was starting, I needed to be the person out front leading the charge. When I went on vacation, I would call into somebody at least once, sometimes more, to check in on things and coordinate those matters that needed my attention. I was certain that there was always something that needed my attention. I could go on with the many ways that I thought I was indispensable to the congregations I was serving, but I think you get the point.
The humbling lesson I learned over the years was that I had confused the real needs of the congregations in regard to pastoral leadership with the needs of my own inflated ego. This became clear to me about ten years ago, when after saying “Yes” to every opportunity that was provided to me in the church, the community and the denomination to feed my ego need to be out front leading (and there were many such opportunities and most of them worthy causes), I found myself, after a time, becoming very irritable and angry about people asking so much of me. I was complaining about all the demands on my time to my wife, Becky. She listened and then said, “You know, Mark, you can say ‘no’ to some of those things . . . if your ego will let you. Other people are just as capable as you are.” I did not like what my wife said. I was very upset that she did not see the “servant’s heart” that I was trying to have. Of course, she was right. I just didn’t want to admit it – that truth hurt too much.
It all came crashing in on me, literally crashing, a few weeks after that conversation. While driving my truck, I blacked out and crashed. I have no recollection of the wreck. All I remember is waking up in the emergency room of the local hospital and being sore all over. Though the doctors offered several possible explanations of what might have caused me to lose consciousness, there was never 100% certainty about the cause. As I reflect back on that time, I have become convinced that my body and mind shut down from pure exhaustion. It was an exhaustion rooted primarily in the needs of my own ego. It was a painful lesson to learn. The truth of my wife’s words stung. The wreck caused not only physical pain, but emotional pain as the rumor mill turned about what actually happened. A painful lesson, yes. But also, for me, painfully necessary.
In the nearly ten years since that event, I have sought to have more balance in my life. I have tried to remind myself on a regular basis that though I need to be faithful and diligent in the leadership I provide, not everything depends on what I do or don’t do. I spend more evenings at home than I once did and less at meetings. I do say “yes” to opportunities that come along now, but I am also much more willing to say “no.” I remind myself on a regular basis that I’m not the savior for any person or congregation. My work is to help folks learn about the one who is the Savior for us all.
I decided to write this article because in this time when so many congregations are aging and in decline, so many pews empty and resources dwindling, it is easy for pastors to think it all depends on us – growth, new energy, new ideas, resurgent budgets, creative programs. We can begin to think if we just work harder then everything will turn around. The truth is, all any of us can do, is the best we can. And we can only be at our best when we take care of ourselves, mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. One of the first steps in that process of well-being is realizing that for any of us, though our leadership is important in the life of the church, none of us are indispensable. The church existed long before we were around and it will continue long after we are gone. We are called simply to be faithful servants during our time . . . and we can’t be faithful servants of Christ if we think it is all about us.
This is a quote from Dr. Howard Thurman that has had a growing impact on how I seek to live and provide leadership in the church:
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs most is people who have come alive.