by Eddie Pipkin

Image by Pavlo from Pixabay

Following last week’s “Staple Girl” blog, I continued to think a lot about the nature of ministry.  I argued in that blog that our work has impact, even when it’s not obvious and even when it’s not saluted with fireworks.  Even so – even as I made the case for tiny victories – it was an argument that victories are there, whether grand or diminutive.  It’s ‘mountaintop’ motivation, and I love mountaintops, but this week I want to make a case for asking what if it’s really all about the climb?  What if work really is its own reward?  What if it truly is all about the journey, not the destination?

It’s funny how much we long for (and promote) those mountaintop moments.  Seems like we’re always trying to get back to them, and all our efforts are plowed into making them happen.  They’re the payoff, the goal.  Even though we willingly acknowledge the reality of ‘valley’ moments and the lessons we can learn from those times of struggle, those moments of pain are not what anybody is actively striving for.  The truth, though, is that we don’t really spend most of our time up on the peaks or deep in the chasms.  Most of our time is spent trudging along the trail headed up or down or bopping along the plateau in between.  The peaks and valleys are only defined in an emotional and spiritual sense by their very difference from the everyday normal, that little-bit-up, little-bit-down ridge of regular days.

Mayhaps that’s where the important work is then, the work of the everyday give-and-take, replete with its inconveniences and its joys.  (It’s funny to note that in choosing a picture to go with this blog, if you search ‘journey,’ what you get are happy hikers throwing their arms up in victory on mountaintops — there are no pictures of blisters being bandaged, soggy clothes being dried out, or fallen trees being crawled under — you know, the work of the journey.)

Harkening back to the tale of Staple Girl, maybe it’s not just that her story had a cute and happy ending – an assurance that grace had triumphed in the most adorable denouement possible – maybe the whole point was the application of principles involved in navigating the thorny relationship questions that life with Staple Girl posed.

Maybe, after all, it was the journey, not the destination.

Maybe learning to live with joy and purpose in the middle of mayhem is, in fact, the ministry.

We do everything in our power to avoid conflict and smooth the pathway towards harmony.  We idolize the dream of smiling cooperation, where all things unfold smoothly, and all people are cheerfully pulling on their oars in the same direction with powerful, unified strokes, steadily advancing towards the far shore of golden achievement.

In some ways it would be more accurate to say that we fetishize this vision of perfect harmony.  We think of its lack as a measure of our failure as leaders.  We make mistakes in our relentless pursuit of harmony at all costs:

  • The illusion of perfect organizational harmony may mean that we’re not attempting to do much, because the pursuit of big, hairy, audacious goals means that tension and growing pains will be inevitable.
  • The illusion of perfect organizational harmony may mean that we have sidelined certain voices whose perspectives challenge our own. This can lead to unhealthy homogeneity.
  • The illusion of perfect organizational harmony may mean that we have trained our teams to be constant Pollyannas, promoting false narratives of success at all times, thus spurning opportunities to learn and grow through an honest assessment of our inevitable missteps.

Perhaps our obsession with a perfect God-centered equilibrium is the fault of the Acts 2 church, the famous embodiment of an idealized congregation.  They supported one another, worked together in unity, shared the burdens and the blessings, and even “had everything in common,” selling property and possessions to provide for those in need.  It is a happy portrait of what a community of believers should be.

That positive narrative carries on for two more chapters, but by Acts 5, there’s trouble in paradise.  Somebody gets greedy.  Then the disagreement begins about how to live out the practical tenets of faith.  Then come the personality clashes.  And from then on until now, it’s messy times for the believers, glory tangled with discord.

As we like to say, the problem with churches has always been that they are filled with people.  Of course, that’s a cynical take – we can flip the script and say that the glorious opportunity we inhabit as church leaders is that churches are filled with people, because there are no institutional or organizational victories; there are only victories of personal growth, healing, and salvation.  Every institutional goal only exists to serve and support those individual outcomes.

What then if we think of our day-to-day mission as the mundane tasks of figuring things out together, warts and all?  What if we lean more fully into the very relationships and tasks that drive us crazy?  As John Wesley famously said, we are not called to be perfect.  We are called to move on to perfection.  Sanctification is pursued in the quotidian rhythms of life.

Here are things we might think about differently if are thinking about spiritual journeys rather than destinations:

  • Problematic people are the very people who need us. It is normal to sit around with our favorite ministry folks and bemoan the troublemakers, the clueless, the drama junkies, and the clingy.  These are, however, the folks who can most benefit from our ministry.  They are the purpose of our greatest calling.
  • The challenges and struggles of ministry are the laboratory through which we learn. It is in figuring out the challenges that we apply abstract spiritual principles and wisdom from the Scriptures.  The point of the training is the application, and the hard work of application brings us deeper into our faith.
  • Relationships grow when we share the full measure of a complicated life together. Relationships are what we are here for.  The work we do hinges in all ways on those relationships, and those relationships can only grow and deepen authentically if we are walking together authentically.  My challenges become your challenges, and yours become mine; my idiosyncrasies are your odd obsessions, and my lapses in judgment are your peccadillos.  And if we’re going to integrate our individual strengths to fashion a common good, we’ll need to figure out how to honestly live and work with one another.

I’m not trying to sugarcoat the headaches and hardships.  Yes, it’s true that sometimes a troublemaker is just a troublemaker; sometimes someone’s motives really are ill-intended and in need of intervention.  Sometimes a problem really is dangerous to you or the organization, not just an opportunity for maturing.  But these are rare cases.  Most of the time, the things upon which we fixate could be better considered as a chance for prayer and growth.  They are not plots against us.  They are just life.

How do you and your leadership team characterize the ‘nuisances’ of day-to-day ministry?  Do you seize on them as opportunities for growth as you apply spiritual principles and biblical wisdom?  Or do you bemoan them as obstacles to your vision of idealized harmony?  What would happen if you thought about bothersome people as righteous relationship opportunities?  What would happen if you concentrated more on the details of the journey and less on the glory of the destination?  Share your thoughts.