By Eddie Pipkin
I was out in Colorado a couple of weeks ago, and it was cold (duh!). It was perfect weather for sitting by the fire pit, and for the better part of the day, that’s exactly what I and a couple of pals did. What is it about those mesmerizing flames, talking with good friends, keeping yourself warm, and letting hours slip by lazily? As we added a log here and poked the coals there, it got me to thinking about the practice of keeping a good fire burning steadily for long hours and how similar that process is to keeping effective ministry kindled: part science, part art, and dependent on understanding the interaction of environmental influences and available sources of combustion.
Of course, the primary ingredient to a fire is something to burn. I have had plenty of smoky, hopeless, sputtering messes that were the result of wood that was too green, too wet, too rotten, or the wrong kind for burning. That’s just frustrating. A steady-burning, not-too-smoky fire depends on seasoned wood from the right stock that’s been kept dry and termite free. Similarly, steadily burning ministry is based on key people who are solid and well-seasoned at the core of things.
You do, obviously, need fuel of all sizes. You can’t start a fire by throwing a giant log in the fire pit and holding a match to it. You need tinder: those starter pieces like twigs, maybe some crumpled newspaper or shards of cardboard or some handy dryer lint (that’s an old backpacker’s trick – scary how flammable that stuff is) to get the initial flames going or to occasionally get a struggling fire refreshed. Once that’s burning, you need kindling: branches or wood, larger than the tinder, but smaller than logs, that build the base of the fire. And then you need those dense, weighty logs. Likewise, ministry depends on the raw energy and enthusiasm of the newly-engaged and the highly-passioned (sort of like the tinder). But if you’re trying to build ministry exclusively on the efforts of super-excited newly-minted disciples, it will burn brightly like a cardboard conflagration, but it will also burn out quickly. You can keep perpetually shoving in more cardboard (and some churches work from this conveyor belt of new recruits who burn out and are replaced by fresh, new recruits model), but if you pair that bright, hot initial blaze with some well-positioned kindling (ministry partners with more practical experience and training) and also those logs of substance (the experienced ministry wise men and women), you’ve got a fire that will be beautiful and last. You need ALL of those ingredients/participants for any ministry project to be positioned to succeed.
And positioning definitely matters. Whether you use the log cabin technique (famously favored by national park rangers) or whether you prefer the teepee technique for structuring your fire, the organization of that fuel makes a big difference. You can’t just toss twigs, branches, and logs on the burning pile willy-nilly. That’s a guaranteed recipe for a blaze to fade ignominiously. In terms of ministry, one of the best contributions we can make as leaders is to help the fuel provided by the available talent get organized for projects in a way that will help it burn brightest.
Once it’s been burning for a bit, don’t underestimate the power of a bed of hot coals. After the hard work of establishing a fire has been accomplished, that glowing bed of coals means anything added to the equation has a great chance of itself catching fire with a minimum of fuss. In ministry, that bed of coals is the collection of stories, good outcomes, and accumulated blessings that are produced as the ministry grows and accomplishes God’s purposes. We have to work very hard in the initial phases of any ministry endeavor, but as the ministry matures, that season of intensity passes and becomes a season in which the narrative of good work done well carries continuing efforts forward, ignites more participation in the cause, and glows warmly and steadily, bringing a sense of satisfaction and purpose.
As the song says, it only takes a spark to get the fire going. True, true, but that spark has to come from somewhere, and it has to be held in the right place to ignite something wonderful. For those who are earnestly seeking God’s guidance and inspiration, our prayers and attentiveness to our community’s context can provide that spark – that aha moment that powers inspiration. We have the responsibility to direct the spark to just the right spot. Our openness to the Holy Spirit (and the openness of our teams as led by us) is the flint from which the spark is struck. And if we’re not seeking that spark, we’re stuck in the rut of arranging the same old half-burned candles in the same old configurations and standing around complaining we can’t get them lit with the gummed up flexible candle lighting wand we keep pulling the trigger on only to see that pitiful, sad quasi-flame that sputters out instantly. They spark of the Holy Spirit is not weak: it’s a powerful source, but there’s got to be organized fuel in position for ignition when the spark comes! It’s also worth remembering that we (as the people in charge) shouldn’t be the sole source of such sparks. Let’s not be snuffing out the legitimate sparks bursting forth from other sources. Let’s cup our hands around them protectively and keep them viable till we introduce them to some kindling.
Once the fire is burning, it will require love and careful attention. A good fire needs air flow and some steady poking. Whenever our fire pit fire starts to look a little weaker, we blow on it! It’s amazing how some wind (natural or fire-keeper created) can reinvigorate the flames. Likewise, our ministry fires need a steady, empowering refresh from the breath of the Holy Spirit. It’s our job as keepers of the ministry fire to encourage our teams to maintain their spiritual health, practicing those disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, and accountability to fellow disciples that help them intersect with the flow of God’s grace. Thus they will be sustained and refreshed and can support and encourage one another, keeping those flames burning brightly.
As for poking at the fire – ah! – this is the provenance of a skilled and careful leader. Everybody sitting around the fire loves to poke those logs with a stick, subtly changing the way they burn or producing a sea of sparks that rise off into the darkness, producing a momentary light show. But I have seen kids poke at the fire haphazardly enough to cause well-placed logs to collapse into a smoldering disaster. Fire poking is serious business if it’s to engineer a stronger, longer lasting fire. Thus, as leaders we have to defend our ministry fires from those who would poke at them for their own entertainment, and we have to be judicious in the ways in which our ministry teams may need an occasional poke here and there to keep them focused and on task. If they are falling into lazy routines, feeling moribund, or getting distracted, it’s up to us to take steps to help them stay on track or rediscover their initial spark.
This week’s extended metaphor can provide a clever opportunity for you to think about your ministry at your next team meeting. Share these ideas about what goes into making a great fire (and even have people begin by sharing their experiences of sitting around fires – these are often great memories of special times). Then ask them questions about their own role in ministry and ministry projects:
- How do you think our ministry fire is burning?
- Do we have a good balance of fuel sustaining our ministry fire (tinder, kindling, and well-seasoned logs)?
- Do we do a good job of inviting the sustaining wind of the Holy Spirit to keep the flames burning brightly?
- Are we open to and do we encourage inspirational sparks from many sources?
- What are some examples of times when you successfully poked a dying flame to help restore it? When did that strategy not go so well?
- What things are we doing to inadvertently douse our ministry flames?
Develop questions which speak specifically to your context, and let the conversations begin!
How do you think you’re doing as a ministry fire keeper? Are you an attentive guardian of the flames? Or does it feel like there are ministry efforts at your church that are smoldering, smoky messes? It’s not too late to revive those fires and bring new life from old coals.