Neither Before Nor After

I like to keep in shape, but I’ve never been big on the “before” and “after” picture comparison. I’m always pretty sure that after some blood, sweat, and tears that my after picture would still look an awful lot like my before picture. I’ve had those seasons where it feels like I’ve made a lot of progress–and I’ve certainly put in a lot of effort–but things just seem to look the same.

Maybe you feel like that in your ministry setting. I’ve served as pastor in our fellowship for over eleven years now and it still seems like the after picture looks a lot like the before picture. Maybe, like me, you feel like you’ve poured a ton of effort into your fellowship; you feel like the blood, sweat, and tears have flowed both on your knees and in the field, but it’s hard to find any real measurable fruit. I want to encourage you that the work you are doing–and that God is doing through you–may have very little to do with “before and after.” With God, the journey is the destination and “before and after” seem so linear and momentary.

The church where I serve has been in the community since 1963. In the 52 years it has lived here, I am the longest tenured pastor at eleven years. The average tenure of pastors in this church was only four years. Short terms of service can foster distrust over time the same way casual dating can train us for short-term relationships. A congregation can develop a spirit of short-term commitment due to a lack of long-term leadership. That spirit can stymie ministry momentum especially if the unfolding of a vision needs time–and unfolding a vision in a wounded church will take much longer than it will in a healthy church. You may have great support early on, but then see it just stop as the subconscious tells the church that it’s about time you are going to make your exit.

As if short-term pastorates weren’t enough, however, our church has also seen three pastors in a row fall to extra-marital affairs. There were those three, then one more who was pushed out by a controlling faction in the church who didn’t agree with his ministry philosophy, then my pastor who did a lot of restructuring and under whom many members left, and then me. From the last moral failure to the beginning of my ministry was about nine years. Needless to say, this church was wounded. More than that, our reputation in the community was “the church with all those pastors who cheated.” You’re not going to heal wounds like that in a single sermon series, and nothing will get resolved over the course of a re-visioning seminar and prayer vigil. If you can relate to this context in some way, then God has called you to your post to be a balm. Bringing healing takes methodical and consistent care, even when you can’t see immediate results. So much healing takes place in the unseen realm. You cannot measure success, or even progress, by what you see.

During some retreat time with my associate pastor, Chris, who has been with me the last five years, I lamented how our church looked no bigger or more fruitful now than it did when I was called to serve as pastor. He cited some examples of growth but then, knowing well the history of our church, stated that maybe God has been working in all this time to bring healing and stability to a church that was broken, wounded, and marred by sin. That hit me like a ton of bricks! I want to measure success and fruitfulness by numbers, but God looks at the heart, and the heart of our church had not been healthy. We’d had pastors who betrayed the trust in their moral failure, we’ve had pastors betray the trust by using this little church as a stepping stone for their career, and we’ve had pastors betray the trust by leaving without notice or warning. This church needed a leader who would persevere and build back some trust. Even if the membership had mostly turned over, that spirit of betrayal and abandonment still lingers, and it needed to be vanquished.

Maybe your church doesn’t have a history smattered with the ugliness of sin like ours did. Perhaps you aren’t familiar with the history of the congregation you’re called to serve. If you’re not, you need to dive in and get in the know. It’s important, not because we want to dwell in the past, but because you need to see how God has been working and how you fit into that work. Maybe you’re new to your current position, or maybe you think my eleven years is just a beginning. Be encouraged that you are not forgotten, and your efforts are not in vain, even (and in some cases, especially) if the numbers aren’t reflecting that. I know that in my case, we are getting close to a turning point. God has given us some new vision and direction…and the enemy is working to convince me that it’s the “same-old-same-old” and that it would be better if I moved on–if I abandon this fellowship and betrayed their trust at this critical time. I choose to persevere and continue for the good of this church, and of the Kingdom. I pray you will take a good hard look at where God has you and what he is doing so that you can be faithful in what is best in your situation. Remember, it’s not about the before, because you can’t stay there; it’s not about the after, because we don’t even know what tomorrow holds. It’s about right here, right now and what we need to do to be faithful to God’s call on our lives, our ministry, and in his church.

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