For some strange reason, we’ve had an unusual number of ants in our kitchen this summer. It’s been horrible. They seem to be everywhere and they don’t seem to be coming from anywhere. It’s like there’s an ant hill under our kitchen and they’re coming in from behind the walls on stealth raids. They’re on the counters, in the cupboards, and even on the ceiling. To be honest, it’s wearing me out. I opened a cabinet door the other day, saw ants swarming one of the drawers, sighed heavily and shut the door. I just didn’t have the energy or patience to deal with it anymore.
The great ant war has, however, got me thinking about church. Maybe you’ve experienced this. I’m not talking about ants anymore, but demands. I know there are certain things I’m supposed to focus on as a pastor, but it just seems like every time I turn around the ants of demands on my time and energy are crawling all over and I have to do something about it. The constant shifting of attention and effort begins to wear me out to the point where it’s hard to tell where the demands are coming from; it’s hard to tell what, really, is wearing me out so much. None of these demands are all that big by themselves, but like ants, they have great strength in numbers, and like ants, they break down and decompose my day, my energy, and my focus.
It’s discouraging feeling like nothing can ever have your full attention. What’s worse is that on some level you recognize the importance of what you’re called to do and yet Sunday comes and class feels kind of thrown together, the sermon doesn’t feel like you’ve really owned it, and you can’t shake that feeling like your running behind. It would be easier if there were staff to share the load with, but in a small church you can’t often afford staff and often in that small church setting volunteers can burn out, or fail because “they’re just volunteers” (a dangerous fallacy that I’ll get into another time).
When I find myself in these seasons, I start to retreat. That isn’t healthy. I need to spend more time in prayer … a discipline that seems to get cast aside when ants start invading. The apparent urgency of the demands derails my plans and gets me moving in a prayerless direction. I need to prayerfully seek God’s direction on what gets my attention and what does not. Often I find I’m giving time and attention to things that are of man and not of God. That means I am neglecting God’s instruction, call, and leading for lesser things and other plans. Experience has taught me that when that happens, I will not have the peace and energy–the grace–from God that I need to fulfill my calling and mission.
When the ants raid our kitchen, there’s no clear source; I don’t know where it comes from. In my ministry, if demands and expectations are invading and I don’t know where they come from, I need to bring it back to God–or reflect on what I know God last told me–and if it’s not from Him, let it go. Our enemy is cunning, and he won’t send things that are obviously from him, we’d avoid those right away. He’ll send good things, things that seem right in order to fly in under the radar and steal our devotion. Taking time to pause and seek is vital to our survival in ministry, and it’s the last thing our enemy wants.
The more I seek God’s leadership in these seasons, the more he shows me that clutter is a big part of my problem. I’m talking about physical clutter and mental clutter. Getting organized and treating important responsibilities as important clears a great deal of clutter (you should see my desk … I wish I could). With organization we need communication. Most often the people in our little churches would help if they just knew what help was needed. They can’t read our minds and it would be both cruel and unusual to expect them to sort through the piles on our desk and make sense of it. If you need help to cover the pulpit while you take a week or two to start getting organized, ask a trusted member to preach, or connect with other small church pastors in your area and work together (which falls into the communication category, by the way). You might also try contacting your denomination to see if they can help.
I wish I had a good solid answer to the problem, but I’m still working through it myself. What about you? What have you done to help get yourself focused on the important and manage the urgent? What counsel would you offer a pastor in this season? Leave your thoughts, experiences, testimonies, and advice in the comments below.