By Marcus Honeysett (ed. Richard Collins)
This post was first released on Marcus' blog - Digital H2O - on 25 March, 2020.
You know those big toxic waste barrels? They often have a nuclear symbol on the side, don’t they?
Right. So that’s you.
Each week, many in your congregation treat you like this barrel. They pour into you all their doubts about God, their marital difficulties, their complaints about church, life, and the universe; they offload their struggles. Gradually, you fill up with toxic material. So what do you do? Where can you go?
Most Christian leaders don’t have anyone to whom they can turn. Except perhaps to bend the ear of a poor spouse. Many leaders are isolated. They don’t have professional supervision to help with detoxing. I’ve been in Christian ministry for quite a while, and by my calculation, it takes about fifteen years before leaders are full up with toxicity.
Then they either overspill or explode.
One more bitter email and frankly, explosion is the likely result.
In the midst of this, leaders are required to keep smiling. Why? Because many have a carefully constructed image of being unflappable and infinitely resourceful. It is said that ministers don’t drop out of Christian work because they have forgotten how to preach, but because they have forgotten how to be human.
So how are you doing during this pandemic? For myself, well, within a few days my whole routine was gone. All my plans collapsed, to be replaced by Daddy School for an energetic and rather anxious 5 year-old, one who requires constant attention. I find myself all at sea. ‘How do I feel?’ leads to ‘how should I feel?’ to ‘How do people expect me to react to this?’ And finally, what is it appropriate to express to the outside world? Including in this blog post.
I am certainly not alone. I’m among a set of Christian leaders who feel a strong obligation to be strong, resilient and spiritually dynamic when in fact we’re feeling weak, vulnerable and isolated. We’re just like everyone else, but we’re not supposed to admit it.
So here is my confession - I am feeling it.
I wonder if, in the stripping back, the Lord is calling us to pare right back. Perhaps it’s okay just to pray. Or spend a whole morning reading a gospel. Without all the distractions and obligations which often choke off our devotional times. I wonder if this isn’t a perfect opportunity to get rid of the idols we lean on – competence, spiritual wisdom, false identities. I wonder if the uncertainty which surrounds us might not be the ideal trigger to stop presenting a false image of ourselves and start admitting that we too are vulnerable and anxious.
We’re not omni-competent. We’re not, and we never have been.
Of course it comes with risks. Do people really want Christian leaders who are weak and vulnerable? Or leaders who are strong and able? Do our people want spiritually mature leaders, conscious of their limitations, who draw out the gifts of others, or leaders who promise answers, who never show weakness, more Terminator than human? I hope it’s the former, but the reality is that many of us present the latter.
Secretly, I suspect many leaders don’t want 2 Corinthians 12 to be true - boasting in our weakness and inadequacy. Paul can keep his thorn in the flesh. I don’t need it. But the thing is, the lesson he learnt, that God’s grace is sufficient . . . it’s true. By some means, we will have to learn this lesson.
There is no other path which leads to wholeness.
And without chapter 12, we can’t deliver on chapter 1, comforting others. If I am impervious, I scarcely need to receive comfort. And without experiencing that comfort myself, how can I comfort others? I might be able to train them in skills, but I’ll never be able to model how to be a disciple in bad times as well as good, or when I don’t know all the answers. Especially that last one. I don’t have all the answers. Never have, never will. Go check the Psalms. The psalmists didn’t either.
There is a sense in which these unprecedented times demand change from us. Our normal responses are not fit for purpose. Yet, it’s also true that nothing has really changed. These times are simply revealing what was always true. The fragility of life, the need to trust God at all times. Maybe even those uncomfortable truths, that masks don’t work, that competence alone can’t substitute for a raw dependence on God.
So what do you want to model to your people? That strength and competence is the key to survival? Or that by confessing to feeling weak and vulnerable, we are led to the feet of our Almighty God?
Unprecedented times. And yet, the Truth remains the same. I pray that God will lead me to greater depths in my prayer life. I hope in yours too. In our vulnerability, I pray that we all grow in trust and intimacy with our God, who is our refuge and strength. Forget the need to be unflappable or present a perfect image. Now is the time to model dependence on God our Father who draws close to those in need. To those who openly confess their weakness and dependence.
To him be the glory.
When I said “my foot is slipping,” your love, O Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul. Psalm 94:18-19
This week, we're releasing our second article on divorce, by Neil Powell. It's entitled 'When is divorce permitted?' Click here.
Neil Powell is the City of London Director of City to City U.K. and a chair of City to City Europe, a church planting organization.