Many years ago I was Pastoring in West Virginia when one Sunday afternoon I got a call from a friend of mine who was Pastoring a church about twenty miles from us. He started the conversation by saying, “I need your opinion, my deacons came to me after the service this morning and said they needed me to come to a special called meeting tonight.” Then he asked me a hard question, “Do you think I’m in trouble?” My response was to ask him some questions, specifically, “Have you done anything different or controversial?” He then proceeded to tell me that on that particular morning he had decided to institute some changes in the church so that it would be more relevant and effective in reaching people.
Before we move forward let me give you some important information about his church and community. The church was located in a rural part of West Virginia and was made up mostly of senior adults. Yet for some reason my Pastor friend had decided that it would be relevant to preach in a pair of shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. Needless to say, it did not go over very well. He had made a common mistake — He was trying to Pastor someone else’s church— maybe Rick Warren’s, maybe Don Ho’s but certainly not a rural church in West Virginia. That brings me to an important point.
As Pastors we must Pastor the church we have while trying to move it to become the church it needs to be. Read that again, because it is more profound than it might first appear. We have a duty and a responsibility to cast a God-given vision for what the church needs to become. Like it or not we live in a ever changing culture and we must constantly find effective ways of presenting the eternal truth of the gospel. While our message is always the same, our methods will always be changing. But on the balancing side of that we must keep in mind that we have to Pastor the church we have. Not someone else’s. Not the church that we wish we had. Not the church we hope to become. The church that we have right in front of us. That means that we need to be patient and careful in how we institute change.
My friends mistake was twofold. First, he thought that what was working in Southern California or somewhere else would work in rural West Virginia. Second, he did not take the time to really learn his community. This is mistake that my generation of Pastors has been particularly prone to falling into. We read or hear what someone else is doing and thing that we can get the same results by replicating what they are doing. Nothing could be further from the truth. We must be missionaries in our communities learning how to effectively present the gospel to the people who we minister to. Remember, you have to Pastor the church you have while trying to move it to become the church it needs to be.
One of the most frequent mistakes that Pastors make is trying to minister from the reserves of
their lives rather than from the overflow. The way this happens is so subtle that we rarely recognize when it starts to happen. Looking back at my own meltdown, it is easy now for me to see that I had ceased ministering from the overflow of my life for nearly a year before my actual breakdown. In my case, the problem started when we added the stresses of a $5 million building program to an already over-taxed schedule. For others, the cause may be varied but the pattern and end results are almost always the same. At some point we add one too many irons into the fire and suddenly a switch gets thrown in our lives and we shift from ministering from the overflow to drawing on our spiritual reserves to get us through the day. Unfortunately, these reserves rarely last very long, just ask Roger.
Roger is one of the most effective Pastors that you will ever meet. He has been serving New Hope Baptist Church for the past eleven years and during that time they have experienced tremendous growth. Over the past three years the church has more than doubled in attendance and the church has been forced to look into creative ways to expand their capacity. The church is located on one of the busiest intersections in town but it is land-locked between a shopping center on one side and rapidly growing sub-divisions on the the other three. The church has literally used every square inch of their property but due to high property values and the fabulous growth occurring in the neighborhoods surrounding the church they have ruled out relocating their facilities. After a season of prayer and discussion the church leaders decided to open a satellite location in a rented store-front on the North side of town. This decision was the tipping point in Pastor Roger’s life.
Up to this point Roger had been busy but was able to juggle all of his responsibilities and still maintain his spiritual life. But the addition of the new satellite turned everything upside down. “When we were making the plans for North campus,” says Roger, “I had no idea that it would occupy so much of my time.” In reality an examination of Roger’s schedule shows that the North Campus only added about three to four extra hours worth of meetings and appointments per week to his calendar, but that was more than enough to upset the delicate balance of his life.
“North campus opened up, I suddenly began to feel overwhelmed and exhausted. At night I couldn’t sleep and in the mornings it was all I could do to get to the office by 9 am.” says Roger, “Most days I found myself rushing to get to the office without ever taking the time to read my Bible or pray.” Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Roger was beginning to experience one of the tell tale signs a ministry meltdown. Rather than ministering from the overflow of his life, Roger started to operate on the fumes and the leftovers. “With nothing coming into my life,” says Roger, “my spiritual and emotional reserves quickly began to run out and I started to experience the physical and psychological signs of a burnout.” Sadly, Roger’s story has been repeated countless times in the church but the solution is actually quite simple— we need to lear to minister from the overflow of our lives. Let me briefly explain what I mean by this and then outline some steps that every minister of the gospel should take in order to maintain the spiritual inflow in their lives.
The Relationship Between Inflow and Outflow
The principles that I am about to share with you may seem so obvious that you will wonder why I am even bothering to tell you about them. But bear with me for a moment because I promise you that in the midst of ministry we are all guilty of ignoring these three simple rules that govern the relationship between the overflow and the outflow of our lives. I know that in my own personal experience, sitting down and thinking about these three principles was not only humbling but also healing. Over the past couple of years I have had the opportunity to remind several Pastors whom I’ve counseled through ministry struggles about these three basic principles and in every case they have responded as if a light had been turned on in the darkness. So even if these see rather simplistic, just bear with me for a few moments.
1. What Comes Out Is Determined By What Goes In
Here is the simplest, most basic principles of all — what comes out of your life is determined by
what goes into your life. Let me illustrate what I mean with an example from my childhood. When I was a kid my dad and I used to fish in the Ohio River near my hometown of Steubenville, OH. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that area, the Ohio River is formed by the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monogahela river at Pittsburgh, PA, initially flowing north until it takes a sharp left turn, reserving it’s direction and flowing south. This change in the course of the river forms the northern panhandle of the state of West Virginia. Back in the 1960’s and 70’s the banks of this river from Pittsburgh to my hometown and even further south down to Wheeling, WV was dotted with giant steel mills. Some of my fondest memories of childhood involve floating down the Ohio River in my dads boat catching large mouth bass, catfish, carp, and even the occasional walleye. In spite, of what you might think the fishing was actually pretty good back then but there was one key rule that we always observed. We never ate any of the fish that came out of that river! The reason was that many of those steel mills and the other industrial plants that lined the banks of that river dumped polluted waste into the waters of the river. Due to that fact, the fish that came out of the river were dangerous, perhaps even deadly to eat. What went into the river determined what was coming out of it. The simple truth of the matter is that whatever is going into your life as a Pastor is going to determine what comes out. Let me flesh that out a little bit for you.
If there is nothing coming into your life, nothing is going to be able to flow out. The Ohio river is a massive river but it depends on the flow from the Monogahela, the Allegheny, and hundreds of other smaller streams and creeks for its water supply. If we were to suddenly cut off the waters from these sources from flowing into the Ohio, the river would quickly dry up and cease to flow. That is the way it is with your life. If you don’t maintain a constant inflow of spiritual resources into your life you will quickly dry up. It would be shocking to most Pastors to realize how quickly this process can occur if the inflow was immediately cut off. But what usually happens is that the problems of ministry and concerns of life simply mount up and slowly cut off the inflow from our lives. Like cholesterol slowly and imperceptibly building up in our arteries over the course of years, so to will the problem of ministry clog up the spiritual arteries of our hearts if we are not careful.
If we are going to fix this fundamental problem we must focus on the inflow of our lives. A couple of months ago the doctor told me that I have high cholesterol, in addition to putting me on Lipitor, he also told me to go on a low fat, high fiber diet that will help to reduce the inflow of bad cholesterol into my blood stream. The same basic principle holds true in the Pastors life. If we want to have a healthy spiritual life we need to cut down on the fat and increase the healthy spiritual food that we take in. Simple, right? So why don’t we do it? That brings me to the second point that I want to make.
2. Nothing Good Can Come Out of Unhealthy Vessel
The next couple of paragraphs may be hard to read and I promise you that they are equally hard for me to write but we have to admit that a major reason the church is so unhealthy is because its Pastors are sick. Even as I write those words my heart is broken because I love Pastors and I am one myself and I know how hard of a task we have in this day and age. But I also know my own heart and I have talked with enough Pastors to know that we have a serious crisis occurring across the church. The reason that so many of our churches are unhealthy is because the Pastor is unhealthy and we need to address this issue because we can ever hope to help our congregations.
Not long ago I was having coffee with a Pastor friend of mine who showed me a picture of himself and three of his friends from seminary. He then went on to tell me that out all three of those friends ended up having to leave the ministry as the result of moral failures. We both sat there for the next hour sharing with each other the stories of men that we knew who had one time had heard the call of God on their lives to preach the gospel but at some point had ended up falling into sin. It would be easy to try to say that these men had never been converted or that they were simply wolves in sheep’s clothing, but the truth is much harder to deal with. In each case, we agreed that these were genuine believers, who loved God and wanted to serve the church but ended up falling into sin and lost their ministries. What happened to them is actually much simple and much scarier— they simply didn’t take care of their own spiritual heath and they slowly drifted into a heinous sin that ruined their family, cost them their ministry and destroyed the church they Pastored. But what is even scarier is that this is not the worst thing that can happen.
Sometimes I have seen Pastors who neglect their spiritual lives but instead of falling into some heinous sin they simply grow cold, uncaring, and cynical. They don’t wash out of the ministry, but instead keep on showing up week after week, with no life, no vitality, and no passion. Rather than minister of life, they become carriers of the deadly spiritual pathogen known as lethargy. These are Pastors who have not been caught up in such blatant and gross sins as sexual immorality or greed, but instead are plagued by a host of seemingly smaller, easier to disguise sins, that are equally as appalling to God as their more grandiose cousins, but far easier to justify and rationalize in the mind of the Pastor. Rather than ruining their life and ministry in one quick moment, this situation leads to a slow wasting away or rotting of ones life and ministry.
An unhealthy vessel will either bring rot or ruin to the local church, but there is another option— we could turn around and take the necessary steps to return to Spiritual health. Over the past couple of years, I have talked to many former Pastors whose lives and ministries were ruined by sin, but there have been others who upon recognizing their condition repented of their sin and came back to God. It wasn’t an easy path, but their lives have been turned around and they are now examples of God’s grace and mercy rather than of another Pastor who washed out of the ministry because of a moral failure. The question is, which one are you going to be?
3. The More That You Put In the More That Can Come Out
Up to this point we have been mostly looking at the negative aspects of this principle, but now I want to to focus on a positive. The more good things that we put into our lives, the more good things will come out. We’ve already established that if we neglect our spiritual lives bad things happen, but we also need to embrace that the reverse is also true— the more time we spend with God the more Spiritual energy and power we will have available to do ministry.