by Dan Schmidt
As a young pastor, I spent an afternoon with an elder of our local church who meant to encourage me after a particularly difficult season of ministry. “The Lord wants us to be faithful,” he said, “not successful.”
As a young pastor, I spent an afternoon with an elder of our local church who meant to encourage me after a particularly difficult season of ministry. “The Lord wants us to be faithful,” he said, “not successful.” I nodded in agreement: it certainly sounded like good counsel. Since then I’ve heard this same sentiment expressed in various ways, but my assessment has changed a bit. I now augment this appeal toward faithfulness with an injunction for hard work.
The encouragement to be faithful is sound: it speaks most eloquently to those who pour themselves out on dry and stony ground where success is measured in single digits, small advances and long years. The accompanying word about hard work comes from Paul (and others). This Apostle comments surprisingly often about his own ardent labor (check 1 Cor. 15:10; 2 Cor. 6:3-5; 1 Thess. 2:9) and that of others (like Mary, Tryphena and Tryphosa—see Rom. 16:6, 12). His frequent remarks are a preferred way of identifying those committed to the Lord’s service; they emboss the other face of the ministry coin.
My sense is that many—most, perhaps—of those currently engaged in full-time ministry can see their reflection on the faithfulness side of this coin. They left high school, college, seminary or a profession to engage in full-time service, driven there by a profound desire to respond to a calling lodged deep in their good hearts. Over months and years they have developed relationships and networks; their support team is most likely impressed by their sincerity and devotion. But here’s the question: What are they doing these days? Are they working hard?
Questions like that might evoke guffaws on fields from Guatemala to Madagascar, but they are these days surfacing more on the agendas of missions committees sensitized to support issues. Sending agencies ask them in various forms, too, as do those tasked with member care. Some actual missionaries have even been known to raise the query when considering their peers. More than one colleague has talked with me about the reality of underemployed missionaries; some have warned that while significant, the issue simply cannot be discussed in polite company.
Let me suggest here that these questions deserve an airing. It is a practical matter for those of us concerned about using kingdom resources wisely; it is theologically motivated as well. My aim in this is not, however, to legitimize criticism or complaint, or to evoke guilt. Rather, we should explore the matter of work as it relates to the jobs we have been called to do. Why is it that some of our number struggle routinely in this, why all of us wrestle at various times with being or staying diligent, focused and industrious?
Personal experience and interaction with Scripture would suggest some factors that account for this problem: boredom, distractions, inadequate supervision, resentment, isolation, inflexibility. I might illustrate each of these with a particular story, but will instead simply amplify each point more generically in order to prompt further consideration.
When work is repetitive and results are lackluster it is difficult to maintain enthusiasm. Let’s face it, doing the same thing over and again can wear one down, and, despite the cry to be faithful more than successful, if one doesn’t see fruit from labor, energy for the project dwindles. The heaviness of tedium might slip into a more severe clinical depression, but it will regularly undercut performance at least.
Distractions sap our ability to work well and hard. This is true not only for those in places where the simplest problems take an inordinate amount of time and money to rectify, but also for those who live in a high-tech zone. There, the allure of TV, videos and computers can gobble an incredible number of productive hours. Family concerns are another time-grabber: making sure the kids are settling well, behaving appropriately and receiving quality education can pre-occupy. We can even be distracted by those we’ve come to serve; the crisis of infidelity on the field, for example, has a wide-ranging impact.
What happens when the energy expended in getting people to the field is not matched by resources for keeping them there? How often do missionaries undergo a rigorous evaluation according to a well-developed job description once they are assigned and have been on a field for some time? Is the possibility of redirecting, or even firing, a consistently under-performing missionary ever raised? In what ways do sending churches settle for too little with respect to the output of those they support?
Some missionaries serve near people far better off than they. If comparisons are made and left to stand, the former often see themselves as worse off than the latter. This erodes confidence and joy, and leads to a justification: “If I got paid like that, then I’d knock myself out, too—but because I’m not….” Or, one missionary notices how the member of another agency seems to receive more _____ , or different _____ . Impressed by the inequity, the person allows resentment to build and erode performance. Pride can develop in this atmosphere, too, and fashion a credo: “Look what I bring in to this situation,” one might say. “I work smarter so I don’t need to work hard.”
Some who go out need to go way out. They absolutely need to surf on the front edge of ministry. While exhilarating, this sort of involvement carries with it hidden costs. Pioneer work offers an unobstructed view and wide open spaces, but also means living in lonely and precarious territory. It’s possible to lose motivation if out there too long, and then fall back to a rocking chair on the porch. In a place of pounding, or prolonged output, more than one leading edge type ends up in the local hospital due to stress related disease.
What happens when what you came to do gets done? You could go on to the next thing, or you could stay, and just make sure it keeps getting done, correctly. Slipping into maintenance gear gives the appearance of staying busy; viewed objectively, little is being accomplished. If a person refuses to consider new lines of service, or new ways of approaching familiar terrain, that inflexible attitude will result in diminished effectiveness.
It’s a long and daunting list and touches issues familiar to many. One could deny such factors, influences and tendencies, or wallow morosely in guilt; or, a list like this could spark healthy self-examination. Before the Lord, we might ask, am I working hard and well? Have I allowed a measure of laziness to slip in unawares? Do I justify short days and long coffee breaks too readily? Am I refusing to ask important questions about the current state of my ministry? We can shift responsibility to the agency or sending church: if they’re not complaining I must be OK, we could say. Or, we could sit quietly and, probing our hearts, ask: “Am I working hard?”
My brother’s first job was with an actuarial firm outside of New York, where he worked for people conversant with the Old Testament. That firm’s unspoken policy was “six days you shall labor—and not a minute less.” It’s a sentiment we would do well to recover for ourselves, especially at a time when we hear so much spoken and written about balance. The idea seems to be that we need to build more fun and family time into lives sliding down the slope into Type A (for Abaddon?) behavior. But a better perspective is this: we need
recreation after having been depleted by carrying out the tasks at hand. A balanced life will integrate both work and rest; indeed, one gift we can offer those among whom we minister is the example of how grace, peace and diligence emanates from those God has called to serve him full-time.
What will that take? Here are some suggestions for consideration and some statements for interaction.
Maybe you do have a part-time job. It’s possible that your skills, passions and gifts mean you’ll get your job done in less time than those who gave it to you planned. It might happen that others will come around you and bear a significant portion of the load you had thought to carry. Should you stretch six pounds to fill a ten-pound sack (or, more pointedly, should you pad your prayer letter?)? Or would it be better to add on or seek out new responsibilities? What about procuring a local, income-producing job (assuming of course that this is legal where you are, and that it would not jeopardize your status as a Christian worker/non-profit employee, etc.) so that you could either augment your probable monthly shortfall or contribute to the support of another? It would be like setting up a windmill in your backyard capable of generating not only enough electricity for your household but also a surplus that you sold back to the power company. Is there a church—be it indigenous or expatriate—nearby that could use your services as a Sunday school teacher, nursery worker, greeter, maintenance person? Remember: preaching and teaching is not the whole story in any local church. Could you find someone—even someone outside your primary sphere of ministry—who would benefit from your mentoring or assistance?
Review your motivation regularly. One of my friends builds a monthly quiet retreat into his schedule: he goes away for a couple of days with a Bible and notebook and spends the time talking with and listening to the Lord. One of the matters he raises has to do with his current job: am I still where you want me? It’s a good idea to explore your heart occasionally and to determine whether what God once put there still resides with similar fire and energy.
Stop complaining. Do everything without arguing or complaining, Paul, that pesky supervisor, says. He wrote this to his good friends in Philippi, from a stinking prison far away. I recall taking this verse seriously one day: when the urge to complain rose in my throat, I pushed it down, gave it over to God. At the end of that day, I felt great! The next day, however…. Now I try to keep this verse (Phil. 2:14) nearby. It’s a key ministry text that keeps me centered on what matters and what doesn’t.
Seek counsel. If you do not have a supervisory group that is close enough to know what is truly going on, develop one. Your main goal with this group (and it needs to include people other than your spouse) is to be honest about your work. Have these people read your next prayer letter, for instance, and ask questions about what you claim or describe there. This can get out of hand, of course—in my first ministry position, I was expected to deliver a daily schedule broken into half-hour segments. But having some wise, firm, compassionate people you can talk with about what you do, and who can in turn probe your actions and suggest ways of improving, will only enhance your effectiveness.
Develop discipline. Try two basic, simple activities here. First, clump your errands, so that you’re only going out (that is, away from your primary responsibility) in a few large chunks, rather than in many small snippets that cut your day to ribbons. Make lists, and get happy about waiting to check off the items on it. Second, start or maintain a realistic fitness program. Apart from a consistent devotional life, nothing pays quicker dividends on productivity than good health. And few things are as demoralizing as overweight, out of shape missionaries.
Accept that the reward for good work is…more work. We do not pin a picture of the golf course or mountain lake to our brains and say, “I’m working for that.” Rather, as we pour ourselves into the task at hand, we should expect success of some description, which means that more work unfurls. This suggests that we should be ready for it to appear, and design ways in which to tackle it.
Remember your heroes. Why did you go, in the first place? Was it a call you heard while attending a Billy Graham crusade? Did an Urbana speaker ignite you? Was it a book about Amy Carmichael, Jim Elliott or Hannah More? People like these were, among other things, incredibly hard workers. Hudson Taylor and William Wilber-force, for example, labored long past retirement age in desperate conditions. Paul was this way, working night and day to bring in funds to support himself and others, and giving out to those around him as God enabled him. Epaphras, too, the man sent by the Colossians to help Paul who then went to work on behalf of his home church (see Col. 4:12, 13). His particular burden was prayer, in which he wrestled. The verb is instructive; it speaks of vigilance, diligence, strength, training and skill.
Work can be a dangerous thing, because it can promote pride, or get entwined with guilt. It can distract us from God, like a mistress or a drug. But it can also accomplish great good—particularly when done with the right attitude. Good work well done leads to a sense of deep satisfaction because it becomes the means by which personal passion and neighborhood needs meet. Good work well done crafts a powerful testimony among those who don’t really know why they work, or who are committed to laziness. Good work well done fulfills one responsibility of those called by God, and results in healing, justice, beauty, nourishment, education, freedom and spiritual growth.
Missions are built on the backs of faithful people; they exist because there is work that needs doing. We need to reckon with this important other side of ministry. By grace we have been called to life and designed for work; this is the thrust of Paul’s powerful teaching in Eph 2:8-10. Given the responsibility of work, we have the opportunity to become worthy of our hiring. We do not view the job—what we sometimes elevate to the untouchable plane of ministry—as an inalienable right, but as a sacred privilege, assigned by the Lord and symbiotic with his people. In the process of working hard and well, we grow, people around us are blessed and God is glorified.
Dan Schmidt, is currently serving Escazú Christian Fellowship, an interdenominational, multicultural church outside San Jose, Costa Rica and has been a pastor in Illinois, Maryland and Chile. He can be reached at THNKETERNAL@aol.com.
EMQ, Vol. 39, No. 3, pp. 354-359. Copyright © 2003 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.