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HomeFeaturesLeadership › Finding Restoration After Your Ministry Dreams Fall Apart

Finding Restoration After Your Ministry Dreams Fall Apart

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A few years ago, a long-held dream shattered in pieces all around me, and something inside of me died. Out of that death came an invitation to something bright and brand new, but it took a while to see it.

It turns out that dreams are sturdy and stubborn things.

Dreams are all about where you are going. But it takes a wise person to know if your dream calls you to where you need to go or if it’s a distraction from where you need to go.

Until the spring of 2014, I was the associate pastor at a church I had loved for a very long time. The senior pastor (Dave) and I grew very close. We often sat on his front porch and talked about the future. He has seen to my shalom in very meaningful ways. It was an unbelievable honor for me to be able to see to the shalom of this church—his church—together.

I’d been listening to his sermons for 20 years, first on tape, then CD, and finally in person. It was from him I learned how to question the Bible, how to become an archeologist of those words and those stories, and how to uncover the God of amazing grace. He was the first preacher who helped me see underneath and around the perplexing stories found in the Scriptures.

My dream was to be the next senior pastor at this church, and it almost happened. It felt as though I had been preparing for this promotion my whole life. I was certain that God was leading me into it.

“I dream of the day,” Dave told me more than once, “when I walk across the gathering place and I hear people whispering that you’re better than I am. If you weren’t a son, you would feel threatening to me,” he said. “But because you are a son, I can’t wait for that day to come.” I believe that he meant it, with all his heart, and I drank those words in. I idolized him for years; I patterned my preaching after his when I was young. I couldn’t think of anything in my career that I wanted more than to follow him as the next senior pastor at this church. But things went wrong. I love the people of this church to this day, and I love Dave, and I believe that they love me. And we honestly all did the best we knew how to do. But navigating a succession plan is a minefield of potential problems, and we stepped on quite a few of them.

I’m an activator—I see things that need to happen, and I make them happen, usually pretty quickly. Sometimes that is exactly what my surroundings need to get them unstuck. But I’m not sure if a succession process goes very well when the potential successor is an activator. I flared my nostrils too many times. Sometimes I was too eager to be the next senior pastor and not eager enough to be the associate pastor.

There were times when my desire to possess that title (senior pastor) was silently killing off the gentle breeze of my real self, which doesn’t have a title. But it was so alluring.

Terry, the executive director (and my good friend), said that working with me was sometimes like sitting in traffic, when nothing is moving and everybody is frustrated, but some guy keeps honking his horn anyway. Another time he told me that I kept veering into other people’s lanes, merging into their areas of responsibility. He was right on both counts. Another time he mentioned how difficult leading this church was, because the engine needed to be replaced even though we couldn’t stop the car.

Terry really likes car metaphors.

After about four years, Dave and I were preaching roughly the same number of weekends per year. I saw this as the natural progression toward me becoming the next senior pastor. Then one day, during a board meeting, they said they wanted Dave to significantly increase his preaching load. This came out of the blue (at least for me), and I balked.

“But that means I’ll be preaching a lot less,” I blurted.

I felt as though something had been ripped from my hands that had previously been given to me. I did the math in my head. Instead of preaching 20 or so times a year, I’d be preaching 12 or 13 times. I loved preaching. It was hard to swallow a reality in which I’d preach less.

As time went on, my dream was dissipating and my mood grew dark. I kept telling myself to have patience, to do the job that was my actual job, instead of working so hard to earn a job that hadn’t been offered to me yet. Sometimes that worked.

At one point, some members of the board gently asked a question of compatibility. One of them suggested that I was built for speed, like a Ferrari, and that the church was built more like a Clydesdale, plodding along slowly but surely toward a destination at which they would arrive someday. I hated that comparison, even though it did hold some truth. I interpreted it as a lack of confidence in me, and perhaps it was. But it was also someone simply trying to figure out why things kept going so sideways.

We agreed that we needed a time of mutual discernment, to see if we should keep pursuing this idea of succession with me. They put me through a life-coaching process with an outside firm, which has a unique and very thorough process of listening to stories of your life to determine the things you are best at and are motivated to accomplish.

What I found out was encouraging but not all that surprising. I was wired to be a leader in an organization in which I could empower people to discover latent gifts they didn’t know they had. They said I’d be happiest if I could create culture through my leadership and preaching.

The culture of this church is very embedded and unique. It was not a place where I would be able to create culture.

“You keep crossing into other people’s lanes and honking your horn in traffic,” they told me, “because you aren’t doing what you are wired by God to do: You are most happy and most fulfilled when you’re creating environments in which people’s latent gifts can emerge. For whatever reason, you aren’t doing that there.”

It was liberating to hear, but it was also very painful. I’ll never forget a conversation with a mentor of mine, while sitting by a large, ancient tree. I told him all about what was happening to my dream of being the senior pastor at this church.

“Perhaps it’s time to let it go,” he said with sadness in his voice.

Where are you going?

This is an exciting question when you suspect you know the answer. For years, I had imagined myself in the role of senior pastor at this church. It felt right. It felt comfortable. It felt scary, but I felt up to the challenge.

But when the bottom falls out of your dream, Where are you going? begins to feel like a desperate question. Mary and I had dozens of long conversations about what this all meant. She loved this church, too, and at first, she really didn’t want to leave. Neither did I. Letting go of the dream that would have secured a very public success was extremely difficult. Becoming senior pastor would have felt like validation. Approval and admiration were cheering me on to get this job, no matter what.

But staying would have betrayed a very private secret: The way I see to the shalom of my brothers and sisters is to create environments in which people’s latent gifts can emerge.

When you get close to discovering what your secret is—how you see to the shalom of your brothers and sisters—there will almost always be a tempting alternative that is close but not quite it. It’s a wise person who waits for the real thing and resists that which is close enough.

***

When I decided to leave the church that I loved, I knew I was still a pastor. I knew I wanted to lead and preach. I wanted to create the kind of culture in which people’s latent God-given gifts could emerge and flourish. And that is when the idea of planting a church slowly began to emerge, like a blazing and beautiful sunrise after a long, dark night.

After dozens of conversations with Mary and close friends, after countless prayers of desperation and some excitement, I told Dave and the board that I needed to leave to plant a church. I was forty-three years old. They were gracious and also quite surprised. Though they affirmed my sense of motivation and calling, it brought up lots of questions for them and some pain. It happened a lot quicker than they thought it would. At the end of it all, they blessed Mary and me, prayed for us, and sent us out.

In May 2014, I started having conversations with people about starting a church called Genesis. Our stated vision was to join God’s work of “cultivating new beginnings in all of us, everywhere.” Those first few months were exhilarating, exhausting, and sometimes frightening. As I stared at spreadsheets with projected expenses of staff and equipment, I became an expert at asking people to give—financially, with their time, their gifts, and their passions.

We dreamed of starting something that felt warm, small, and ancient but progressive. We wouldn’t use screens to project words; we’d use liturgy bulletins that people could hold and bring home, with beautiful prayers written out, which we would recite together. We’d be guided by the seasons of the church calendar. We’d follow the lectionary—a three-year cycle of Scripture readings that would keep us anchored in the story of God. We’d partner with organizations that are meeting the needs of vulnerable children and those who are exploited in the world.

Mary and I spent a long weekend at my parents’ cabin, writing and talking and dreaming. Our church’s guiding values emerged slowly out of that time, and I love them:

Simplicity. We want to stay responsive to what’s important, so we order our lives and our community in ways that leave margin and space, where we live within our limits. We are intentional and wise in our choices and our commitments.

Conversation. We ask lots of questions that show interest in people and in process. We’re better when we’re talking and learning, so we allow great questions to lead us together toward what’s good and true. We can be confident in sharing and hearing ideas, because we know God is more and better than anything we can name.

Rhythms. We honor the Sabbath, we follow the lectionary, and we’re learning spiritual practices. We are countercultural in how we create space to hear from God in our lives and in our worship gatherings. We follow the seasons of the church calendar—finding daily, weekly, yearly rhythms that help us stay rooted in the story of God.

Attentiveness. We believe that God is actively at work at all times and places, making all things new. Because we want to join that work, we spend time praying for and seeking a restored way of seeing, hearing and sensing God, one another, and our own souls.

Restoration. What is made new in us is there to join in the work of making all things new. A part of this work is to be aware of and be present to suffering people and a suffering world, and to use our gifts to alleviate that suffering. God breathes life into us so that we can be a healing presence in the world.

Ordinariness. Most of us live our lives as if we need to be more and different and better in order to be significant. We want to live our lives as is—embracing who we are and where we are, believing that our gifts, our life, our vocation, as small or large as it actually is, is where God will be present to us and active through us. We believe that we can bless others by being who we actually are and operating from where we actually are.

Delight. We try to respond to what is beautiful and good with wonder, celebration, joy, gratitude, and love. We also try to smile, laugh, and enjoy one another. What delights us leads us into doing all kinds of good in the world.

That was two years ago. We are now a growing, intergenerational family of people who are seeing new beginnings in ourselves and others.

There is Carol, my favorite seventy-three-year-old, who sits in a wheelchair, a blanket covering her even in the summertime. She has buried three husbands, has multiple sclerosis, has just had painful hip surgery, and keeps talking about her own new beginnings.

And there is Pam, who is approaching her sixties and can’t stop dreaming. She and her husband, Will, were quite wealthy, with kids and big toys and lots of traveling, before they were ambushed by God’s love and a new vision for their family. Then they lost most of their money and had to start over. Pam wants to create places of healing for people who are hurting and broken.

And there is Trynica, the ten-year-old who decided to run a 5K on her birthday to raise more than $1,000 for women caught in sex trafficking. Trynie (as we call her) is hopeful, delightful, responsible, and is a gifted speaker. We’ve had her share poems at church, something she takes very seriously. Genesis is a place from which she is rising and becoming powerful.

And there is me.

Church planting can be a treacherous place for someone addicted to approval and admiration. I’m learning to take myself less seriously when attendance numbers drop. I’m learning to resolve conflict and stay engaged in a long obedience in the same direction, rather than chasing the next exciting thing. I’m learning to explore my joy and also touch my limits.

I’m learning that I really can’t be a successful pastor.

But I am learning that I can be a restored pastor. Restoring what’s broken isn’t just about crawling on your hands and knees through glass until you’re bloody and broken. Lech lecha means that at least some of the metrics for a successful Steve means that my own joy and my own enjoyment matter. I think I’m starting to learn that I can be a joyful pastor. Not a driven one, not a busy one, not a heroic one.

I didn’t know any of that was in store for me when I let go of the dream of being the next senior pastor at that big, beautiful church. How could I have known?

I hadn’t gone where I needed to go yet.

Taken from WHOLE: Restoring What Is Broken in Me, You, And the Entire World by Steve Wiens. Copyright © 2017. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

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Steve Wiens is the founding pastor of Genesis Covenant Church in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He blogs at SteveWiens.com and podcasts at This Good Word.

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