Year-end reflections from a missions pastor sparked by time away from ministry
The rhythms of the calendar are a gift from a good God who understands the heart and rhythms of his children. Each day provides the opportunity to start anew. Each week includes a day of Sabbath rest. Each season brings a change of pace that takes us out of our routine. Each new year is a milestone by which we can reflect on the past and look forward to what’s to come.
We don’t always make time for reflection in our regular ministry. Whether we’re too busy to stop and reflect, or we’re afraid of what might happen in ourselves or in our ministry if we stop, the majority of leaders do not take the time needed for reflection. While all of us would attest to the importance of prayer, most of us struggle to live like we actually believe seeking God’s face in prayer is more important than doing things for God.
The spiritual discipline of prayer calls us to regular, even daily, rhythms of praising and thanking the Lord, confessing sin and bringing our requests before him. The Scriptures and Christian history encourage more seasonal disciplines as well, like fasting, silence, solitude and reflection. These practices are all necessary for an intimate relationship with God. We need seasonal reflection to recalibrate our lives to the Lord’s will.
As a follower of Christ, one of my favorite passage for recalibrating my life is 1 Corinthians 3:10–15:
“According to God’s grace that was given to me, I have laid a foundation as a skilled master builder, and another builds on it. But each one is to be careful how he builds on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, each one’s work will become obvious. For the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire; the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work that he has built survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will experience loss, but he himself will be saved—but only as through fire.”
While this is one of my favorite passages, it is also one of the scariest to me. It’s natural for believers to drift slightly off course, and while cultivating our daily walk with God will help us not to drift, we also need to practice a seasonal recalibration to reorient ourselves with what God really desires for us. There is so much that can take us off course: our cultural norms, our worldview, the critics around us, the inner critic, our self-centeredness—all of these can cause a drift in our lives that, if not corrected, can lead us away from God’s purposes for our lives.
It is so easy to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, isn’t it? As I walked through my personal reflection this year, I was reminded of all my “respectable sins.” These are the sins that are almost never seen outwardly but that wrongly motivate the “good things” others see me do for God. I love the Lord—there is no doubt about that—but I also know myself well enough to confess that wrong intentions often motivate my actions.
I am a perfectionist, and while this causes me to work hard for the Lord, it also causes me to unnecessarily plan for every contingency, every question and every critic. Why? Because I believe a God like our God deserves our best … but also because I don’t like answering questions, hearing from critics and having failures revealed.
I am rarely without an idea for something good I can do in the Lord’s name. Why? Because I believe God made us to do everything for his glory … but also because I don’t feel fulfilled when I’m not doing anything, because I am always trying to avoid the pain of lack of preparedness, and because I subtly forget that God doesn’t love us because of our works but because of Jesus.
I often feel Paul’s lament from Romans 7:24–25: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
There is no doubt that God will still work through things that are done with an impure heart (Phil. 1:15–18), which is great, because I am sure I never do anything out of a completely pure heart. The Lord can use man-centered ideas for his gain, but we know from 1 Corinthians 3 that man-centered, religious endeavors may also burn up in the end, and they may not be rewarded to us. It’s entirely possible to go through life doing ministry that looks good before others and be completely off the path of what matters for eternity. We want to do the work God has called us to and do it for the right reasons, and taking time to reflect on the past year of ministry is a great way to reorient ourselves when we’ve gone off course.
Below I’ve provided a list of questions to consider for seasonal reflection. As I went through a similar set of questions earlier this year, I recognized something God had been showing me for a while: After 15 years of ministry, I need to take some significant time for personal reflection. My church didn’t have a sabbatical policy, but they were gracious enough to work with me towards forming one. So, from mid-December to mid-February, I’m going to take a break from “formal ministry” as I try to focus on who I am to God instead of what I can do for God.
As a “self-sufficient,” type A personality and borderline workaholic, taking two months off has honestly been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever considered doing (Weird, huh?). But what has driven me to take this step is the knowledge that rest and reflection are more likely to help me lead a fruitful second half of my life than continuing at the pace and trajectory I am on today.
You may not want to read these reflection questions after hearing what they have done for me, but I would like to pose a few to you today as you finish up one year and go into another. I pray these questions will reveal impure motives, idolatry and areas where you are taking on the yoke and burden that Jesus said he would carry for us:
1. What are my successes from this past year? (Don’t overanalyze the meaning of success—just consider what has seemed to go right this year.)
2. What can I praise God for?
3. What has been burdensome or stressful this past year?
4. Stress and burden are often the result of fear—What were the fears I faced this year? Did any of those fears become a motivator for ministry? (E.g., doing a project to avoid conflict; overworking to avoid being asked questions; making a decision that quieted the conflicting voices; controlling a situation to make your life easier; acting confidently so people would assume you’re right; etc.)
5. What do I need to do to be freed from these fears so that I’m doing ministry out of a purer heart? (e.g., letting go of a responsibility, confessing sin, exploring the root of these fears, getting counseling, etc.)
6. If my ministry endeavors were taken from me and given to someone else, which one(s) would I be crushed to lose? (Answering this question is often a great way to uncover idolatry.)
7. What can I do to live more in my strengths and what God has called me to and less in my weaknesses? (e.g., delegate more, cut projects, do a life-plan course like Younique by Will Mancini, etc.)
8. How can I live this coming year in a way that draws on the uniqueness of who God made me to be?
9. How can I do the ministry God has called me to with a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light?
I hope these questions will help you reflect as a missions leader, not simply on your job, but on your heart as well. The church needs leaders that lead with a pure heart instead of lording their authority over others for their own gain (1 Peter 5:1–5), and we need to practice repeatedly and consistently realigning ourselves with God’s heart and purposes as we carry out the ministry he has called us to.
This article originally appeared on TheUpstreamCollective.org and is reposted here by permission.