Wilfredo ‘Choco’ De Jesús: Embracing the ‘More’ God Has for Us—Part 2

Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Wilfredo ‘Choco’ De Jesús talks about how God prepared him to leave a successful church for a denominational role, how to stay connected your people, and the key to continued faithfulness in the midst of church growth.

Tell me more about your emphasis on focus. Why do you so strongly encourage specialists, rather than generalists, in church ministry?

It’s effective, and it’s countercultural. Our culture today has a problem with “deep.” It says, “I want to understand things before I commit myself.” And I try to tell this culture, especially in ministry, “You have the wrong perspective.” Understanding something can wait but obedience cannot. We must do what God has called us to do.

We’re in a culture today of constant distraction. Turn on the TV and immediately you have the banner at the bottom of the screen, all these different messages, no matter what network you’re on, and they’re all saying the same thing: next … next … next …

But in the Christian life, we’re called to just live on one screen. We need to pursue our calling. We can’t have all these other things that are coming at us. You can’t be good if you’re constantly multitasking. That doesn’t mean you can’t help in other areas, but you need to put your primary gifting first.

Sometimes in the church, we’ve kept the wrong people in the wrong places. Often, they don’t want to be there. No wonder so many of our efforts are not growing. Someone joined this ministry in the 1970s because someone asked them to. They never wanted it. But now they’ve been there for 40 years—and never wanted to be there from the get-go. No wonder there was never any growth.

My advice? Be focused on what you’re called to do. Work to be your best in that setting.

Is there a time for multitasking though? Your own ministry is an example of the power of breadth—your TV show, for instance.

Within reason, sure. For instance, let’s take that TBN show. It only took about two weeks of my life, and then I turned the page. Essentially, it was two weeks of recording. It wasn’t consuming my time or holding me back form being a present husband, father and grandfather. It wasn’t going to get in the way of pastoral or denominational work.

The principle is to know yourself well, and to focus on what you do best. Sometimes in churches you have people who are multitasking and they’re not good at any of the things they are doing. They’re not committed wholeheartedly because they are stretched too thin. “I couldn’t be here on time because I was doing life groups. I couldn’t be here to be a part of what you guys are doing because I was at a men’s ministry or whatever.” Maybe they’re gifted, but they’re split five ways. That’s the danger of multitasking.

What’s one thing that has worked surprisingly well in your efforts to release people in their ministry?

One of the ways that releasing people can get stuck is if a pastor’s ego gets in the way—if they feel threatened by the excellent leadership of another gifted person. With that in mind, one thing that’s worked well is a sort of trial system to get to know what another person is ready for.

Here’s how it works. Say, for example, I have a young lady who seems gifted in organization, and she’s working to put a community meeting together. She wants to pull 100 pastors together from our community in Chicago. We have $1,000 budget. I meet with her six months in advance and ask, “Hey, here’s this project and this budget. Can you handle it?”

And then from time to time I will see this individual in church and ask, “How’s it going? How many pastors have RSVP’d?” “Oh Pastor, we have 32 that are coming.” And maybe a month would pass by and she will say, “We have 52.” This person is telling me she is on it. She is making phone calls, writing emails. And as the event approaches, I find out that she is under budget and didn’t spend $1,000. She only spent $779.

The next time I have another event, maybe it’s quite large. Maybe it has a budget of $500,000. I now give it to this person and give her a bit more responsibility and exposure. That’s worked out very well for me: Giving someone a project and a budget to see their potential.

What’s one thing that hasn’t worked?

When leaders don’t follow-up. That’s easy to let happen—we get busy. I know the feeling. We give a person an assignment but don’t follow-up on their progress. The result doesn’t end up where you want.

The truth is that everyone needs the same “hey” when you bump into them. “Hey, how are you? Where are things with your project?” Sometimes you think, This person’s a go-getter. They don’t need a lot of oversight. They’re going to be fine. That’s not true. It’s not a fair assumption for that person or for their project. Everybody needs oversight. Everybody needs check-ins.

At this phase of your ministry, what keeps your heart fresh? What are you learning about staying healthy in pastoral ministry right now?

A little while ago, I flew from Chicago to Dallas. A two-hour flight. After we landed, the captain opened the door to the cockpit. As I was deplaning, I peeked in, took one glance at the controls, and said, “Hey captain, great flight. I’m Pastor Choco from Chicago. I just have a question. How many times did you guys touch these buttons during the flight?” And he said, “Maybe a couple thousand times. We were always making subtle adjustments to the plane. And as we got up to our altitude, we kept adjusting because the wind was always pushing the plane. We needed to correct it to stay on our flight plan.”

So, I’m learning not to allow the winds—the tailwinds and the headwinds—to distract me. In our culture, it’s so easy to wander from God’s original flight plan for our lives. Culture shifts. It’s easy for pastors who started off well to suddenly look up and find themselves someplace they don’t want to be, over water and with little fuel in the tank. Exhausted. Off course.

You have a lot of pastors these days who are calling it quits, who are committing suicide, who are considering walking away from everything. We need to always make those little adjustments to our lives, making sure we’re on our knees, seeking the Lord, reading the Bible, accountable to other Christians. Everyone. Every day. Always.

You mentioned both headwinds and tailwinds. I assume you mean opposition and success. Each has its way of taking us off course.

Yes. We usually focus on opposition, but success can take us off course just as much.

Americans love celebrities. Americans love drama. That has bled into the church. We now have a whole culture of celebrity pastors. But these successful pastors often compromise little by little. Perhaps they allow themselves to accommodate to culture without speaking the truth. Maybe they water down the gospel. But inevitably, they become so “successful,” they stop smelling like sheep. They fly high, and the tailwind of success makes them drift from the original flight plan.

As a result, here is what I beg pastors: “Fly low. Stay off the radar. You don’t need exposure. You don’t really want exposure. You don’t want to be recognized. You don’t want to be speaking in the conference circles. Just fly low.”

It took years of “invisible” ministry in Chicago before my denomination’s leaders noticed me. I had been ordained in 1989, but it wasn’t until 2010 that our general superintendent at that time asked me, “Where have you been?” “Here,” I replied, “flying low. Trying to stay off the radar.”

So—I’ll speak directly to your readers here—if you’re a leader eager to be recognized, my friends, fly low. Success is dangerous. We are called to speak into our culture, not to accommodate to it.

That will preach. But that kind of humility is also a practice that must be learned. Have there been any key moments you felt you had to navigate in learning this?

Yeah. When I was recognized by Time in 2013—that was such a moment. I received an incredible piece of advice from a wise man: “Success is like bubble gum. Chew it, but when you’re done with the flavor, spit it out. Throw it away. Don’t eat it,” he said. “Success is not good for your stomach.”

That’s so true. When we are successful, as a man of God or as a woman of God, and God has elevated us, let’s remember that advice. It worked in that Time situation. I chewed it. I thanked the Lord for it. But the next day, I spit it out. I went back to the work, to greeting people in the lobby of the church, to everything that I normally do.

You love New Life. You’ve nurtured it for almost 20 years. As you’re transitioning to your new role, what’s in your pastor’s heart? Where do you want to see your church go?

I look forward to being on the sidelines and watching New Life excel beyond my imagination. I look forward to cheering them on, helping however I can. I want them to continue to excel. I told the staff, “I don’t want you guys to survive. I want you to thrive. I want you to move higher, dream bigger than ever before, even under my leadership.”

So, as I leave, I leave with the security of knowing this is a team we’ve built for the last 19 years. It’s been 40 years I’ve been at this church. This is the church where I accepted Jesus. This is the church I pastored since 2000.

It’s in moving out of that lead role that a pastor can see their leadership at work. To see if what they did as a leader for the last 19 years was solid.

All our campuses have strong pastors. I chose not to do video venues as a church for this very reason. People don’t need to see Choco preach every Sunday. My job is to disciple. My job is to build leaders who do things better than I do. I’m looking forward to seeing them excel.

To borrow a phrase from the Bible, eyes have not seen, ears have not heard and minds cannot conceive what God has in store for them. I’m looking forward to that.

That sounds not just like a spiritual father’s heart, but a spiritual grandfather’s heart. Does that distinction make sense?

It sure does. You hit something right on the nail there.

There is a cry today for spiritual family, spiritual parents. There is a cry in our culture for real fathers and mothers, not people who are out of reach. We want an opportunity to belong to something. My heart has always been as a spiritual father, and now even as a spiritual grandfather, seeing some of our campus pastors starting to birth other children.

Legacy means “gift.” It makes a spiritual parent proud to leave a legacy for those who come after them. I’m hoping that my wife Elizabeth and I have left a gift here in Chicago for this team to do more than they can ever imagine. We will celebrate them all the way through and continue to be there for them and speak into them in Jesus’ name.

As you reflect on this past chapter of ministry, what advice would you give to pastors?

I travel a lot. The pastors I see seem so tired. Many seem defeated. They need to take the rest that they need to be able to serve God’s people. I want to encourage them to understand that we are in a spiritual battle and that God has equipped them with the full armor to combat our enemy (Eph. 6). But sometimes that fight looks like caring for your own well-being. So, if you’re struggling with anything—depression, anxiety, even suicidal thoughts—seek help. Don’t continue without pausing and getting the help you need.

Jesus is the giver of life. Think about that. If you’re depressed, if you’re struggling through suicidal thoughts, don’t just continue with ministry as usual. We all need others to speak into our lives.

I think we need to be better leaders. We need to encourage each other and discern when someone is not in the right place. Don’t let ministry supersede your health. Don’t let it destroy your marriage or your family. The church already has a Bridegroom, and that’s Jesus. I don’t need to be the Bridegroom.

You recently wrote a book about abundance. What a powerful concept. How deeply that connects to what you were just saying about pastors living in this place of scarcity. What message do you have about abundance for leaders?

The Bible teaches that God marked us for more. But what’s happened to many pastors and leaders is that we’ve settled. We’ve become content with less when God has ordained more for us. What does that mean, that God has more for us, and we’ve settled for less? That we’re still broadly defining ourselves by stuff—what we do or don’t have. Only God can fill that yearning in our hearts, and I want pastors to know that our minds cannot conceive what God has in store.

My book Move Into More is based on this idea that God has no ceilings. There are no limits with God, or what he can do with a pastor who is 20, 40, 60, 80 years old.

As you reflect on you at age 14, walking into the church, what would you want to say to young Choco?

“Choco, you have no idea what’s about to happen to your life. What you see in front of you as a boy with no bed, living off welfare, living off the government, no father—Choco, your life is about to turn around if you just continue to be obedient to the Lord. Walk straight.”

If you had told me at age 14, “Choco, you’re going to travel the world. Choco, you’re going to write five books, Choco you’re going to have a show on TBN, you’re going to have a doctorate, you’re going to be the general treasurer of the Assemblies of God,” I’d have said you were crazy.

As a young Christian at 14, I wanted those big doors of ministry to open. Little did I know that God was marking me. He was setting parameters for my life, saying, “Choco, I have a plan for you. I can’t tell you everything right now, because you wouldn’t believe it. But I do have a plan for you if you just walk in simple obedience.” The little things were all part of the big.

When I was 20, I wanted to know the will of God. Now at 55 I just want to walk in it. Yeah, if you had told me when I was 14 where my life would go, I’d have said you were crazy. But all these things, big and little, have been to the glory of God.

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