The Hamster Wheels of Ministry

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When I was a kid, a good friend of mine had a hamster.  I don’t remember his (or her?) name, or even what he looked like.  All I remember about this hamster is what happened the first time I stayed overnight at my friend’s house. Sometime after midnight, I woke up to the sound of that little rodent running for his life on a big wheel in the middle of his cage.  Despite having an elaborate system of tubes and tunnels to explore, that hamster spent the better part of the night (and every night, as I understand it) in a race to nowhere.  And though as a far more sophisticated creature I see that hamster’s life as one to be pitied; as a pastor I can relate to him in more ways than I would like to admit.

Pastoral ministry can easily become a giant life-sized hamster wheel if a man is not deliberate about how he spends his time and where he invests his energies.  There are a number of activities and pursuits that many pastors feel forced to engage in that require a great deal of time and energy, but that lead to nowhere.  And it’s every pastor’s responsibility to identify those kinds of pursuits and avoid them at all costs.

I’d like to identify the top two that I’ve encountered as a pastor in this post.  I pray that doing so is helpful to you as well.

The Hamster Wheel of People Pleasing

I love the people of our church.  They love the Lord.  They love his Word.  They care about one another.  And, they have been very good to me and my family.  Very good.  The truth is, I want to please them.  I want them to feel confident in my leadership.  I want them to feel that their investment in my ministry is a wise investment.  I want them to be happy with the direction of the church.  I want for them to feel that I am serving well.

And yet, over the last several years I have been shown time and time again, that there is no possible way to make everyone happy at the same time.  No matter what I do or say, or how I lead, someone will not be thrilled with what I’ve done or said, or with how I’ve led.  One Sunday a few years ago, I had a faithful member of our church pull me aside after our worship service to tell me that the sermon I had preached that morning was the best sermon she had ever heard.  Two days later, another faithful member of our church came into my office to tell me that I was wasting my gifts in preaching and was blind to my failure, using that same sermon as evidence for his argument.  It’s just how it goes.

Most of the time folks will disagree with you in a good and godly way, and on occasion they don’t.  But I’m learning that if I am driven by the opinions of men in the way I preach or how I lead and if I allow myself to be tossed back and forth every time someone isn’t crazy about what I’m doing, I will quickly become a very weak, insecure, and ineffective pastor.

Though it often goes undetected and unaddressed, the fear of man is one of the most devastating pastoral sins.  It will lead a man to serious compromise.  It will render him impotent to guard the flock against error.  It will paralyze him in his leadership.  It will make him weak.  It will make his preaching shallow.  It will give foothold to corrupt and confusing teaching.  It will give way to disunity in the church (when the opinions of men reign, unity collapses).  It will make him tired.  It will lead him to serve under compulsion.  It will steal his joy.  It’s a hamster wheel, I tell ya.  A giant hamster wheel.

The church does not need hirelings who are enslaved to the opinions of its members.  The church needs leaders who consider themselves to be slaves of Christ (Galatians 1:10), and who will go wherever Christ leads them by his sovereign Word – whether or not it is supported by the masses.

A faithful pastor must have thick skin that neither praise nor criticism can easily penetrate, but the fear of man makes the skin paper thin.  We pastors may often go to the Lord, asking Him to pull us up from the swamp of discouragement that we are in because of the criticism of people.  But we should just as often ask the Lord to protect us from taking the praise of men too seriously as well.  Neither the praise nor criticism of men will matter on the day of Judgment.  On that day, only One perspective will be of any worth.

You’ll never please everyone, dear pastor.  So stop trying.  Seek to please Jesus, and let people think whatever they will.

The Hamster Wheel of Comparison

It’s Monday morning.  Sunday was rough.  You came to corporate worship studied up and ready to preach your heart out, and that’s exactly what you did.  Yet, attendance was low, there seemed to be an extraordinary number of technical difficulties, and the overall tone of the morning just seemed flat.  It’s Monday morning, and you’re discouraged already.

Soon, with strong coffee in hand, you take up your phone and begin scrolling through your social media feeds.  And in your discouragement all that catches your eye are bright and colorful pics of auditoriums filled with seemingly passionate worshippers, posted by pastors you have never met, of congregations that you are not leading, as if things like worship and success and spiritual fruit can be captured on Instagram.  And your discouragement grows with every swipe of the finger.

And on the heels of your discouragement come thoughts of discontent.  You begin to wonder what it would be like at some other church.  You begin doubting whether the Lord is behind your ministry.  You wonder if you will ever see the fruit that others seem to be enjoying.  Why?  Because you are running hard on the hamster wheel of comparison.

Get off that thing, dear brother.  You are not called to be another pastor, or to shepherd another church, or to experience another’s fruit.  You are called to be a you (a godly you) and to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2), and to pray and wait for spirit fruit is God’s to produce (1 Corinthians 3:6-7), not yours.  You are not Jesus, and you are not the Holy Spirit.  You are simply called to be faithful to Jesus and depend upon the power of the Spirit to carry out your ministry faithfully.  You can be an extraordinary success in God’s eyes, and remain utterly barren of all of the tangible results that you long to see in your ministry, for the duration of your ministry.  The fact that you may not measure up to the “big dogs” means absolutely nothing.  So, stop comparing yourself to other pastors, stop comparing your church to other churches, and stop comparing your “fruit” to the fruit of others.  Doing so will wear you out and get you nowhere good.

Keep in mind, I’m preaching to myself here as much as I am to anyone else.  But, how about you?  What are the hamster wheels that you find yourself drawn to?  I’d love to hear from you!

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