There is an old saying about ministers and professors, “Those who can do, and those who can’t teach.” I suppose this could be said about any profession. With any saying like this one there is an element of truth, as well as some overstatement. As I have moved into that stage of my life and ministry where I have “hung up my cleats” (to borrow another metaphor) I begin to wonder if I am not succumbing to that old adage or attempting to teach what I did not necessarily practice. At the risk of sounding like a High School Athlete who is attempting to live the glories days in his golden years, let me see if I can help those of you still in the “trenches” gain a little perspective from a man who now has the time to reflect on the challenges of ministry that seemed to elude me when I was in the trenches. One of the problems of life in the trenches is that you spend so much time just trying to stay alive, you have no time to get up and get perspective. After all, life in a trench only gives you about 3 feet of skyline to see! (Enough of the metaphors for now at least)
What prompts this blog is an article I was reading last week, in what is quickly becoming my “Go-To” publication “Outreach”. This month’s publication featured a “conversation” between Eugene Peterson and Dallas Willard. The author called it a “conversation” but it was more of a compilation of some of their writings on the Spiritual life. The author, Paul J. Pastor (doesn’t that name scream made to serve a church?) Was focused on what has been labeled the danger of short-termism. Let that little phrase rattle around the recesses of your mind for a bit. Short-termism. I am sure most of are familiar with the phrase, short term gains when it comes to investing. Some people get fixated on the short term gain or loss, forgetting that economics are generally played out in the long term. For people who are fixated with short term gains, they spend a lot of time and energy attempting to outguess the market trends to sell high and buy low. However, from what I see, most short term investors wind up losing more than gaining. While that is problematic if you are attempting to save toward retirement, what happens when short termism affects not just our investments but our very lives? What happens when our view from the trenches, the short term goal of getting through the week begins to dominate, not just the week, but the month, the year, the decade?
Let that question roll around a bit, and then consider this next question. If you were to think about the greatest threats to civilization, what would you say? (Which is how Pastor begins his article). So think about it, what would you say? Full scale nuclear war, bacterial pandemics, terrorist states, or a monster asteroid, just to suggest a few. However, Pastor suggests that the greatest threat is something that has been labeled “The Perils of Short-Termism.” Pastor defines short-termism as the endless procrastination of the important. He uses the need to change oil in his truck as an illustration. Sure we can ignore that little sticker or the incessant warning each time we start the engine, for a while. What if you keep that up, for 10, 15, 20,000 miles? Can you spell total engine failure? While problematic, it is not the end of the world. However, if you scale this up to the size of our life, or a church, a denomination…the stakes grow exponentially. If you think this is a current problem, go back to 2 Kings 20 where “Good” King Hezekiah is told about upcoming national doom. Does he lead a national revival? Does he call for a national season of repentance and returning to the Lord? No, listen to his response to the prophet’s words: “The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,” Hezekiah replied. For he thought, “Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?” (2 Kings 20:19). Can’t you hear him saying, this is not my problem, I have enough of my own. Or someone else will change the oil in my truck!
Before you think I am pointing fingers remember this, we are all engaged in the cycle of short termism, myself included. As Christian leaders it is easy to get distracted, focusing on the minutiae and then get stuck there. This doesn’t happen because we are evil or misguided, it is that we don’t have an overriding purpose to guide our lives. Pastor is spot on when he writes: “The clarity and intention that inspired them to seek a pastoral role has chilled. Energy is low. Exhaustion is high. And short-termism has become life. The quiet foundational things can be put off. Good, but ultimately dispensable activities shape imaginations, demanding increasing attention, often with decreasing levels of real return on what matters most.” (Outreach, March/April 2019). I don’t know about you, but I knew that feeling all too well in ministry. Have to get to this, then don’t forget that, and on and on it went, and somehow, there was never enough time to take care of what really mattered, making disciples, and tending to the spiritual side of life and ministry. I was so busy doing ministry that I was losing the essence of what I was called to do. The problem then, is that I did not know what to do, or how to stop it.
Before you walk away, thinking I am accusing you of neglecting something that should be obvious, let me be the first to acknowledge this was my life. Ministry is dominated by the tyranny of the urgent. When the urgent dominates our lives things like vision and intention get pushed to the sideline. What Pastor is calling us to do is return to the habits of life that encourage vision and intention. He is not speaking of day dreaming or mindless staring at the ceiling or watching clouds drift by. Reclaiming time to catch the vision of who we are called to be, to regain the intention that brought us to the life of a pastor in the first place is vital. If you think that I am suggesting or that Pastor is offering a quick fix, or 10 easy steps toward focused ministry you are on the wrong track. There are no quick fixes, just a reminder that we all need regular and often uncomfortable reminders to help us re-center ourselves on the essentials.
While I did not know what the problem is, I attempted some repairs, while in active full time ministry. I returned to the classroom, to attempt to gain some perspective, so I earned a second Master’s Degree. That was helpful, but not the solution, as it eventually led to more “short-termism”. (That is the problem with some “solutions”.) However, one degree led to a second, and I found myself engaged in a Doctor of Ministry Degree, on Church and Clergy Health. (This one, much more introspective, helped in some regards, however in others only presented more challenges than it ultimately solved.) My final attempt, was a Sabbatical leave, hoping to gain some perspective, give the congregation time to reboot, etc. Once again, it did not reach the heart, because I could not diagnose the real issue. I think, as I sit here with 20/20 Hindsight, that the problem was in the attempted solutions. You see there was nothing inherently wrong with the approach, they were all good things, and they have prepared me for what I am doing now, but they did not address the challenge that ministry inherently presents to each and every one of us day in and day out, the tyranny or the urgent!
Enough for now. Do yourself a favor, take a little time out today or tomorrow, not much longer than that to ask yourself this question: “When was the last time I focused on the long term issues rather than short term fixes?” If the answer is uncomfortable, maybe it is time to take time to get away and focus your attention once again on what is it that made me want to become a pastor? Was it to run committee and board meetings? To decide on the color of the carpet in the addition? Or did you want to make a difference in the lives of people you serve? Did you come with the idea you could make a difference in the world by serving Christ in this place and in this role? If you are anything like me, I wanted to make a difference, still do. I wish I could tell you I am done with short-termism issues, but they are all around me even as I focus on this blog there are a half dozen things that are vying for my attention.