Every Wednesday night I take an improv class in downtown Chicago to help develop my right-brain skills. I leave mid-day to miss the traffic and then catch up on my task list at a table at Chipolte. Last week, with my ear buds snug in my ears to block out noise, I focused on my “important” projects. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a dark haired sixty-ish women sitting at the table to my left. As she held a courtesy cup I watched her use a spoon to crush a few lemon slices in water.
Something prompted me to ask her if she had anything to eat. In broken English she said that she hadn’t eaten all day. After we talked for a few moments I learned that she was Muslim, had immigrated from Turkey 5 years earlier, and had been homeless for 4 years.
As I heard her story God prompted me to say, “I want to buy you dinner.” At first she refused, but then with thankful tears she acquiesced. I bought her a chicken salad and a soft drink.
For the next 45 minutes I set aside my “important” tasks and simply listened to her stories, often as she gently cried. I learned her name, Sabria. I learned that a problem had occurred with her immigration papers that had led to her homelessness. Also, her husband had divorced her in Turkey decades prior, her parents were dead, and she never had children yet two sisters and a brother were still living. She told me that she refused to beg on the street and would not become a “dirty girl” which I understood to mean she refused to become a prostitute.
I’ve served in a senior pastor role over 20 years and each year I’ve preached an annual vision sermon.
As I look back, though, I wonder how much Kingdom difference those sermons really made.
Pastors from large mega-churches that I’ve followed from afar encourage us to bring an annual message. As a result, I’ve prioritized it as a necessary leadership tour do force upon which I thought the health, vitality, and future of my church depended. I had engrained into my leadership DNA that a vision message must include content (the what), the motivation (the why), and the inspiration (the impetus for everybody in the church to be moved to take on hell with a water pistol after listening to me for 30 minutes).
The kinds of vision messages I’ve brought have included these general themes.
- the I just got back from this great pastors’ conference and this is what we will do next year
- the I just read a great book on church growth and this is what we will do next year
- the I have no clue about what next year holds but I have to bring a vision message or else I’m not a good pastor
- the I have to fire up the church with this message because, well, we need firing up
- the I’ve come from a Mt. Sinai planning retreat and here is what God told me we’re to do next year
- and as I’ve gotten more mature the I humbly bring this before you as a word from God
The responses to my annual vision sermon have included…
- 100 people leaving the church the following year (after I attended Willow for the first time and decided we would be the Willow Creek of Atlanta; I’m not dissing Willow, I was simply too filled with myself when I brought that vision sermon)
- a phone call from a leader saying he was not motivated at all
- usually lower attendance on those days
“Do the Best You Can and Leave the Results to God”
That phrase may seem a bit worn, but it’s well worth heeding. In Christ’s parable of the talents, the master, representing God, gave responsibility to the servants, us, based on individual ability. The story implies us that some pastors have greater competencies than others. Similarly, Paul teaches that the Holy Spirit gives out gifts as He sees fit. It’s obvious that the Spirit gives some pastors extra preaching or leading gifts, evidenced in the size and impact of their ministries.
It’s easy to become discouraged when we do our best yet don’t see our church grow like others to which we may compare ourselves. When we wrap our identities around numerical results and the numbers don’t increase, the discouragement can overwhelm. This is especially true for older pastors who realize they may never achieve the dreams they had for ministry.