Tony* was building a career he really enjoyed when a leadership crisis at his church erupted. His steady, calm, servant-hearted personality and peacemaking gifts played a huge role in helping to settle the chaos. The elders at the mid-sized congregation invited him to join the church staff. “You’ll be able to use your skill set for kingdom purposes,” they told Tony. “We believe you’re God’s man for the job.”
What a vote of confidence! The request was both surprising and flattering to Tony. He’d never considered a religious vocation for himself, but Tony assessed the way he was spending his time, and realized that he was involved in church matters another 30-40 hours a week on top of his day job. After a long hard look at the finances (the position would mean a small pay cut) and a lot of agonized prayer, Tony said yes.
Tony loved his new job at the church at first, but the effects of the leadership crisis that had occurred a year earlier meant that there were a lot of other responsibilities that slowly began to be spooned onto Tony’s already-full plate. He was a team player and loved the church, so he pitched in and did what he could to help out. What were a few more meetings if it meant helping the church find stability and encourage congregation members to grow spiritually?
Tony found himself doing less and less work in the ministry area for which he’d been hired, and more and more church administration and preaching. When the embattled senior pastor resigned, the elder board came to Tony and said, “We believe you’re God’s man for the job.” When he told them he wasn’t sure he was qualified or gifted for the position, they told him to stop being so modest. “God equips those he calls, and we believe he is calling you.”
Tony was right. The new job required gifts that God had not given him. His young family was depending on his paycheck, so after begging God to help him serve well, Tony quietly set about trying to learn the skills he knew he was lacking. He couldn’t duplicate spiritual gifting, but he decided he could apply himself to become a master craftsman, studying other pastors’ sermons and attending leadership conferences. Maybe that would be enough to carry the church through this unsettling season.
Tony also knew that doing a job he wasn’t gifted, skilled or qualified for was usually a recipe for burnout. He banked on the “usually” and kept marching forward like the good soldier he was. He found the role alternately flattering (“They need me!”) and draining (“I can’t possibly do this job!”), but the press of responsibilities didn’t allow him much time for reflection. When he did get away for personal retreat time or vacation, he mostly fantasized about running as far away from the church as he could get. He knew that wasn’t a good sign, but as soon as he got back in the office, he shoved down his doubts, put his nose to the grindstone and kept doing his job. You could almost smell the smoke as he burned out.
Tony stayed in the position for several years. He had a slow transition from being a problem-solver to being a problem. He had become someone he didn’t recognize in his oversized lead pastor role: harsh, unforgiving, cold.
But the church’s leadership team, still smarting from the mess of a few years earlier, had no stomach for doing the hard thing and relieving Tony of his position. Instead, they all kept insisting that he was God’s man for the job, and they were very aggressive in their policing of their belief in the congregation, particularly among some of the congregants who’d begun to voice complaints about Tony’s harsh style. His leadership team buttressed their support of Tony using a variation of the old favorite “Touch not God’s anointed”. If someone complained, the person was labeled a problem. It was a short-cut way to maintain unity, but the strategy backfired in slow motion over several years.
The church’s numbers eroded during Tony’s tenure, and the church went through one band-aid program after another trying to pull Tony and themselves through. Finally, the recent economic crisis meant that Tony was going to have to take a significant salary cut. After nearly a decade, he resigned. After all, he has a family to feed. And the truth is, Tony isn’t even sure who he is or what he believes anymore. He is trying to figure it out – and my prayers are with him as he does.
If you’ve been involved in church life, you may know a similar story: a pastor who shouldn’t be pastoring, a ministry head who is a little intoxicated with her own power, a leader who brings his own agenda into the role, another who manipulated and politicked her way into her position. Last night, at dinner with some friends, we were talking about a dynamic similar to Tony’s story above. One person at the table said, “God puts leaders in their positions.”
I chafed a bit. This is often the handle of the “Touch not God’s anointed” club used to silence question-askers in dysfunctional churches. It’s true, I suppose, that if God really wanted these toxic characters out of the way, he’d get them out of the way. And a quick skim through Scripture shows that God is indeed willing to leave all sorts of really evil leaders in place, even though the only thing they do well is lead people into sin and rebellion. I agree that there is a larger purpose at work as a redemptive story is written across history.
But I can’t lie. I struggle with this issue. I see the short-sighted, political decision-making of a congregational leadership team (and then years of terrible attempts to buttress their decisions) and I can’t see the connection.
How exactly was God responsible for putting (and keeping) a guy like Tony in his position?
And how should I respond (in addition to prayer) to leaders who perhaps got dragged or manipulated their way into their role? Am I to “touch not God’s anointed”?
*not his real name
2 thoughts on “God’s man for the job?”
Thanks for sharing Tony's story. I have known many people in ministry who are exceptionally gifted and who are quite successful. On the other hand, I have also known people who, for many reasons, have entered ministry and stayed there despite being unsuccessful. They, like Tony, have been encouraged by other Christians to stay.
Sometimes their friends have reminded them of the passage from Romans that "the gifts and call of God are without repentance." The biblical principle appealed to here has to do with the call of God to ordained ministry being irrevocable regardless of how ineffective we are or how miserable it makes us. A quick review of this popular passage reveals that Paul is addressing God's unique relationship to Israel. Any derived principle pertaining to a ministry calling is weak and tenuous, at best. The truth is God calls us all into relationship with him, and he occasionally calls us into one direction for awhile (as he did to Paul who was called to Macedonia in a dream) and then into another direction–each for his purpose.
The main issue that Tony and those like him in ministry face is that of persistence in the absence of success. The biblical principle here has to do with fruitfulness. Fruit is the produce of a person finding his true calling in God's service. This fruit may be in the form of lives transformed through his influence, or his church or ministry growing, or new churches being planted.
Continuing the biblical imagery, every tree that does not bear fruit will be–and should be–cut down. This may sound harsh, but the best gift we can give a person who has been misplaced in ministry is to help him find where he will be properly planted and watered–even if that means in secular employment.
I believe God may have been responsible for giving Tony a ministry; but he certainly can't be held responsible for putting Tony into THE MINISTRY as a pastor—or for keeping there. Some people will be far more effective as volunteers in ministry bearing fruit without the responsibility and pressure of pastoral ministry.
Thanks, Don K, for your wise insight. It is amazing how a few Bible verses yanked out of context and applied to human agendas can shackle people (and organizations) to fruitless ways of functioning.
The challenge is in trying to assess whether a fruitless season of ministry is due to a poor match between a person's gifts and the ministry role/responsibility or whether it is just a hard season ordained by God to grow a person's perseverance. How do you discern which is which?