A friend of mine once confessed his secret ministry fantasy to me: Grow his church to place where it no longer required faith to lead it.
I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve struggled with the same fantasy. Get enough money, people, recognition, staff, volunteers, lay leaders, salary, book deals, and speaking gigs that we don’t need to depend on God for anything anymore. But in serving as a pastor and working with fellow pastors for many years, I’ve found two characteristics essential to do ministry in a way that depends on God: courage to be ordinary and comfort with obscurity.
Courage to Be Ordinary
One of my mentors often tells me, “It takes extraordinary courage to be ordinary.” For the longest time, I would nod in agreement but not believe him.
I needed to be extraordinary. When I replanted a church, I often over-functioned in my role as a pastor. I carried the entire weight of the church on my shoulders. I had my own scorecard full of the metrics that mattered to me. And one was becoming a self-supporting church.
“Pastor, you don’t have all the gifts the church needs. You need help.”
I prided myself on how quickly we achieved it, all the while hiding the fact that we became self-supporting because I was secretly functioning as the financial savior. I carried way too much of the financial burden. I was rarely honest about our monetary needs. I didn’t take the full benefits package the church offered me. I rarely turned in my reimbursements. And I did it for respect.
As pastors, we can often trade love for respect. We are afraid people won’t love our true selves, so we keep going, wearing ourselves out doing more than we are made to do to sustain the image of a successful pastor. We quietly say to ourselves, “I can’t stop or the whole thing will fall apart.”
It is exhausting and lonely to keep up that image. Jesus is the one to build his church, rest in being just one piece of his work in the world.
How to Be More Ordinary
Three things help us find the courage to be ordinary: vulnerability, suffering, and prayer.
Vulnerability is necessary to be ordinary because it embraces the limits of being human. You will not meet everyone’s expectation. You don’t have all the gifts the church needs. You need help.
For me, it meant letting my elders know that the church wasn’t really self-supporting, and we couldn’t afford all the ministry we were doing. I know admitting that kind of need sounds simple and silly; for me, it was nearly impossible. I felt exposed and ashamed. I admitted a competency failure, which can be harder to admit than a character failure.
“Jesus is the one to build his church, rest in being just one piece of his work in the world.”
In terms of suffering, it means whatever gain you have, you count as loss for the sake of Christ. You suffer the loss of all things in order to gain Jesus. You admit your limitations and put your resume and reputation at risk.
And finally, as you embrace your limitations, you will cry out to God in “Jesus only” prayers. My pastor, Geoff Bradford, introduced me to the idea of “Jesus only” prayers. A couple of years ago, he started making a list of things he longed to happen that only Jesus could make happen. And he started to pray for those things every day. I hear the massive problems and start looking for quick fixes. He keeps praying Jesus only prayers, and therefore often getting Jesus only answers.
Comfort with Obscurity
A number of years ago, I was at a conference where a friend was speaking. I spent a lot of time with him during a tough season in his ministry. He’s told me he wouldn’t still be pastoring without my help. But nobody knows that. As he started his talk with a litany of thanksgiving I thought, “It would be nice if he thanked me, too.” But he didn’t. I didn’t even get a head nod. I was surprised at how much it bothered me. I had done valuable ministry and I wanted others to know about it.
I remembered a question my friend Paul Miller encouraged me to ask in the midst of struggle and suffering: “How is Jesus inviting you to share in his story?” My mind went to last verse in John: “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Jesus did a lot of ministry in obscurity. If everything he did got tweeted, it would break Twitter.
“Most good ministry is rightly done in obscurity.”
Most ministry is rightly done in obscurity. My best stories are those that few will ever know. As hard as that is, I think that’s very appropriate. For in those cases, my Father sees, understands, appreciates, and affirms. And that’s enough. One day God will say to me, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21), and give me the “unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). Sometimes he gives me a foretaste of that through the affirmation and praise from others, but most of my ministry will be in obscurity.
The cannon is closed. Scripture is sufficient. Our stories don’t need to be recorded for eternity. Maybe a future church historian will use our ministry as a topic for his dissertation. Most of us will — to borrow a phrase — preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.
How to Be Obscure in the Right Way
Jesus increases; we decrease. His work is seen; ours is obscured. We need to fight to be comfortable with that. Again, vulnerability, suffering, and prayer can help.
Vulnerability will come as you lose public reputation in order to gain personal integrity. You will preach ordinary sermons. There will be good ministry you do that you can’t talk about or that won’t make a fundraising pitch. You are working with people; their stories of deliverance are theirs to share, not yours to glory in.
Suffering often comes in the form of contempt you feel from those who seem to get what you want — the church, the family, the lifestyle, the recognition — but do it in a way that seems to have little regard for God and his laws. Maybe they are other pastors. Maybe they are your pagan neighbors. Their lives seem better compared to yours.
I think that’s why Paul encouraged Timothy to do ministry a different way, even if it seemed like he wasn’t as successful as others in Ephesus who experienced success in ministry without a care for God or his word (see 1 Timothy 6:3–11). As we labor in relative obscurity, we pray that God would be pleased with our work and cause much eternal fruit to grow.
The Quiet Man of God
The courage to be ordinary and obscure can leave you in a place of quietness and peace. That’s important because we need to steward our soul long before we try to steward our ministry or influence. As Francis Schaeffer wrote, “The Christian leader should be a quiet man of God who is extruded by God’s grace into some place of leadership.”
Extruded is a good word. It means to be forced, like kids push Play-Doh through a die to get it into the shape they desire. This extrusion is, like all good things in our life, a gift of grace. Calm and quite your soul (Psalm 131:2). Let God force you into the ministry he knows you can sustain.