It seemed like a good idea at the time. Why wouldn’t we buy a home, have our first child, and launch our first church service all within a two-month time frame? I remember those days with a smile, reflecting back on all the joys they contained, but they were not without their wounds.
In our first two-and-a-half years of planting, I averaged way too many hours, spent too many nights outside the home, gained 25 pounds, and worked weeks without a day off. I didn’t know how to get on top of all of the craziness. I wouldn’t have traded it for a moment, but in hindsight I am surprised we survived.
Ministry is emotionally draining, and church planting is no different (if not worse!). Regardless of your planting experience, you are bound to come across some serious stress levels. Many planters will have to be bivocational to provide for their families. Most planters will wear multiple hats from janitor to bookkeeper to chaplain. Smaller congregations will expect more from you, demanding a higher level of personalized attention than they would in a larger congregation. Couple this with the problems that follow no growth, hasty growth, a lack of clearly defined leaders, and spiritual attack; and you will soon find yourself emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically sapped. You may even start wondering, “Why am I doing this again?”
I first knew that I was desperately in need of rest when I began to notice these trends in my life:
● I was eating more than I had in years and found myself prone to unhealthy escapes (binge-watching Netflix on my day off, daydreaming about becoming a hermit in Alaska, etc.)
● I would slip into the habit of pastoring everyone else over my family. I knew this when my wife asked me, on many occasions, if she could make an appointment to see me.
● Making people feel burdensome, like it was one more thing on an already daunting list.
Now don’t get me wrong: conquering these things is neither simple nor quick, and we could devote article upon article to how we need to practically learn about things like delegation, leadership development, systems and so on and so forth; but my purpose today is to encourage you, more than anything else, to rest in the finished work of Christ.
Rest in the finished work of Christ for your identity.
The more you understand who you are in Christ, the less pressure you will put on yourself to meet some artificial rubric of what a successful church plant looks like. The words of Paul resound clearly, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10 ESV). For the church planter, pleasing man often means bowing to the whim of everyone around you (so that they stick around) or succumbing to your growing discontent that you aren’t as impressive with your 20-person congregation as the guy up the road with his 500-person congregation. In both situations, we are prone to idolatries of success and approval, trusting in a demented American-dream version of Christianity for our self-worth.
Hoping and praying for the largest possible impact for the glory of God is fine and well, but wrapping your identity into the success of your church is a one-way ticket to misery. God doesn’t need more “big dogs” for the kingdom of God, because he doesn’t share glory. Our job is to trust, obey, and get out of the way.
Trusting in the finished work of Christ for your identity means that you can rest well, knowing that what Jesus desires is obedience – not effectiveness. If God’s measuring rod for success was church size, then Ezekiel, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and even Jesus would be considered failures. You have value because of Christ’s work on the cross. You matter because of Christ’s work on the cross – big church or little church, thriving church or failed church. Your identity isn’t found in what you do, but in what Christ did. Rest in that Gospel truth; don’t just preach it from the pulpit and forget to preach it to the mirror.
Rest in the finished work of Christ for your peace.
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Jesus, clothed in the likeness of sinful flesh, rested. He withdrew from the crowds. He didn’t heal everyone, didn’t cast out every demon, and didn’t subject himself to the whim of every person. Jesus knew his task and knew that connectedness to the Father wasn’t a luxury but a necessity.
We, on the other hand, tend not to think that way. Sure, we’ve preached about Martin Luther getting up extra early to pray because he was so busy, and we may even share the anecdote as if it describes our lifestyle. But the reality is: We sat down to read our Bible app on our smartphone and started answering e-mails instead. We didn’t choose rest; we embraced work.
Finding peace in the midst of the mess is impossible if you live a life disconnected from God. The turning point for me was when I stopped prioritizing my schedule, and I started scheduling my priorities. This means that, on my calendar, I carve out long periods of devotional time with God, prayer, fasting, time with my family, and a full day off. I prioritize these things above all else, and then I make sure to have ample space for sermon preparation and leadership development. Everything else can wait. Everything else can be picked up by a helping hand. Everything else will somehow be figured out.
As I began to voraciously consume God’s Word and spend dedicated amounts of time in prayer, I found myself more productive and more at peace with where we were. The days when life happens and those rhythms are disrupted are the days that my wife and I immediately notice the impact. As a pastor, I am desperate for time with God – desperate for the access that his crucifixion and resurrection provided. When we casually toss that access aside for the sake of false productivity, our peace and our rest begin to dissipate. We have, like a dog returning to its vomit, embraced law over grace.
Rest in the finished work of Christ for your power.
Jesus is building his Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). You are not the last bastion of hope in the world. Just as Elijah was not the only faithful man left on the earth, God is not biting his nails wondering if you have the capacities to save mankind.
You don’t have the ability to make your lungs pump, to ensure that your synapses fire or to control the most basic of human functions. Don’t, for one second, believe the lie that God is depending on you. You are depending on God. You know that you have ceased to rely on God when you declare your independence from him by becoming a prayerless man. A prayerless man isn’t a rested man. A prayerless man is a defeated man.
All of ministry is overflow. The Holy Spirit working in us, revealing the glory of God with ever-increasing glory, is the same Spirit that illuminates others to the beauty of Christ. To carry the burden of the impossible – bringing the dead to life – on your shoulders isn’t just unwise, it’s stupid. If you truly believe that it is God who does the work, then you will spend more time with him (no, not studying for your sermon) and less time relying on your own faculties. There is a reason that the apostles in Acts 6:4 committed to devoting more time to prayer and the Word than anything else. Rest in the finished work of Christ for your power because you are powerless, but he who lives in you is powerful. His power, working through you, overflows when you abide in him.
The Christian life isn’t easy, but it is simple.
You need Jesus. You need time with him. You need it more than your congregation does, because you can only bring them as far as you are. You need to sit with him and reflect on the fact that your identity is now as an adopted co-heir with Christ. You need to laugh and weep with him as you experience his comfort and his peace. You need to march forward in confidence, knowing that the best thing you can give people is Jesus – not some brilliant ministry plan.
So stop making excuses. Let the chips fall where they may. Spend more time resting in the finished work of Christ, and find the comfort that your soul has been craving.