Early in my marriage, I found myself cruising down the Oklahoma backroads with my wife’s grandfather, a yarn-spinning, hard-working, life-loving cattle rancher who never met a speed limit sign he wasn’t willing to disobey. Just a tick past dawn, we were on our way to feed some cattle and had just come from the local gas station after picking up some cheap coffee and snacks to substitute for the breakfast call through which I’d slept.
After quickly pounding a bag of Donettes, I asked my driver where he’d like me to stow my trash. Holding out his hand, he simply said, “Right here, son.” I obliged his request; he then took my trash, proceeded chuck it out of the window, turned to me, and said, “It ain’t littering; it’s job creation.” Now, lest you be misled by this singular tale, I assure you this man’s life was a beautiful picture of what it means to honor the Lord by serving tirelessly and giving generously. Matters of ecology just weren’t topping the priority charts, I suppose.
But as I recall this story, I don’t feel a pressing need to exhort you to honestly admit your environmental faux pas, as if you generally chuck trash out car windows and claim to be a Robin Hood-esque do-gooder. Instead, I feel it more appropriate to encourage you to think about and hopefully avoid a much more common form of litter that can occur in your work as a church planter and leader: relational litter.
1. Relationships are your business.
If you’ve submitted your life to the call of church planting and church leadership, you cannot escape the fact that you’ve entered into a relational work. Your effectiveness in ministry, for better or worse, is going to be influenced by your ability to live out the call from Romans 12 to “as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all men.” You’ve submitted yourself to a high calling, and there will be a million concerns that come your way. You will have more on your plate than a person can actually accomplish, but you must not forget this: part of your job is to model in front of your people the relational nature we see in the communion shared within the Trinity.
In the relationships you establish with the people God entrusts to your care, part of your calling is to portray, in relationship with your people, the joyous fellowship eternally shared between the Father, Son, and Spirit. This is a noble calling, yet relationships are not without risk. The more deeply you pursue relationships in ministry, the more potential there is for natural relational friction to morph into bitterness, discord, frustration, and disappointment, thereby leaving litter to exist where there ought to be the familial unity Jesus himself prayed for in John 17.
2. Don't be absent.
Perhaps one of the easiest ways we can create this relational litter is by being relationally absent, whether our absence be emotional, mental, or physical. Perhaps this can be illustrated within the act of gardening. A gardener must commit himself to being in the garden, getting his hands dirty, tending faithfully to his plants to see sustained, fruitful growth. For example, my wife and I planted a small garden last year, and as first-time gardeners, we were negligent. Because our vines took off so fast, we just assumed our squash crop was self-sustaining.
We thought this, however, until our bountiful vines all died via an unnoticed invasion of vine-boring beetles in just two days. Oh, and FYI, once those devils move in, it’s all over but the crying. Thus, because we were not present in our garden, we allowed in a destructive presence that made our first foray into gardening a modest failure at best.
In your call to oversee and nurture God’s people, you cannot afford to take this approach. A lack of sincere presence among your people is a sure-fire recipe for the build up of litter that will manifest its presence among your people as did the presence of beetles in my first attempt at a garden. To prevent this, commit yourself to mental, emotional, and physical presence among your Wastepeople. If you so lack mental presence, distracted by micromanaging every detail of church operation such as printing bulletins, preparing schedules, setting up chairs, and making numerous Sunday morning details happen, that you can’t interact fully with your people, they’ll soon figure out that ministry systems and tasks outweigh the people they were designed to serve.
If you are not emotionally present, perhaps guarded and stoic or even just weary of fulfilling your call to bear one another’s burdens, people will catch on quickly that it’s not your priority to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” If you are not physically present, constantly off to conferences and external speaking engagements or protected behind so many systematically-outlined boundaries that connecting with you is like getting an audience with the Great and Powerful Oz, people won’t see you as their shepherd, but rather a corporate head they see in weekly company meetings.
Living a life of presence with your people has a cost; it will require time, energy, emotion, and resources. However, the long-term cost of allowing absence to choke your relationship to your flock with frustration, cynicism, indifference, or other relational litter is far greater.
3. Realize you'll mess up.
The harsh reality is that relational litter is, if not a certainty, at least very likely because both you and your flock are human. At times, you will disappoint them. You will knowingly or unknowingly, actively or passively hurt them. At times, you will do the absolute right thing and still find yourself stuck in relational messes! Yet, here is where you will have a golden opportunity to show what it means to live the gospel’s call to humbly seek restoration, reconciliation, and healing.
The temptation, when you find yourself accused of relational littering, might be to do as my wife’s grandfather and play off the relational trash that has been created as something other than what it really is: a wound that, regardless of justified or unjustified existence, still exists. The temptation may be to play it off as the other person’s problem, to tell them they just aren’t seeing the big picture.
Or, you may find yourself tempted to excuse your behavior citing your personality type as justification for the offending behavior. You may even want to spin the perceived wrong as some kind of virtue on your part, perhaps claiming something like, “I’m sorry I couldn’t talk, but I just have to protect my Tuesday afternoon study time.”
Here’s the bottom line:
When people are wounded, they don’t need explanations, excuses, or clever spins. They need you to care that they’re wounded. They need you to bind up their wounds, not gash them open. And here is the best way I’ve found to communicate that you care and want nothing more than a relationship to be restored to unity. Ditch the word “but” and start using “and.” For example, if someone is offended because you haven’t returned their call from last week, instead of hitting them with “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I’ve just been so busy with church stuff,” try this instead: “I’m sorry you feel that way, AND I want to do what it takes to make things right.” To offer an apology that can’t be unhinged from an excuse designed to guard your own ego is just another way to toss more salt in the wound of the offended, adding to the relational litter you should be more concerned about cleaning up.
4. Create a garden where relationship thrives.
Your desire to do this work is to be commended; God has put a unique and honorable call on your life and you have responded boldly. In this work, I pray that as you lead in the creation of a new local body of believers, you’ll diligently remember that the relationships you build will be the garden where your ministry will flourish or flounder. While littering this garden with relational trash can choke out and stifle your effectiveness among your people, by diligently being on guard (and bringing along your leadership to help you guard yourself) against relational litter, and by having the humility and boldness to own and pick up trash even when no one else will, you lay the groundwork for the type of deep, abiding, God-honoring fellowship in which ministry can thrive.