I was looking forward to a spiritual formation meeting I was leading for a group of pastors. Facilitating for others a safe place for them to share honestly and experience intimacy with Jesus brings me such joy!
For this meeting I had prayed about what to share with the pastors and believed that God gave me a message that would help us to open our hearts to the Lord Jesus and one another. I had prepared a handout with a Soul Shepherding exercise from Scripture to guide our time of prayer and reflection. I had arranged our room to meet in. Most important of all, I had submitted the meeting to Jesus to lead and had prayed for each group member by name.
The time came to gather with my friends at the feet of Jesus! Everything was ready. I sat and prayed as I waited for people to arrive. I waited and prayed. I waited and prayed some more. Five minutes went by. Fifteen minutes. I kept waiting and praying. No one came! I was all alone for two hours.
It can be lonely to be a ministry leader.
The Disappointments of Leadership
Have you ever experienced a disappointment like that? The pastors and other Christ-followers I minister to have. Probably you have too.
Maybe it was an open house to help you sell your home or a party. You scheduled the event and set aside the time for it. You cleaned and prepared your home to make it nice. But no one showed up.
Maybe it was a Bible study group, class, or prayer meeting. You were the only one there!
At times like this in the past I’ve felt discouraged and depressed. I’ve felt rejected and insignificant. I’ve felt impatient, frustrated, perhaps angry at people who said they’d come but didn’t. I’ve felt sorry for myself and regret for all the preparation I put in. I’ve even felt like I wanted to give up the larger effort that the meeting or event was an expression of.
Over the years I’ve talked with a number of pastors and ministry leaders and they’ve shared similar experiences and emotions with me.
From Self-Pity to Appreciating Jesus
In recent years I have learned not to react to my emotions in that way. Of course, I may still feel disappointed in these situations and I may even start to slide into some of the other more negative emotions, but normally I don’t spiral down into depression or react with anger. I don’t question what God has called me to do or my capacity with his help to carry that out. (That’s already been confirmed and re-confirmed years ago.)
I’ve learned that when nobody shows up for the group I planned it’s not about me — it’s about them and their schedules, their stress, their ambivalence.
More than that I’ve learned to remember that Jesus experienced people disappointing him. Again and again he gave all he had to people and he was criticized, rejected, abandoned. Nobody — not one single person — truly understood what he gave his life to, why he came to earth, and why he suffered and died on the cross. Throughout his lifetime the people he ministered to rejected him and his mission. Even his family, friends, and disciples didn’t really get what he was about until after he died and rose from the dead. (Thank God at least 120 of them did understand him at that point!)
Why do we think things should go better for us? Why do we think that people shouldn’t disappoint us?
Sweet Intimacy with Jesus
In that meeting that no one showed up for I wasn’t alone! When I focus on Jesus — his life laid out before me in the Gospels, his presence with me in the moment — I realize that I’m not alone!
When I am disappointed by people or circumstances I have been learning with the great Apostle of the Lord to focus on the one thing that really matters and that nobody can ever take away from me: “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Truly, with Paul, “I want to know Christ… and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings… and so somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8, 10-11).
In whatever trial I find myself — whether little or large — I want to consider prayerfully how Jesus experienced a similar difficulty so that my faith can be refined and purified as gold in a furnace. In doing this I have discovered a sweet intimacy with Jesus that transports me into the Kingdom of God with him. Jesus cares for me and teaches me many wonderful new insights about holiness, the life that is truly life, and how by relying on his grace I can become more like him, more loving toward God and others no matter how painful or unfair my circumstances are.
It’s Not so Much about the Numbers
In ministry and in all kinds of event planning we pastors and leaders focus too much on numbers! We try too hard to get people to come by advertising and pushing. We worry about outcomes that we are not responsible for and have no control over. We have problems with ambition and trying to control things. No wonder we’re so stressed!
Years ago when I talked with Ray Ortlund Sr. about the retreats and other gatherings I was leading he always told me: “Don’t worry about the numbers of people who come — focus on Christ in your midst. If God is not there it’s not a big meeting. But if God is there it’s HUGE!”
It’s okay if nobody shows up — Jesus showed up and he is all you need!