Note from Eric: If you haven’t signed up for our Ranch Retreat yet, the registration deadline is TOMORROW, SEPTEMBER 29th. Kent Sanders, today’s guest writer, will be there! We’d love to have you join us! Click here to sign up.
by Kent Sanders
“No one would know if we skipped church today.”
Those were the first words that crossed my mind when I woke up. It was a Sunday morning in February, 2004. My wife Melanie and I had just concluded a 7-year ministry in Streator, Illinois. I was a full-time worship leader, and she had been the children’s ministry director for several years before taking a position at a local preschool.
For a few months before that, I had been in contact with St. Louis Christian College in Florissant, Missouri. It was my alma mater, and they were interested in me coming as the Professor of Worship. It was the perfect opportunity to move closer to family and have a position of greater influence. I wouldn’t only be leading worship; I would get to train future worship leaders.
After accepting the position and resigning from the church, we moved to St. Louis to start our new lives. On our first Sunday in our new home, I woke up realizing that for the first time in over seven years, coordinating or leading a worship service was not my responsibility.
In many ways, it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I could go to church and be a “regular” person. But I was also scared because I had let go of a position where I was so comfortable. It was the first time since graduating from college that I was not a paid church staff member.
It was a transition that would shape me in many ways. I have had several part-time ministries since I left Streator, but it’s been ten years since I’ve worked full-time at a church. As I reflect on that transition and what I’ve learned about being a church member, I can boil it down to five key lessons that have helped strengthen my faith. I’ll also offer some questions for reflection after each lesson.
1. You must choose to get involved.
In ministry leadership circles, you often hear about the need to get people involved. At St. Louis Christian College, we even have a degree program in Discipleship & Involvement. One of the major concerns of the New Testament writers was that Christians have good relationships with one another. After all, we’re the body of Christ! And having good relationships means you must get involved.
Church leaders need to offer a variety of ways for people to get connected at church. But ultimately, church members must choose to get involved. That means you and I have to make a conscious choice to maintain relationships and be consistent in our church attendance. Is church attendance the only thing that matters? Of course not. But it’s hard to have deep relationships with people you never see.
Statistics tell us that the average church member attends services twice a month. What if I applied that same ratio to my marriage? If I decided I was only going to see my wife twice a week, things would go downhill pretty quickly. No one would maintain that you could maintain a vibrant, healthy marriage if you put time and effort into building that relationship.
Yet many times in the church, we will encounter people who aren’t happy with their church for various reasons. When you begin to dig a little, you will often find that they are not highly involved church members who are there to contribute.
When I stepped out of my role as a pastor, I had to reevaluate why I was involved at church. Up to that point, it was part of my job. But when that was no longer the case, I had the opportunity to get back to the basics of my faith and find a renewed commitment to the local church.
Question: Have you made a conscious choice to be a participating member of your local church? If so, what continues to motivate you? If not, what’s keeping you from being more involved?
2. You must distinguish between Ministry and ministry.
Yes, you read that correctly. There is a difference between “Ministry” (capitalized) and “ministry” (lowercase). Let me explain.
In the Bible, the word “ministry” literally means “service.” Specifically, it refers to service that’s done for others in the name of Christ. But your view of ministry can be very different depending on your vocation.
As a pastor, I tended to focus on the vocational side of ministry. I viewed my church staff position as a Ministry because I had dedicated my life to Christian service. It’s not that I didn’t believe people in other vocations weren’t doing ministry. It’s just that when you graduate with a ministry degree from a Christian college, it’s easy to view your church role as something sacred and special among vocations.
But what happens when you no longer have that position, that role of being in Ministry? This is the situation I faced when I became a church member instead of a paid pastor. I was no longer in a leadership role and had to rediscover what it meant to be “in ministry.”
When I began to look at vocational ministry as an outsider, I saw things in a new light. I discovered that being “in ministry” didn’t mean you received a paycheck from a church or had a special title. Being “in ministry” meant that you approached all of your work, no matter what type, as a service to Christ and to the world. It doesn’t mean that pastors are any less important; it means that we’re all of equal importance.
To be quite frank, I had serious workaholic tendencies in my twenties, when I worked at a church. My identity was completely wrapped up in my church position. This wasn’t because I was overworked or had unfair expectations; it was because I didn’t really understand who I was. I saw myself first and foremost as a Minister—a church staff member.
When I stepped away from that position, I had an identity crisis for about two years. I was so wrapped up in my church position that I often missed the bigger picture of what ministry is all about.
Pastors are important! They are of course doing ministry through their service to the church. But you have a ministry as well, in your work, in your family, and wherever you find yourself. You may not be leading or preaching, but if you’re a Christian, you are most definitely called to serve others in the name of Christ.
Question: Do you view your work as a ministry? How can you serve Christ and the world through your vocation?
3. You must develop a hunger for God.
As a pastor, it was my job to know and teach the Bible. I wasn’t preaching every Sunday, but I was definitely teaching the Word through worship songs, at rehearsals, through my writing, and other avenues. In a sense, it’s a pastor’s job to be “spiritual” because your life is focused on the church’s program.
But once I was out of that role, there was less external structure to ensure that I was interacting with God’s Word and involved at church. I was surprised to discover that it was much harder than I thought to maintain the discipline of “feeding myself” spiritually.
I have tried all kinds of things over the years to help me be disciplined with my Bible reading. (Bible reading is not the only element to your faith, of course, but it’s a key habit for growing in your faith, so I’ll focus on it here.) I’ve tried Bible reading plans. I’ve tried Bible apps on my phone. I’ve tried devotional books. I’ve tried study Bibles with all the notes, maps, bells and whistles you could want. I’ve tried Bibles that included only the text (no chapter and verse numbers). If they sell it in a Christian bookstore, I’ve probably tried it.
What I’ve learned is that tools can be very helpful, but they can’t make you hungry for God. I came to a place in my life where I didn’t want to continue trying to do life on my own. I was too proud to admit that I wasn’t smart enough or enough to figure things out by myself. I had to first be broken in order to be made whole.
If you are experiencing some kind of pain or loss in life, don’t let it drive you away from God. Let it drive you to him, to a place where you have utter dependency on his healing, wisdom and grace.
Question: On a scale of 1 to 10, how hungry are you for God’s work in your life? If you don’t feel much of a drive towards God these days, what might be the cause?
4. You must learn to follow, not just lead.
As a worship leader, I was used to being on stage nearly every Sunday, leading the congregation. It was exhausting, but also exhilarating. It’s a great feeling to know that the songs you’ve chosen, the volunteers in your ministry, and the organization you’ve put into church services have all come together to create something that changes lives.
But what happens when you’re not in charge anymore?
This is exactly the dilemma I found myself in when we became involved in our new church. I wasn’t a worship leader anymore; I was a volunteer in another person’s ministry. The worship leader and I were great friends, but as a musician in his ministry I sometimes thought, “Gee, that’s not the way I would do that,” or “That’s not the way you should arrange that song.”
It took a long time for me to get comfortable in the role of a follower when I had been a leader for so long. But over time I found a new role: not as a church staff person in charge of a ministry area, but as a volunteer who was a supporter and encourager to the church staff.
I had something few other people in the church had: I was a volunteer who knew what ministry was like. I knew it can be exhausting and emotionally draining. I accepted the fact that I wasn’t always on stage, but could play an important behind-the-scenes role at our church.
We talk a lot about leadership in the Christian community, but you seldom hear about “followership.” You must learn to follow before you can lead.
Question: Do you make it easier for your pastor to lead you, by being a good follower who is supportive and encouraging?
5. You must learn to live a balanced life.
One of the most surprising things I experienced after transitioning out of paid ministry was that I didn’t have to be involved in everything at church. As a staff member, my life basically revolved around the church calendar: hospital calls, staff meetings, planning sessions, worship rehearsals, Sunday services, and many other events. In many ways I assumed that all our church volunteers shared the same sentiment that church events take priority over nearly everything else.
But as a volunteer, I had the freedom to choose how much, and in what ways, to be involved. I quickly discovered that my life no longer revolved around the church schedule. I learned to say “no” to some things because I now had a different job and a growing family. I became more discerning about how I would spend my time.
This was a major shift in my thinking from when I worked at the church. I don’t want to give the impression that my former church asked too much of its staff; that wasn’t the case. In fact, the senior minister set a stellar example of going home at a reasonable hour and spending time with his family. But I was a workaholic who loved his job and thought about it night and day. I just assumed everyone else did the same.
Thankfully, I have changed a lot over the years, and have a much more sane view of ministry these days!
It can be difficult to say “no” sometimes and set boundaries, but you can only be involved in so many things. Find what you are passionate about and give your efforts to that area of ministry. Having a balanced life means that you are healthier and more productive, and your church enjoys the blessing of having a fully committed, energized you!
Question: Have you set healthy boundaries in your life regarding church involvement? If not, what can you do to help ensure that your life doesn’t become out of balance?
A word to pastors: Although this article was written for church members, I hope that you resonate with it as well. Whether you’ve been leading God’s people for a few years or a few decades, it’s important to take these lessons to heart. They apply equally to pastors as they do to church leaders . . . perhaps even more so since it’s so easy to allow church work to consume your life.
Life is full of transitions, but they can be so much better when we walk through them together. As the Bible says:
“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).
If you’re like me and sometimes think, “No one would know if I skipped church today,” I hope you’ll learn from what I’ve learned:
- Choose to get involved, because getting involved will build good relationships that are helpful both to you and to those with whom you interact;
- Distinguish between Ministry and ministry, serving others in the name of Christ regardless of where God has placed you;
- Develop a hunger for God, both by stoking the fire of your faith by reading his word, and by realizing your utter dependence on him;
- Learn to follow, not just lead, by encouraging those who lead you so they can lead even more effectively; and
- Learn to live a balanced life, setting boundaries and saying “no” to some things so you can say “yes” to others with your full energy and commitment.
Kent Sanders writes on art and creativity at kentsanders.net. He is also Professor of Worship at St. Louis Christian College in Florissant, MO. You can connect with him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.
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Kent Sanders will be joining us from St. Louis for our 2nd Annual Ranch Retreat on October 10-12. We’d love to have you join us! Registration ends TOMORROW, SEPTEMBER 29th.
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