I recently finished up ten years in pastoral ministry and I keep wishing I had a time machine. Not only would I tell the younger pastoral version of myself to emphasize faithfulness and to pray more, but I have a few more that are on my mind (scrawled on a piece of paper that as sitting in my car—which has since been lost in the roughly six months it has taken me to restart this series).
Any time you enter into a ministry job (I think this might generalize to other jobs, but I’m not sure) there is an (often) unstated expectation that you’ll start changing things around. “Where are we headed?” becomes a pretty normal question. Different people have different expectations for their church, and they want to know what you are going to do, and how you are going to do it. That’s all fine and good—I might be the same if the roles were reversed—but these questions put a unique pressure on ministry leaders to get something done and to get it done quickly.
However, discipleship doesn’t happen quickly.
If I could, I’d tell the 20-something version of myself to relax, not try and do too much too soon, and start investing in a few. Why? Because that’s how Jesus approached it.
12 During those days he went out to the mountain to pray and spent all night in prayer to God. 13 When daylight came, he summoned his disciples, and he chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; James and John; Philip and Bartholomew; 15 Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called the Zealot; 16 Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.Luke 6:12-16
Jesus prayed for those in whom he might invest and then invited them into a relationship. It is fairly straightforward—well, not fairly, it is straightforward. That doesn’t stop us from trying to make ministry life incredibly complex.
I say this phrase regularly (and it is something I share in our membership class every time we talk about discipleship): there is no more important thing you can do but invest your life in a few. (Well, the way I say it doesn’t usually rhyme, but it works out for this post). I think that we all know that this is the case, but we don’t often live like it. We want to make a bigger impact, draw a bigger crowd, or be known for bigger endeavors.
However, it is the simple act of walking alongside people for a period of time, rinsing, and repeating, that bears fruit. Now, when I speak about investing in a few, I have a specific framework in mind. I think of inviting a small group of folks into a regular time of prayer, discussion of the Scripture, and accountability. What are some of the benefits of this type of environment?
You Get Time to See Who People Are
Preachers have all types of cliche statements. One that often gets thrown around is, “Discipleship is a crockpot, not a microwave.” You can actually use that phrase about anything—exercise, dieting, learning a new skill, whatever. Cliches are great.
When you invest in people at a regular rhythm over time you can’t hide; you start to see who people are. Do they talk a big game about Jesus but can’t really back it up? How is their marriage really going? Are they actually able to keep their commitment? What happens when pain or disappointment shows up in their life? How do they handle it?
Some of my favorite discipleship stories with Jesus are when Jesus overhears the disciples having some type of argument or discussion about something he said or something they think should happen. These little glimpses into the monotony of ministry life encourage me—and also help to know how to pray, what to pray for, and ways you hope people in your life can continue to mature. These moments don’t happen without regular meetings with folks over time.
*You* Can’t Hide
As a corollary, when you invest in a small group of people over time, you aren’t able to hide. As a pastor, hiding can get easy. You can build your life around people only seeing the best parts of you while the worst parts of you thrive in darkness.
People can’t hide from you when you meet with them regularly and purposefully, nor can you hide from them. Others start to see where you struggle; they start to see your imperfections; they realize your marriage has issues; they notice you fail your kids and lash out in anger.
Pastors, this is a good thing. Go too long without being seen, and you become too embarrassed to be seen. You don’t want this. It only causes problems for you down the line. You need to be known.
You See the Long-Term Impact
Convincing people to invest in a few people over time (and then doing it again) is difficult work. It is slow work. It is steady relational plodding that many of us don’t have much time for—it seems like a waste. It seems like grunt work.
Well, it isn’t a waste, but it is grunt work. You sometimes don’t see the fruit for years to come.
However, if you stick it out and those you invest in commit to do the same when their time with you is done (Matt 28:18-20), you begin to follow a train of ministry that you would have never expected. Such fruit might not be seen for 2, 3, 4, or 10 years, but it is there—slowly working, slowly growing, slowly transforming. You never bat 1.000 at it—people fall off, get tired, step back, take a break, etc.—but in time you begin to see work you would’ve never imagined. You start to see people invest in others who then invest in others (2 Tim 2:2). It becomes awe-inspiring.
A big part of my livelihood is preaching, and I’m grateful for that. However, the return on investment is almost always higher in the trenches—where you gather with a few, for a season, with the prayerful expectation that God will do a great work.
Over time, you realize that maybe—just maybe—Jesus knew what he was doing.