“What did you learn?“
Over the past 23 years of ministry, I have had the honor of working with interns to work alongside to learn about pastoral work, get a view of day-to-day ministry, and to experience some hands-on opportunities in church life. And my favorite question to ask anyone I’ve mentored is, “What did you learn?“
What’s the purpose of those 4 specific words? I think it’s essential to not only have an experience but to digest it and draw from it. If we do not stop to learn, we will continue down worn familiar paths because they are both comfortable and familiar. Without gleaning from what you’ve encountered, we will never trail-blaze new paths. Don’t get me wrong, the “worn familiar paths” are not necessarily wrong or sinful avenues to take. But often, we in ministry can get so used to what has become “routine,” we don’t ask if it is still “right” to do. Us, the church, gravitate to methods we’ve always known. We can tend to overly-criticize that which is unfamiliar. And like the children of Israel who’ve just been rescued from slavery, we cry out, “can’t we just go back?”
As we sit in this global pandemic, quarantined away from the crowds, we should be asking ourselves, “What have we learned?” instead of waiting to ask till it’s over. If not, we can quickly step into, what I call, the “Samson Syndrome.” And it comes from Judges 16:20.
“I will do as before and shake myself free.” But he didn’t realize the LORD had left him.
This champion of God, full unbelievable strength, and uncanny victories had a streak of poor decision making (to say the least). But when I think of his story, there is one aspect of that has always triggered my heart. Previously, he lied about what would make him weak. So he’d take a nap, get bound, hear that the enemy was near, get up, and deal with his foes.
Rinse and repeat.
Then the day came when he gave away the source of his might. When the same opposition came, he simply said, “I’ll just do what we’ve done before.” And that was the moment when his familial mindset and methods failed him. He sabotaged himself by taking what God had done within him for granted and staying in one mode instead of learning and maturing from previous experiences.
That, my friends, is the “Sampson Syndrome.”
The Wrong Way to Ask “The Question”
My simple question can be completely misunderstood because that’s what desperation does. It manipulates moments by painting circumstances in a panicked light. For some pastors leading through this, you’ve been in a bit of a frantic mode in the first few weeks of this quarantine time. I remember the amount of messages and phone calls I received giving me questions like:
What are you doing?
How do we record and post it live?
How do we visit people who need us?
How are people going to know where to view our services?
Do we need multiple online platforms?
How are we going to do offerings?
How are we going to do funerals, weddings, etc.? Is communion out of the picture?
What about small groups?
Please know that none of those were bad questions. Some churches were more prepared than others because they’d already developed a digital presence. Those first few weeks were a whirlwind for most churches. And I think we all learned a lot.
BUT…we shouldn’t ask “what did we learn to get us through?” If we do that, we only take inventory about how we navigated a moment of crisis. That’s fine and good. But to only draw out out of this season that morsel of information is to do a disservice to the time we find ourselves in. We shouldn’t be asking that question. You and I should be asking, “What did we learn in order to take the church us forward?” Because that, my friends, is how we truly learn from this. It is out of that mindset we can innovate, create, reshape, and propel His Kingdom forward. It becomes a place for the same creative Spirit who hovered over the deep (Genesis 1:2) to speak into us something innovative that will impact our communities His honor and for His glory.
What are you learning about the church being “the Church?
Sometimes us pastors can forget that it is not our job to do ministry but to equip others to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). And perhaps because of that faux pas, church leadership is currently experiencing an identity crisis. People are not leaning on us, perhaps, like they used to. Our congregations are serving each other. They are praying for each other. People are looking to help one another. They are being creative about serving the community. Because they have more home time than normal, they are prayer more, diving into scripture in ways they have not done before, and they are taking ownership of their spiritual lives.
I have heard it said for years that “we are to be a church without walls” to the point where I think of it as a cliche’. This quarantine has forced that to happen. And this should affect not only how we come out of quarantine but how we plan, organize, and implement ministry. What we do NEXT should be shaped out of what we are experiencing and seeing NOW.
What are you learning about what you gained?
The cynicism of our culture loves to draw from the negative. But I implore you: Don’t worry about what your church lost but focus on the revelation of what your church has come to understand. Here’s a couple examples:
I’ve gained a greater vision for my ministry ministry schedule?
It has been sobering (to say the least) to discover that people are not asking about the things I thought they’d miss. Nobody is griping about missing my preaching, my counseling, a class, nor an event. Nobody is complaining about the lack of hospital calls I do. Honestly, people have stopped calling me to ask to help someone as they see themselves possessing the ability to reach out instead of it being the pastor doing it. Thus, I’m rethinking about all of the tasks I had been investing my time into. I’m now wondering, in the world of post quarantine, how I should be spending my day-to-day time. Who and what do I need to be investing in that actually affects people and not just supports my ego and my need to be “needed”?
I’ve gained a greater understanding of what I need to disciple people in?
If our congregation’s spiritual lives plummeted because our Sunday service ceased to exist, then we have not done well with discipleship. If the substance of our church identity and the mission we are on falls apart because we cannot meet all together in one place, we have missed something completely. The quarantine has opened the eyes of us clergy and challenges us to repent of some of the mindsets behind our methods. The mission doesn’t serve the methods; the methods serve the mission. Our people were never meant to be pastorally dependent. They can have personal relationships with Christ that was meant to thrive in community with others. And sometimes that means “community” that happens outside of a Sunday. We need to be better at equipping people to flourish outside of Sunday AM.
From helping people to learn how to read the scriptures, to helping them engage in a consistent prayer life. We should be training people to hear and listen to the voice of the God for themselves instead of leaning solely upon church leadership to hear for them. How transformed would our communities be if we helped our congregations recognize and respond to needs around them instead of leaning on the pastor to be the savior of the situation? Yes, your church’s name wouldn’t be as well known as you’d like but His Church would be seen in every avenue around our cities, towns, and villages.
I’ve gained a greater vision for my personal schedule?
Lots of things. Just a few examples. I’ve rediscovered running all over. I forgot how much my physical health directly affects my spiritual, emotional, and mental health. My family time has been amazing as I’ve had great opportunities with the whole family, just my wife, or private time with each of my children. But the greatest learning point is this: I cannot go back to starving them, and myself, of quality family time and attention. This MUST change.
I know there could be so many more lessons listed, but that’s for you to dive into yourselves. My heart is this: we cannot afford to be like Sampson. At the end of this quarantine, let it not be said of us that our response post-quarantine was, “I’ll just do what we’ve done before.” Because if we do, we are in danger of missing great Kingdom creativity and opportunity. We will have squandered this time to learn and grow.
This is moment is laced with destiny. We are at an amazing time to launch forward having learned from our past and be willing to heed His voice to grow into an affective Church to be a light to this world.
Love you all. I’m praying for all of us as we move forward together.