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The Next Faithful Step

I’m Responsible for Things I Cannot Control

A Pastor's Reflection

Tory had what she would call a significant spiritual awakening while I was pastoring her church. She had grown up in the church, had been a fairly active member from her childhood into adulthood, was on the call committee that brought me to the church, and was even recently ordained an elder. Of course, this sort of “high level” participation in the life and leadership of the church doesn’t always correspond to one’s depth of spirituality and Christian commitment. It is often the case in small churches (of course, not so small churches are not exempt from this) that leadership positions are filled by, well, those who don’t say “no.” In other words, committees formed to seek out leaders often find themselves fairly quickly asking less who possesses certain biblical leadership traits and more who will actually agree to go to the meetings. And so Tory was an elder. This is not at all to say that she had been somehow “bad.” She was just your standard “always gone to church” person who didn’t think too much about her faith/spirituality/the human condition/the surprisingly radical grace of God much. She would tell you this herself. There was a bit of a culture at the church that seemed to see church participation as on the same level with other social clubs—the Masons and American Legion, for us.

Things started to change for Tory, however, three or four months after I started at the church. She was beginning to find herself curious about what the Bible said and was developing a strong inclination to find ways to shape her life around it. She wanted Bible study. She wanted to come to prayer meetings. She wanted to read. She wanted to serve. And, most of all, she was getting excited about all of it. She actually wanted officer training so she could come to fuller understandings of what her ordination vows meant and what it meant to serve the God who has come to us not to be served but Himself to serve. She was joyful and it was fun.

Tory would tell the story something like this. When I came to the church I brought with me a new vision for the love and study of the Scriptures and a deep concern for shaping our individual and corporate lives around them. At some point this began to resonate with Tory and something clicked inside her—and it clicked hard. She began to have a new vision for herself, her work, and her activity at the church. She started new ministries and became our most careful and thoughtful elder (she would leave that part of the story out, but it is true nonetheless).

For my part, the things that Tory responded to were—at least at first—defensive tactics. It was my first call and I had no idea what to do. Organization has never been my passion and heading up a church was frightening. So I emphasized the things I could do and played it off like it was a conscious enacting of a vision. It worked and did eventually become the enacting of a real vision. But it was self-defense at the start. Looking back, this serves to underscore the reality that I was not in control. I felt fairly out of control—especially in those first several months at the church. The fact that I defensively stumbled upon an approach to pastoring a church that had a transformative effect on someone only demonstrated that the fruit of my decisions was not my own doing, as if I had enacted a careful plan and was achieving intended goals.

But it is also the case that God did not do what He did in Tory completely apart from me. This has nothing to do with any deep philosophical questions about what God could do (sometimes these questions can be just a cover for laziness or inactivity). The question is what God did do, and what God did do was work something transformative through something I was responsible for. God called me to pastor the church and it was my responsibility to care for the congregation and care for the Scriptures within the congregation. Whether God could have transformed Tory apart from what He called me to do in that congregation is an interesting question, but not one on which to base a course of action.

What happened in Tory was something I could not bring about or control. I could not have planned it and brought it into being. But I was responsible for her spiritual care and was to be held accountable for my pastoring. Paul said something like this to the Corinthians—“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” It may sound unfair to be responsible for things you cannot control. But think about it. My responsibilities aren’t a mystery. I basically know who and how I’m supposed to be. But bringing something like human transformation into being… that’s hard. Between me and God, it looks like I have it easier.