There was a time early in my ministry when I was overcome by the pressures of the congregation. It seemed that I was encountering low-key opposition and resistance everywhere I turned. The harder I worked, the more ineffective I felt. I was praying and journaling about my struggles for several weeks. One day I began my journal entry, “Lord, I am so tired and discouraged. I know you called me to be the servant of this congregation…”
Suddenly it was if the Lord interrupted and seemed to say, “No I didn’t!”
“Excuse me?!” I replied.
“Yes, I called you to serve this congregation, but you are MY servant. You are not to take orders from them, trying to please them in every way. You do not ultimately answer to them. You answer to me.”
I immediately thought of the Bible verses that says, “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not [your masters], knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24 RSV).
Since then, I have learned to say to myself, “I am not the servant of this congregation. I am the servant of Jesus Christ assigned to this congregation at this time.” That simple change in perspective has had a profound impact on my sense of direction and differentiation from the congregations to which God has called me.
Now, you may be thinking, “Well, that’s great for pastors, but in the Real World, it doesn’t work like that.” First, we could have a wonderful discussion about what “the Real World” is! What’s more real than God and spiritual matters and being a part of God’s continuing work in this world — where we pray God’s “kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?? Still, I know what you mean: In the “real world” of institutions and organizations and people who do not operate on the plane of the highest of spiritual values and principles, this sounds unrealistic. But let’s test it out.
Whenever we consider our place in this world, we have a choice about how we “frame” our understanding. In the case or work, we ask ourselves questions like,
“Does my faith affect my work in any way? If so, how?”
“How will I honor the Lord in the everyday routine and demands of this job?”
“How does this job affect my sense of self and my participation in God’s continuing work in this world?”
I’m focusing on just one aspect of a “theology of work” here– so realize this is part of a much larger conversation. The key question is: Who’s my real Boss? That’s not just a questions for pastors and people in vocational ministry, serving churches and parachurch organizations (like Young Life, CRU, World Vision). That’s one of the implications what Paul’s advice to the people in Colossae. In the verses immediately preceding the quote above Paul said, “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Colossians 3:22 ESV).
This the exhortation to slaves or bond-servants gives us a framework for approaching our work. Our ultimate motive is honoring the Lord. That perspective brings relief, refocus and responsibility.
Relief. When this thought first came to me, I was relieved. My stress level went down because I suddenly “resigned” from having over 500 bosses to having One. I continued to give my best efforts, motivated by honoring God, not pleasing everyone.
In any workplace, it’s a relief to remind ourselves continually that we are serving the Lord and others in practical ways in and through this job. This will actually make us more effective workers, as we’ll consider in a moment.
Refocus. People-pleasing is a no-win strategy, especially when we realize the limitations of our earthly job circumstance and of our peers, subordinates and supervisors. Paul wrote in Galatians 1:10, Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.
When we live for an audience of One, we live differently. We have a different perspective on people. We value them as individuals created in God’s image without fearing them (Psalm 27:1) or giving them the power to define us. We value ourselves and work on appropriate assertiveness and boundaries. We tell ourselves, to paraphrase Rich Kriegbaum in Leadership Prayers, “This is not who I am, Lord. It’s just what I do.”
Responsibility. This posture does not make our job easier. It will likely make it more “difficult,” but in a healthy way. We actually will work more effectively and conscientiously when we keep our eyes on the Lord. We will ask ourselves important questions, beginning with, “Lord, why do you have me here at this time?” It may be as a healthy presence in the workplace, as an example of a different way to do things, as another voice to speak into the relationships. Instead of asking, “What can I get away with? How little can I do?” we will ask, “Lord, how can I do this in a way that will encourage people to think well of You?”
When we think this way, work becomes a ministry, not just a way to get a paycheck.
Ecclesiastes 3:22 says, “So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot.” Work is not a curse, but it is affected by the curse, and that affects our expectations. Remind yourself continually that, no matter where you are, you know you are working for the best, most gracious Boss of all.