People are important. People are even more important than ministry. That is, the well-being of people is more valuable than my ministry goals or objectives. I may want to see my church grow, but I might be sharing a cup of coffee with someone who would be better served going another direction, at least for now. I may be really anxious to recruit someone to grow my leadership team, but they may need to focus on family or personal health. Resisting the temptation to pressure or persuade them to “soldier on” rather than live healthy and whole lives is a discipline that puts them above my need to succeed as a leader of a ministry. Of course I know Jesus’ words about sacrifice and commitment. I know them well. I believe them and try to live them as consistently as I can. But I remember other things Jesus has said too.
As the founding director of a ministry organization, I am constantly reminded of Jesus’ words– “Sabbath is made for man; not man for the Sabbath.” In Jesus’ setting, religious traditions and practices were being elevated above the welfare of ordinary people simply struggling to survive. Wanting everyone to conform to their standards, the religious elite missed the purpose of Sabbath altogether. A day of rest was meant to serve people. It was to be humane to servants, day laborers, the poor, and even the beasts of burden. However, upholding the institution of Sabbath even at human costs had overshadowed the purpose at the heart of Sabbath. Jesus reminds his hearers that these religious practices and human institutions are intended to increase Shalom for those who need it most; not an idol to be served. It is not difficult to forget Jesus’ words and to make a ministry program or organization the object of service rather than the other way around. Our organizations — mine and yours — are good, and they exist to serve people in the name of God’s Kingdom. They exist for the sake of people to glorify God. I pray that I don’t ever forget that conviction even when it might cost me professionally.
I’ve been in the missions world for around 20 years, and I’ve been serving in the same city for 14 years. As a result, I’ve also seen the long-term fruit of valuing people above my ministry goals, church growth, or organizational objectives. An individual came into our ministry at a time when we were at a low point — especially in numbers of people. My temptation was obvious, but he had already experienced lots of pressure tactics, so it was obvious that he needed the freedom to stay or to go. He didn’t stay. But years later, when he was making decisions about his spiritual life, he placed his trust in us. As a result, he helped launch a whole new church planting network. As I was starting GCMI, one of our very first missionary candidates needed to take care of family needs and withdraw from joining our team. Starting my organization would be one step slower, but the only conversations that really mattered were the ones that demonstrated sincere care for his family. Three years later, we are partnering to launch new disciple-making initiatives together. Sometimes giving up immediate gains can also result in healthier long term relationships that glorify God and advance his mission in ways that we couldn’t have foreseen.
Many times we stand at the crossroads. Do we value the welfare of people, or do we pressure people to benefit the welfare of our ministry profession or program? After of years of ministry leadership, this has become one of the lessons that has challenged by personal ego while simultaneously has benefited my soul. I can’t say that I’ve done right every time. I know I haven’t. But I hope that I never stop being convicted by Jesus’ words: “Sabbath is made for man; not man for the Sabbath” And I hope I never stop recognizing how generously this teaching should be applied.