Like most people engaging in a new career, I made a lot of mistakes in my early years of ministry. I still make mistakes at this late stage of my career but hope that I have learned to avoid some of the more serious ones from the early days. A lot of the early problems came from not knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore–I hadn’t developed a sense of ministerial selective hearing.
I was noticing and seeing all sorts of things. This couple was obviously having a struggle in their marriage. That individual has an addiction problem. That teen is heading down the wrong road. Those parents are going to cause their child serious problems. This congregation really needs to understand their faith. That deacon is terrible at his calling. These people need to make more effort to share their faith. The things I was hearing and seeing were endless and with very little effort, I could easily have waded into the deep, murky waters of ministry and quickly been overwhelmed.
Fortunately, I had some fantastic mentors who helped me discover that seeing or hearing something wasn’t the same as being responsible for it. I learned that what I was hearing and seeing needed to be processed through some important filters that would help me determine what needed attention and what kind of attention it needed.
Among the filters I learned to use was an awareness of my limitations. Early in ministry, as a single pastor with no children, I might notice issues in marriages and in child rearing, but the real truth is that I had no experience with either and no credibility beyond that course I took, a course that really didn’t qualify me to intervene in such things.
I also learned to make use of the filter described in the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”. Some people are deeply attached to what I consider problems. They may be unwilling or unable to deal with them or give them up. While I might be able to help them, I really can’t help them until they want help–to try and “fix” things when they don’t want them fixed creates problems for all of us.
I learned another filter. This filter involves the reality that other people likely see what I see and may already be involved and my help, no matter how well meaning it is, probably does nothing more than get in the way of what the other people are doing. If the other helpers are making a difference, I need to help by allowing them to do their job.
I also learned to filter by time. In any given congregation, even small ones like I serve, there are lots of issues and problems and things that would benefit from someone doing something. If I see and respond to everything, I could be busy 24-7 and arrive at worship on Sunday morning with nothing to say during the sermon time because I was busy helping people. Of course, that would only be a short term problem because the ensuing burnout would do away with the need for sermons.
Not everything needs to be dealt with right away. Certainly, there are some critical issues that need to be deal with immediately–but sometimes, I need to be the person who defines criticality, not the nosey neighbour down the street or the well meaning friend who tends to make mountains out of a grain of sand. And sometimes, I even need to avoid buying into the individual’s sense of how critical their situation is.
The end result of all this filtering is that I hear a lot and act on a lot–but sometimes, the action is to postpone, delay or ignore. This isn’t because of a lack of concern or laziness or unwillingness to do my job. It comes because I have learned to be strategic about ministry. Not everything I perceive needs to be dealt with right now by me. In fact, I have learned that in the end, some stuff doesn’t need to be dealt with anytime by anyone.
I have also learned to trust the leading of the Holy Spirit–opening myself to this leading has proven to be the best filter possible for me.
Because I have learned to use some filters, I am more able to respond appropriately to the things that need a response when they need a response. I may have selective hearing in my ministry but I think it makes my ministry more effective for both me and the people I am called to serve.
May the peace of God be with you.