The Danger of Slowing Down

Some pastors get high on people. Others are totally absorbed in getting things done. A few respond to needs before they occur and are so far ahead they have planned the funeral service for the child they have just dedicated. Now not all of us are spiritual Ferraris but we do tend to measure our value to our people by how much we get done. We may even get some mild pleasure when others make the “I know you are very busy….” speech. We’ve all heard that one and probably like it actually.

As we all know well, leadership is not a nine to five enterprise. It never has been. It does not matter if you have a small or large congregation, there is always something more to do. The day is never long enough. Some of us cope with this better than others. We sleep well no matter how many loose ends there may be. Others of us live in a state of perpetual panic having basically excised from our Bibles all references to “entering into Lord’s rest” (whatever that may mean). Anyway, those bits are clearly for the non-serious, the spiritual lay abouts who would not know what a hard day’s work looked like.

The Benefits of the Fast Lane:

But we need to check our rear vision mirror before we start slowing down. Such an alteration to our daily routine could lead to some worrying consequences. There are some very real benefits of keeping on the go. For example:

  • High speed ministry has a real benefit. We will never be really distracted from our commitment to ministry by our own inner contradictions, rough edges and unspoken hungers for a deeper experience of the “otherness” of God. We simply do not have the time to get into all of that. Besides, it is a touch introspective and only for those reflective types.
  • We get hooked on our priorities. We will continue to derive satisfaction from the endless round of redefining our priorities without having to realise that these may not be entirely in keeping with what the Lord requires of us anyway. It will not enter our heads that we just may be in the wrong ball park altogether. Now that discovery would be truly unsettling and throw us into a tail spin. The courage to acknowledge that we may be misguided is a rare commodity.
  • There’s no need to wait. We will be saved the hassle of “waiting on God,” a term much loved by the truly spiritual. Now this is a terrific biblical concept but it comes from the pre mobile phone, computer, e-mail, internet era. Besides, people who insist on waiting upon God when there is much to be done need to discover what the responsible stewardship of time is all about.
  • Pushing it along ticks the best boxes. We will continue to err on the side of hard work for the Kingdom with our unbroken labours carrying a rather more tangible bonus than those constant withdrawals for prayer undertaken by the well motivated, the mystical and delightfully impractical.

Finding a New Structure:

  • To lose the capacity for quietness is a risky business. The discipline of slowing down is hard at the best of times for most of us. The creation of room for personal retreat requires a conscious decision. It takes effort, planning and the deliberate setting aside of those very worthwhile causes which so frequently and subtly seduce us. Most of us need a clear structure in our routines if we are to function well.
  • It’s time for a rethink. The giving of a priority to silence, to genuinely listen to God, demands a reorganisation of that structure and a questioning of the whole edifice of good works which we unconsciously build from a sincere heart. It is not just a better use of the diary, commendable as that may be. It is a revisiting of the underlying order of our lives and what causes us to operate in the way we do. It has so much to do with how we see ourselves before God and our understanding of what He requires of us in our daily round. Now this depth of enquiry is demanding and unsettling. Pursued consistently it will begin to call into question much of what we may have seen to be our priorities.
  • Retreat is not just an option. To think that being quiet is just another thing that we should be doing since we are in leadership and want to be open to God is to miss the point entirely. Being alone with God is not simply an add on, an optional extra which we somehow accommodate in an already full life. It is indeed a fresh way of ordering our lives, a new way of being. It is an overt departure from the fast lane. It is an exiting from the spiritual freeway of doing great things for God to another road where the pace and direction are not so clear. Our problem is finding the off ramp at high speed. It is not easy. Further, we can find that off ramp only through careful observation and deep desire. It is not clearly marked by an “Exit” sign.

Moses and That Rock:

  • Those good works may be our undoing. There is the appalling possibility that the good works which we feel we have been called to do may, in the end, be the very barriers which inhibit or prevent a rich and deep fellowship with the Lord. The appropriate balance is that which enables us to find Him in the rough and tumble of service, at the very heart of it all. Too often though this same rough and tumble effectively frustrates the calming, energising movement of the Spirit. We can all understand why Moses whacked the rock. When we are surrounded by a sufficient number of critics and otherwise difficult people, we can lose our cool very easily too. But the only way to respond obediently under pressure is to hold on to the reality of His Presence and His provision.
  • There is an enormous problem in crowding out the Presence of God. When we start to lose the plot, our reactions give us away. We may long for a complete withdrawal, or failing that, we become unconsciously abrupt and short with people. We look for sanctified ways of targeting the jugular. A barely controlled frustration leads to irritation, a feeling of something being constantly wrong but not having the capacity to identify what the problem is. Not too far away is the potentially paralysing growth of unreflected doubt not to mention a loss of direction and purpose. We start to see the inconsistencies in the lives of others and are only ever a short step away from being perennially judgemental of them. It is like being on a diet of pure prune juice. We become allergic to the very people we are called to serve.
  • The truth is that even the most disciplined of us can be strangers to regular silence and quietness. Many of us have a unique ability to fill up every moment. We do it for the best of reasons, of course: it arises from our devotion to the Lord and His people. What we fail to realise is the cost of being on the run, of never taking the time to pull over. It is not just the matter of a muddled spirituality. There are profound implications as far as effectiveness and health are concerned. One study found that people who work over fifty hours weekly suffer a productivity drop of fifty per cent.[1] Higher times on the job lead to even less productivity. Also, there is a much higher risk of stress with job dissatisfaction leading to heart disease.’ Pastors ignore these findings at their peril.

The High Cost of High Speed:

  • We simply cannot be there for others if we stay in the fast lane all the time. There, comes a point when we wilt at the possibility of bumping into Mrs Jones at the supermarket, or having to face yet another phone call from Mr Brown whose marriage is going down the tube. Instead of a regular retreat helping us to keep a perspective, we want to become reclusive and this has a very different motivation. One is a deliberate decision to ponder where we are on the journey; the other is a desperate escape device which is doomed to failure. Surprisingly, we are often blind to the value of hauling into the pits for a check over and tune up.
  • Perhaps the most expensive mistake is to launch into a day without taking the time to receive it from God as His most recent gift to us. We can be like the impatient child in the toy shop: we grab it and run. It is no wonder then that priorities are scrambled, little is achieved and we lack the poise to handle the inevitable interruptions which are all part of ministry. We see the day for what we want to do with it without ever considering that it is His for Him to do what He would through us. It is a rather different equation and is not understood easily.
  • The intersection between our designs and His do not necessarily fall into place in ways which we can identify quickly. But that is the walk of faith. We spend time with Him in whatever way has meaning for us and then take a shot at the day without the intention of bringing in the Kingdom by lunch time. If the day is filled with joy or disaster at least it was His since we returned to Him right at the first jump. And, furthermore, if our schemes were dismembered along the way, so be it. There is a liberation here, a departure from the heaviness of trying to do everything for God. If, having sought His blessing for the day, not much seemed to be accomplished, then that is His problem too.

May we have the bravery to find ways to live ever more closely to this God Who loves us and gave Himself for us. His is not a call to self destruction, ineffective living and damaged health. It is a call to fullness, to trust, to believe that our part is just that: a tiny piece in His grand plan for His world. But you won’t find it in high gear. Keep an eye open for the off ramp. It is around here somewhere.

Rev John Simpson

[1] Manchester University School of Business as reported in the Herald Sun Sunday Edition, 15/02/98