Longevity in Ministry

A series 
~ first inspired by a sermon preached by the senior pastor of my sending church ~ 

It took much longer to write, went much deeper than I expected, and will, I believe, continue to mull around in my head and heart for a long time. I wanted to collect everything here... Just for that very reason. 

And I pray that God allows me a part in His work for as long as He chooses to keep me hanging around...

Longevity, defined in its most basic terms, refers to length of service or tenure. After all of the work, time, goodbyes and oft' painful transitions into new cultures and languages, those who call themselves international workers or missionaries typically hope to have long, productive careers. Just like a doctor wouldn't want to change career directions after one or two years of work, most career missionaries do not leave for the field planning to only stay one or two years. And while there are many legitimate reasons to change that plan - "leaving before we planned to" or even "without planning to" because something preventable prevents us from staying, leaving is something most of us would like to avoid.

We want to be able to say, right along with Paul: 

For I am now ready to be offered, 
and the time of my departure is at hand. 
I have fought a good fight, 
I have finished my course, 
I have kept the faith: 
Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, 
which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: 
and not to me only, 
but unto all them also that love his appearing.

"Like longevity in life, some basic things are needed - right genes [children of God], right diet [God's Word], right exercise [involvement in ministry] and right environment [a place in God's community - the Church]." (Dr. Dan Dickerson)

Thus, longevity is, very simply, the number of years that God, in His sovereignty, allots you, no more and no less. Regardless of our personal opinions, the Bible clearly teaches that God is sovereign. Pagan kings understood and proclaimed that truth. God's Word, the existence of creation, the rules of physics, the intricacy of the human body... So many things reveal to men that there must be a sovereign God.

As men and women with limited perspective and a very finite view, we look at a crazy oxymoron where God says He is divine and yet, we also understand that we are, somehow, responsible. His Word teaches both. It doesn't make logical sense, no matter how hard we try. But that is because we can only see as if we are the standing at the open side of an enormous horseshoe, so enormous that we cannot see the U-shaped part of the figure. Human responsibility is on one of the two ends; divine sovereignty at the other. Our perception, and rightly so if we lived our lives based only on what we see, is that those two are separated by a wide space... and irreconcilable... There is great danger if we decide that because we can't see how they meet, they don't... that one or the other is more true and should take priority. Those who believe the whole is God's divine sovereignty risk an extreme fatalism. Those who believe the whole is human responsibility risk extreme humanism. Neither extreme pleases or honors God.

God, however, looks at that horseshoe from above. He looks down and sees the whole and how those two principles fuse together and form a single amazing, protecting, correcting, steadying and sustaining, healing and building - reality. 

Those truths - God is sovereign and man is responsible - are so important... so necessary, as we consider the issue of longevity. 

Commonly we look at choices and decisions with a very limited view. Either the decisions we make are right. Or they are wrong. If they are right, the results are what we want and hope for. If we are wrong, then we suffer consequences. But this mentality neglects to consider that we serve not only a sovereign, but also a sufficient, God.

"Trusting [in] the sufficiency and sovereignty of God [means knowing and believing that] every day is a gift from God, Who IS the source of faithfulness." Remember that cliché often heard in church circles?  Pray like everything depends on God; work like everything depends on you. For me, at least, it is easier to work like a mad-woman... and forget to pray. Especially as a mama. Especially as a mama who is also a missionary. Even especially more as a mama who is also a missionary and who lives off of the support and gracious gifts of others. In that sense, I live my life as a "practical atheist," a term my husband coined almost 20 years ago. Even when I don't like His provision, it is still what He, sovereignly, knows to be best.

Why trust in His sufficiency and sovereignty? Even pagan kings recognize His sovereignty - think of Nebuchadnezzer in Daniel 4. We also trust because He has proven Himself faithful. We must trust because God does give faith to live, but also to die [or sometimes, to watch those we love, die] for His glory. Finally, we trust because Christ builds His church. We join Him in His work.

So we trust in the sovereignty and sufficiency of God.

What then does our responsibility side of the horseshoe look like? 

The first component is obedience.

As I've taught our children to obey, they understand that obedience looks like 
1) start right away, 
2) have a sweet attitude,
3) is just exactly what I asked for (i.e. finish)
4) without any arguing. 

Failing to meet those four standards, then it is disobedience. If I use that same standard to evaluate my obedience to God's directives for me, I'm often, very often, disobedient - even if not another person can tell. I know.

Obedience is my responsibility. Longevity in ministry requires not just that I trust in God's sovereignty and sufficiency, but also that I obey Him, particularly. How is that obedience demonstrated, day in and day out in my life? What does obedience look like?

Obedience looks like:  
  1. Growing an increasingly intimate relationship with the Lord, making a daily walk with Him my habit. Reading, listening, praying, writing, singing, being still, fellowshipping, confessing, repenting, fasting... are all practices I must cultivate until they are habits that I am consistently, daily and throughout the day practicing.
  2. Praying without ceasing (steadfastly, continuously, patiently, powerfully). Yes, it is listed as a part of the first priority in this list, but is is one practice that can never be in excess. As Hudson Taylor says, "I have seen many men work without praying, though I have never seen any good come out of it; but I have never seen a man pray without working."
  3. Maintaining balance between personal growth and service. We become metaphorical "Dead Seas" when we focus on priorities one and two (above) and never serve, give back out to those all around us what God has been pouring in. God's goodness is to be spilling up, out, over - through the meeting of practical, physical and spiritual needs.
  4. Welcoming accountability. Genuine accountability is scary. It requires vulnerability and exposure to the evaluation by and the resulting opinions, criticisms and commentary of others. It's easier and less painful to conceal and suppress detail while crafting a correct image that conforms to the expectations of others. That sort of image-crafting doesn't protect. 1 Timothy 3 lays out the qualifications God desires to see in those who serve in leadership, stating if "anyone aspires to [such a position]... let them also be tested first. Accountability gives hope because it makes me part of a team, forces humility, makes me stronger as I acknowledge where I'm weak, reminds of my need for God's grace, gentles me and makes me more likely to be gracious to others, cleanses through confession, frees from the bondage of maintaining an image or meeting others' expectations, enlists the power of prayer, promotes healing and health, and done well - accountability builds up and encourages.
  5. Committing to marriage and family.  There is no one hard and fast way to do this, for how I demonstrate my commitment to my marriage and family might look quite different than how you do. Key is an intentional, purposeful choice  first made - choosing commitment, supported by continuous effort to keep a covenant relationship, clinging to commitment… regardless. It means I support my husband in the ministry opportunities God gives him; he also supports me, giving me opportunity to serve and work - using the talents and abilities God has given me. It isn't 50/50. It is 100/100. Additionally, our actions and choices should not cause our children to "stumble" and turn away from God. 
  6. Choosing teachability. This should include several characteristics such as willing to yield without compromising truth, admitting error when wrong, acquiescing to others who can help, wanting to integrate legitimate new knowledge, secure in self-worth and standing before God, willing to risk, open to evaluation and correction, a listener, welcoming and approachable, accepting responsibility, pursuing others for the purpose of learning, and humble.
  7. Determining to be a genuine team player. Genuine teamwork submits, has a shared vision, cooperates and collaborates,  sees the advantage of teamwork, encourages participation and commitment to the team,  communicates authentically, builds unity and often suffers together. 
God offers, every moment of every day, the grace necessary to trust His sovereignty and sufficiency and the strength to pursue obedience in each of these seven priorities. 

Pursuing that grace, a grace which has already pursued and overtaken me, will enable me to serve faithfully, with longevity...


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