On Patience, and Why It Matters for Missionaries and Church Planters
This week Haloti Ngata made news headlines when he announced his retirement from the NFL from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Ngata, a 13-year pro and insanely gifted defensive lineman, completed his career at the age of 35. Not 55, not even 45. He’s 35-years-old. How can a guy younger than me be finished?
Of course Ngata, along with most professional athletes, will embark on another career, but it’s interesting to see the trend of people who gain rapid influence who then go on to early retirement. In the realm of sports or entertainment, it’s often downhill once you hit your 30s. In sports, most 32-year-olds simply can’t keep up with the 19-year-old prodigy. If you haven’t made you mark by the time you hit 25, then you likely never will. The youthful vitality of a teenager actor or actress starts to wane and they are easily replaced when their look begins to fade.
It’s easy for such cultural icons to set a trajectory for leaders in all fields, even pastoral ministry, missions, or church planting. We’re prone to assume that spiritual formation and positions of leadership in the church should follow a similar, rapid path. But they don’t and, in most cases, they simply shouldn’t.
Words I Didn’t Want to Hear
I replayed the conversation in my head for months afterward. As I approached graduation from SEBTS, I sat on a professor’s couch and outlined my future plans. I was a bundle of youthful zeal, idealism, and pride—an all-too-common combination for leaders in the church. I wanted to do something great for God and I wanted to do it quickly. My wise, older mentor listened as I spelled out my masterplan. When I finally took a breath, I expected him to affirm my path but his response went something like this:
“Calm down. You don’t have to be where you want to be tomorrow. It’s far better to be a healthy 40-year-old pastor who understands who he is and how to serve God’s mission than to try to be a hero at 30 and find yourself burned out or disqualified within a few years. Use the next decade to learn how to care for people in the church, build a healthy marriage worthy imitating, share the gospel consistently, and pray deeply. Your best years of ministry are still several decades away.”
It wasn’t the message I wanted to hear. My pride wanted to push back—clearly he didn’t know all that I had to offer. I was the exception—or so I thought.
I just turned 40 and I’m only recently able to appreciate the wisdom of these words. I now find myself repeating that same counsel over coffee at least once a week. I meet a ton of talented leaders—some far more capable than I was or ever will be. But, like me, they are pressing too hard and trying to manufacture leadership savvy that takes time to develop. Unfortunately, many of them do arrive quickly, only to find that their leadership position far outpaced that personal transformation. The results are often catastrophic.
Aspiration isn’t the issue. We want to be a people who trust God, take risks, and seek to obey Him whole-heartedly. There’s no age or maturity requirement for obedience to the Great Commission or Great Commandment. Our salvation is a commission to love God, love others, and make disciples. Those who aspire to leadership would be wise to start with these twin callings and stay there for a while. Any exhortation to patience isn’t an invitation to passivity. We can, and must, be active in God’s mission.
But, we’d all be well served to put a governor on our aspiration for leadership positions. We don’t have to get there (wherever there is) tomorrow. God is not anxiously waiting for us to show up to get His work done. Trust in His providence allows us to wait patiently and live in obscurity for a season, or perhaps forever. We trust that God will position us for influence in His time and in His way.
Patience is a tough pill to swallow in a world that doesn’t think highly of delayed gratification; however, intuitively we know the value of waiting. We want to be people who can, like Paul, come to the end of our journey and be able to say that we’ve “finished the race” (2 Tim 4:7). The finish line of this race may come early in life for some, but for most it will not. We’re going to be running for a while, so it would be wise to consider the end from the beginning.
So, college student, it’s ok to learn to love God and people and join a church where you’re asked to simply contribute as a meaningful member without any accompanying title or position. Learn to love difficult people (you’ll be doing this a ton in ministry). Give sacrificially of your time and money (even if you don’t have much to give). Talk about Jesus with those that you meet (even if you’re not preaching to the masses). Maybe it’s better to run this play than to jockey for a title quickly and end up with a leadership or staff role in a lifeless, mission-less church or worse, to end up in that role and not have developed the basic disciplines of maturity that should accompany every disciple’s life.
Newlyweds, it’s ok to hold off on adopting twelve kids and moving overseas to live among an unreached people group in your first year of marriage. God may call you to this work, but it doesn’t have to happen tomorrow. Don’t cave to the pressure of doing every good thing you dream about as quickly as you can.
Christians, learn to work hard and use your gifts. Work at your job (even if it isn’t your dream job), take direction from your boss (even if you don’t like him), make really good music (even if no one’s listening), or write readable books (even if there isn’t a publisher in sight). Will God give you more? Maybe. For today, learn to be faithful rather than trying to get somewhere you are not.
Future pastors, church planters, and missionaries, consider the wisdom of elders being . . . well . . . elder. That doesn’t mean you have to wait until you’re 60 to plant a church, but it may mean that the first year out of undergrad isn’t the best time to parachute into an inner city to launch. Take the time to become a man dependent on prayer, passionate about sharing the gospel, competent to teach others, and seen by others as above reproach. That type of heavy lifting isn’t going to happen quickly. Join a church planting team. Hone your gifts while building up the church. Invite feedback from wise leaders. Seemingly simple acts of obedience, multiplied over an extended period of time, may be the best experience to position you for several decades of faithful ministry.
Zeal is good. We need more of it. But be zealous about the right things. Apply that passion to the work of the Great Commission and Great Commandment and then, should God so choose, you’ll have more leadership than you can handle one day.