It wasn't aware that anything was wrong at first. It began when Jonathan and I were running a series of evangelistic meetings. By the end of our talks, Jonathan would have to help me get off the stool that I had been sitting on as we presented the program. I was too stiff to get off by myself. We didn't take too much notice of it. Perhaps I was getting old? After all, I was 29 we joked! But then, at times, I found it difficult to walk. My legs felt as if they were filled with cement. It took an unbelievable amount of effort to move one leg in front of the other. Again we joked oh yes, a touch of arthritis! I would definitely be the one with the Zimmer frame before Jonathan!
Not long after, church members began to whisper to my husband that I was looking tired. They noticed that I couldn't turn my neck, that I was looking stiff, "Is she ill?" they asked. "No," he would reply, "there's nothing wrong with Mary. She's fine. You're imagining it."
Slowly other symptoms surfaced. I would go to bed feeling stiff and wake up in the middle of the night paralyzed with pain. Nothing moved. Not my legs, my head, my feet, nothing apart from my right arm and that was only with the most excruciating effort. On some occasions my mouth lacked movement and it was a struggle to speak.
Most nights I would wake Jonathan not knowing what to do. My body was so rigid that I felt as if someone had strapped me in a suit of armor that was several sizes too small! I also felt as if someone had lit up a match and tossed it at me. Inside my body, a fire raged! I was scared. I was frightened. We stopped the jokes.
A trip to the doctor confirmed that I had been working too hard. Working too hard in ministry. Working too hard at being a mother. Working too hard at being a wife. The doctor said, All I needed was some rest and I would be fine. No big deal. Nothing to worry about."
That was 13 years ago. "No big deal" resulted in an illness called Ankylosing Spondilitis, triggered off by overwork and stress. "No big deal" turned into a health problem that would dominate my life for the next 10 years. "No big deal" changed my life completely and that of my husband and our two daughters then aged three and two.
However, the tragic thing about "No big deal" is that it need not ever have happened, if I had not been working so hard! And the even greater tragedy is that I loved everything I was doing so much, that I wasn't aware that I was setting myself up for disaster.
How is it with you? Is your ministry controlling your life or are you controlling your ministry? Are you working so hard that you too are laying the foundations for something to go terribly wrong?
God wants us to enjoy our ministry, but He knows that in order to do that we need to be aware of the situations and pressures that can control our work and bring confusion into our lives. Why don't we then focus on some of the advice that God shares with us through the lives of men and women who held down jobs in Bible days? Not all these people worked in ministry, yet God's advice to them can also be applied to our work situation.
Let's meet our first worker.
The Compromising Employee—Matthew 9:9-13
Matthew's work was really important to him. In fact, his work meant so much to him that he would do anything to prosper in his job, even if it meant becoming a liar and a cheat. He had no problems in doing what everyone else did to become successful. He surrendered his principles of right and wrong, so that he could be accepted by his workmates and achieve his goal to become wealthy!
As you know, Matthew was a tax collector. Tax collectors had a bad reputation. Everyone knew that they abused the system and Jews who helped to operate this corrupt civil service were considered to be the lowest of the low. Matthew was such a man. He sold his birthright and betrayed his people for material gain.
Matthew achieved his aim. He was rich in money, yet poor in integrity. He was willing to compromise what was important to achieve his ambition. For some of us our work experience is like that of Matthew's.
We are doing things that deep down we know are not right. Sure, we may not be stealing money, but we compromise on other things—our health, our ethics, our honesty, our relationships, our authenticity as a Christian and sometimes even our morals.
God's advice to those of us who are like Matthew is found in Matthew 9:9 where Jesus says, "Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men." In other words, Jesus is saying "Be like Mc in the way that you minister. You do not need to compromise on the things that you know to be 'right' to be a successful pastor."
Albert Carr says in the Harvard Business Review, "To be a winner a person must play to win. This does not mean that he must be ruthless, cruel, harsh or treacherous. On the contrary, the better his reputation for integrity, honesty and decency the better his chances for victory will be in the long run."
As workers for God we do not have to give into the temptation to surrender our principles, to play around with honesty, to be frightened to stand up for what is right or wrong, so that we can introduce people to Christ or experience job satisfaction.
The most thrilling part of Matthew's work experience was when God called him out of compromise. He was then able to work with Matthew in such a way that he became an effective evangelist and a writer. We do not have to compromise to minister in a positive way.
The Hurting Worker —Ruth 1
Let's open up the work file of a woman who let her work affect the way she thought about herself.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die." That is how it was for our next worker. She defined who she was by what she did. When what she did ceased to occur, inwardly she lost her desire to live.
Naomi had a job that was highly valued in the times in which she lived. She was a wife and a mother. In Old Testament times, caring for a family was the most important job that a woman could have and Naomi excelled in her job. However, Naomi believed that she was nothing without her family and her work. She defined herself according to her work. Holly Miller puts it this way, "Naomi didn't see herself merely as Naomi, instead she was Naomi, the wife of Elimelech and mother of Mahlon and Chilion, and mother-in-law to Ruth and Oprah. She believed that the qualifiers that followed her name established her identity. Her worth came from the words between the hyphens. Her value as a person was all confused with her work as a wife, mother and mother-in-law. Her significance was determined by her job.
When her husband and sons died, Naomi lost her reason for living. She told her friends to call her Mara instead of Naomi, which means "Bitter." Looking at her words under a microscope we see that Naomi was mourning the loss of her identity and her self-esteem as well as those she loved.
One of the dangers of ministry is that it can become so much a part of our self-esteem that we can't survive without it. We cannot live without our work. We define our value by the number of baptisms we have or don't have, by the increase or decrease of our congregations, or by those who applaud our work or by those who give us the "thumbs down."
For those of us who can relate to the work experience of Naomi, God says in Jeremiah 31:3, "I have loved you with an everlasting love, I have drawn you with loving-kindness."
In His advice God is saying to us, "Don't base your worth on your job, base it on My love instead."
Something freeing happens in ministry when we allow God's love for us to be the compelling force in the way in which we minister, rather than the expectations of our job descriptions. Letting God's love be the most dominant thing in our lives, not only means that we will avoid ministering on "automatic pilot" but that "His love" will give us the passion to "pastor" with enthusiasm.
The Blinkered Worker-1 Samuel 3:1-18
Let's meet the man who was a genuine workaholic.
This man really worked hard, in fact, probably no one worked as hard as him. He held one of the most important jobs in Israel. He worked as a high priest. He was zealous in his job, his service to God, came before anything else. His diligence, his dedication to duty was never to be doubted, but his devotion to work had the most devastating consequences.
Eli's life was consumed with spiritual busyness. As a result, he had very little time for father/son relationships and his boys not only drifted away from their father, they drifted away from their heaven ly father too.
Eli's preoccupation with his occupation meant that he had no time for his family. He had no time to be a husband, a father, and a friend. He had no time to discipline his children's defiant behavior, no time to guide his sons in what was right or wrong, no time to think through the way he was responding to his sons' sins. He had no time for anything, but work, work, work.
Billy Sunday was the king of revivalists in the early twentieth century. Thousands would come to hear him speak. He was so popular that his name was on the front pages of the newspapers wherever he went and his preaching inspired the Prohibition Amendment. He was not only well known, but he was successful too. After 39 years of ministry, over one million people had come forward in response to his altar calls. He was a religious superstar.
But he was not a superstar at home! He and his wife who worked with him were often away from home for months at a time. He often preached 7 days a week, 4 times a day and his four children knew very little of their father. While Mum and Dad were busy rescuing others from the clutches of Satan their children had no one to rescue them. Their sons were in and out of relationships and disastrous marriages. Two of their ex-wives blackmailed the Sundays by threatening to go public with the "truth" about the family. The boys also spent most of their lives battling with debt. In 1933 the oldest son committed suicide.
A little while after this, Bill with tear-filled eyes said to his wife, "Ma, where did I go wrong? Where did I go wrong?"
If our work experience is like that of Eli, God's advice in Luke 10:42 says, ". . but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
God reminds us that nurturing relationships with those we love is more important than what we achieve. Remember Martha? She was a great achiever, and yet it was Mary, Jesus praised for valuing relationships more than achievements.
How important is it to you to be doing a great job in ministry when those you share your home with are lonely for your love, your company, and your guidance?
We've met three workers who let their work control their lives. Let's meet a worker who was never controlled by her work. We can learn how this happened by opening up the work resume of a woman. She worked hard, achieved much, and yet had balance in her life!
A Balanced Worker—Acts 16:14
She was successful. She was admired as a shrewd businesswoman; she was highly respected in her community. She was in a luxury business and had the money, huge house, and servants to prove it. As a dealer in purple Lydia had made it.
But she had something else that people noticed about her-she had a strong relationship with God. However busy and pressured her work life was, she never let it interfere with her spiritual life. Lydia not only set aside time to be with God, but she also made time to meet with other women for prayer and support.
Lydia shows us how a person can be committed, conscientious and successful in their work without letting their work control their lives.
What was her secret? Why did her work never monopolize her life?
Possibly because she followed God's advice as found in Matthew 6:33. "Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiatives, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met." The Message Bible.
I shared earlier how I let ministry control gr.), life. When I look back on those crazy, crammed-filled days, I know that even though I was putting 100 percent into my work, 100 percent into being a wife and mother, I was putting very little time into inviting God to direct the things I did for Him. Sure, I was reading my Bible, but in a sense, I wasn't.
And even now, despite my illness, despite knowing God's advice, the battle of letting my work control my life, still has to be fought.
I trained for the ministry and am employed by my husband's church to work alongside him in pastoral ministry. More often or not, I end up working at least 3 times the amount of time that l am paid to work. Why? There are too many needs, too many things to be done, too many people to tell about God.
But I am changing. By making sure that I spend time with God and with others, I am learning how to live with balance in my work.
Spending time with God reminds me that my desire to he His servant, only truly happens when my life is fully connected to God's heart, when I am dependent upon God-initiatives in making things happen in our church, and when I rely on God's provision of His Holy Spirit, rather than my own power. When I spend time with God I am more inclined to put His advice about my ministry into action.
Following the example of Lydia I also make sure that I spend time with a Bible Worker in a nearby church. Once a week we meet and pray for our families, our churches, individual members, issues that dominate our churches, for outreach, etc. Afterwards, we both have the assurance that God is in control of our ministry. And we both rejoice at the ways in which God has worked with concerns that we have shared with Him. (Perhaps the reports that workers hand in to their Presidents, should have a section that says "time spent with God, time spent with other ministers for support and encouragement!")
Your ministry is important to God. He wants you to enjoy it, to be successful in it, but He wants you to remember that He called you to minister with Him, not on your own. Why don't you ensure that every day you spend time with God and invite Him to take control of your ministry rather than letting your ministry take control of you. Then your ministry will definitely be His and not just yours!