For many years, I did ministry the way I saw other people do it. Being in the apostolic, especially 10-12 years ago, wasn’t an easy task. We didn’t have a handbook, and here we were, people who were called to the apostolic office, but had no idea exactly what that meant or how to do it. So, much like my counterparts, as I learned, I tried to follow the example of people who were, at least on the surface, more “experienced” and “advanced” in their call.
There were many of them: my first apostle, who never seemed to be able to keep other people around her; another leader I had at a later point in time, who just didn’t seem qualified to be a leader, but was highly into convergence, which meant he was very into the idea of the bishopric and making everyone and everything a bishop…including me. When that didn’t happen, and I made it clear he wasn’t going to lead me (or my people) along a long and winding path, I just never heard from him again. There were others I knew who influenced me along the way, with a word or a thought, but many of them did not stick the path. They weren’t people to emulate.
There was the woman, a long-time friend who I have since parted ways with, who stood out above the others because she was my friend. I always remember being so intrigued with her because everyone who was around her seemed to desire her attention. They wanted her to preach, they wanted her to minister, they wanted her for a covering, and they wanted her to be wherever they were. She got fifteen times the preaching engagements I got, so I figured, here is someone who I can learn something from. Some things just didn’t seem to line up, though. She lived in a house her aunt willed to her, had no monthly rent or mortgage payment, and still always was broke. She preached up, down, and sideways, and she was always unable to do anything because she was…always…broke. This was extremely confusing to me, because I was always thinking of all the ways not having a mortgage payment or rent would help out financially…but there she was: no money, constantly broke, and constantly extending herself for people she led. She was there, more than anything; ready to talk, several days per week, and I can’t count the number of things we sorted out over those phone calls. At one time, she was a friend and a confidant, someone I was trying to “figure out” from a distance, and I suppose, in some strange way, hoping that being and doing things like she did would render me the same results.
In a strange way, that is exactly what happened.
I remember one story she told about a woman who had been an armor bearer in her ministry. The woman abruptly left one day, without an explanation. Instead of approaching her about this, as they lived in the same city, she never confronted her. Then, one day, she had a dream about this woman and drove to her house, honked her horn multiple times, and tried to get her to come out. A few days later, a certified letter arrived as this woman wanted to make it clear she wanted no further contact.
She came and complained to me about how she loved this woman and how good to her she had been. “I did nothing but love her!” she told me. She was deeply offended over the action, but instead of confronting it, it became another sweep under the rug, one where the answer to “moving forward” was to try and outdo this other woman in her ministry. Time and time again, people came, and they exhausted her, and then they’d leave, starting the cycle all over again. She’d go preach; she’d come back broke or angry about the experience she had. Time and time again, it was the same thing, all the time.
The more that time went on, was evident that she was bound by ambitions. Those ambitions were quick to cast me aside or exclude me from things when push came to shove. The more she excluded, the more I looked at her differently, and the more I decided I just really didn’t like who she was or the leader she was. She was always complaining about the people she covered. She disliked where she lived. She complained about the churches where she preached. She always claimed not to have enough help. It was something that seemed to lead from one thing to another, and as much as she whined about this one or that one, she never disconnected from anyone. Everyone was seen as a possible opportunity to advance, and as much as she might have claimed to be doing what was apostolic and desiring the work of the apostle.
She might not have been one to emulate, but in terms of style, she was the leader who influenced me the most. And now, down through the years, emulating that style led to the same results she got.
Her style of ministry wasn’t that unique, as I came to find out. She was one in the dividing camp who wasn’t ministry royalty that could get away with excessive demands. Those in her camp, the same as mine, were supposed to do everything in their power to prove they weren’t the over-the-top, unreasonable leaders that we hear so much about. In other words, it was our place to prove we were willing to do anything and go anywhere in the name of the Gospel and of ministry, even to the point where we were willing to degrade ourselves. The message was implied that we were to take any preaching engagement that came along, no matter how many people showed up; we should be willing to take engagements where we were not paid or did not receive an offering; we should be willing to go anywhere if it costs us out of our own pocket to get there; we should be willing to endure through low offerings; we should be willing to be mistreated and abused by our hosts.
Not only were we supposed to “take it on the chin” when we were mistreated by those who invited us to minister…we were also supposed to endure it from our own people. Our willingness to do anything for anyone meant we were supposed to bear with people through lack of respect, lack of giving, lack of encouragement, lack of attendance, and even lack of participation. If someone claimed to want to be with us or with us, we were supposed to keep them around, no questions asked, and do everything possible to keep them.
Any time we made a stand and said someone was doing something wrong or said something about someone’s behavior, we were met with criticism, both from outside voices, those we disciplined, and sometimes even our own personal leadership. People told us we were negative, we shouldn’t have said anything, we shouldn’t do anything. And time and time again, those we disciplined or dealt with stormed off in a nasty huff to the next leader who would believe their sad tale of woe about mistreatment.
We didn’t want to be seen with the wrong people; minister to the wrong group (and we all know who those groups are); say the wrong thing; do the wrong thing; or embody the wrong principles. Everything was about appearances: clothes that weren’t perceived as immodest, not wearing too much make-up, not using the wrong Bible translation, and not being perceived as too “progressive.” Our job was to keep everyone comfy and content, where they were, no matter how much we might have screamed and protested to the contrary. Church folk love the sadism of negative messages about being dead and rising again, being down but getting back up, and about harvest that comes “someday,” in the future, but never seems to get here. Even though I wasn’t quite so obnoxious in my preaching and teaching, as a rule, there was the stark reality I didn’t often preach or teach like I wanted to, because I knew it would be over someone’s head or someone wouldn’t understand it and then I would never go back to that church again or would “lose” people.
As I did what I thought I was supposed to do, I started to notice the high level of insincerity we have in the church today. What we say or speak is often insincere rehashing of what we think we are supposed to say. Someone would break with a leader, and we would cheer them on with none of the right information. Someone would break with us and we’d be told that God had something else for us. We were told the past was over and not to look back at it, and to trust that God has better days in store. Yet, whenever I would look around my own life and ministry and those of the people I knew, I never knew where the “something else” was, or where the “better days” were. It seemed like we had the same kind of people around us, all the time, being replaced by new people who were just as uncommitted and disinterested as the ones who left. Sure, there were a few people who came in and were different than the rest, and a few of whom are even still around today, but on the whole, it just seemed like a cycle, a coming in of the same and departing of the same, all the time, with the same results.
Whenever I would try to talk with other leaders about this cycle, I never got much of a response. Nobody had an answer. Even asking the question was considered wrong in many circles, as a lack of faith.
I have never had a lack of faith; I have had genuine questions about how to handle ministry better and to stop attracting people who seem to have so many problems and need so much work all the time that never gets done. I spent hours upon hours with people who never changed and didn’t heed advice, and several who, in the face of direct statements, did the opposite. It felt like a gigantic waste of time, not like my expectations are too high. You want to be in ministry but you don’t want to do it properly, you claim you want me for your leader or you want my teaching but you don’t want to use it…so I am not exactly sure why I am here, in this picture.
I said for years I wanted to do something different, but I didn’t know what to do. That was until one day, when things started to change.
Four years ago, the shift started. People think it’s odd to embrace a spiritual season for a four-year period of time, but that’s about how long it’s been. There have been ups and downs, sometimes wild at times, but there have been numerous departures and revelations as I have gone on. One of the biggest revelations was that I was trying to have a typical ministry that looked like everyone else’s. Everything, right down to the name of our media outreaches, was designed to draw the attention of people who were either finding me and driving me into the ground or who were deliberately excluding me from their events and disconnecting. As typical as I was trying to be, I was getting the message that being so typical might not be the right answer.
It all came to a culmination toward the end of last year, after I spent about eight months of 2016 trying to maintain a local church plant that wound up very far from my intentions, and it wound up that way because I was trying to adjust what we were doing to the people who were attending, just like I had been taught to do and had been doing all these years. I had a specific vision and purpose in the plant, and we wound up every which way away from it, into the grounds of typical, usual, and just like everyone else. Just like the woman I had known, who I had done so much to be like her, I experienced the same: people disrespect me, driving me into the ground financially and emotionally, frustrated, tired, and downright angry about the results.
When I came to after the experience drew to a close, I realized that I was just another angry preacher, being left out to dry by the people I was dealing with. And one day, I decided I didn’t want to be angry anymore. The problem was, I didn’t know how not to be. Then I figured out the only way to stop being so angry was to stop being in situations that caused me to feel that way.
It’s justifiable to feel angry when we are being mistreated, and the problem was I had made a whole ministry around disrespect to myself and not structured to uphold good principles to make people accountable and build their own work up. It gave the air of enabling, allowing people to lean on me too much to do for them what they should be learning how to do for ourselves.
I came to the conclusion last year that we are idolizing relationships. The “spirit of offense” (which isn’t even Biblical) places the responsibility on good people to do for others what they should be doing for themselves and doesn’t force accountability. For a concept we talk about in the church over and over again, we aren’t doing what we should to foster it. We stick around and walk for people instead of with them, carrying them on our backs until the point where we either burn out and give up or we kill ourselves trying.
Just recently, I walked away from someone – and something – that was never good for me in the ministry, not to mention personally. It was someone I had to emotionally carry because they were always ready to give up and who I spent years trying to fill in the gaps and keep this individual motivated to pick up her own load. It never happened. I wound up in the hot seat more than once for things I didn’t even do, and there wasn’t a defense for that. We just went on, and I kept covering her. When I reached the point where I knew I couldn’t do it any longer, I was done. Not just with this person, or this specific organization, but with doing ministry like it had always been done. We say we want a new thing to develop, and honestly, I don’t know what that is in full, right now. I just knew that if I never did another thing, I never preached anywhere ever again, and I never ministered for the rest of my life because of this, I was willing to take that risk. I just could not do what I was doing anymore.
Sometimes we have to take risks if we want things to change, and that is where I am, right now. I am accepting the things I cannot change, and the way they have changed me. I am embracing something new, even though I don’t fully understand it. It might be awkward or questionable, but I know that for this to ever become something other than what it is, I can’t do what I always did before or I will get what I always got.
It’s easy to say we don’t go with the crowd or we do something different in ministry, but most of the time, we are emulating what those around us are doing or saying. We form our ministry names, our media outreach titles, our subheadings, our styles and our willingness to do what we do based on those who seem successful or purposeful around us. We repeat what we hear, we repeat what others say, we do what others do, and we never once ever consider if maybe those things aren’t for us.
Maybe the way the woman I once knew did ministry worked for her. I know it really didn’t, but just for the sake of argument, maybe the level of impact she had on people’s lives was enough for her. Maybe she was right where she wanted to be, and was content with that. The other option is maybe she didn’t know how to let old things pass away. No matter what the answer is, it is up to her to handle it, but I know for myself that I often held on to the “old things” because I knew what to expect with them.
2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV): Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
Revelation 21:5 (ESV): And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
If I was preaching right now and I threw around the parts of these verses that people do, I’d probably be met with shouts and excitement at the thought of “old things passing away.” We get excited about old things passing away when those things are lack of money, haters, old jobs we hate, small apartments, old cars, and people we never liked anyway, but what happens when those old things passing away are the very things we take comfort in? What happens when the “old things” are the patterns of behavior that, however well-intentioned they may be, need to change? What happens when it’s the way we interpret the Bible, that does not lead to life, but allows us to judge other people? What happens when it’s the old clichés that we say because we don’t take the time – nor interest – to work better answers? What happens when it’s just the way we do things, and we don’t want to do something else? What happens when it’s our traditions that we’ve come to associate with God, but have become nothing more than rituals?
The way I did ministry was an “old thing.” It was a trend that started some years back in an effort to manage the heavy competition that exists between ministries and ministers, for fear that people will go to another ministry with a long-winded tale that the minister will believe. We’re so afraid people will go with their money or our numbers will drop that we have grown willing to degrade ourselves as ministers to hold on to people who aren’t really serious about their calling or moving forward. The Bible teaches us to honor leadership, but that doesn’t start if we don’t honor ourselves. All these behaviors we keep resting back on – the ways we perceive ourselves, the things we preach that we know will rattle a room, doing for the people what they think they want, telling them messages to stir their flesh and make them esteem themselves improperly – are “old things.” They keep them comfortable and keep us in the same place we are always in.
Me, I’m going somewhere else now; I’m not exactly sure where or how yet, but I know that through this season, now to the end, those “old things” have passed away within me. There will be more updates to come, but for right now, I just know that new has, and is coming, and the old isn’t for me anymore.
If that means you are not where I am, or we no longer have anger and misery in common anymore and there is nothing else there, then I do wish you the best of luck and pray you open your heart and mind to the world that is beyond what we see, what we deal with, and what is all-too-common for us as ministers in this day and age. No, I don’t have all the answers, but I can’t keep playing around with people who run in circles. If we want to impact the world, we have to embrace the new day; the new messages; the new promise; and the new people who are sent to work with us, and we with them.
New seasons, new days, new things don’t always feel like we hope they will. In old things passing away, we have a strong sense of their removal, departure, even metaphorical death, from our lives. Yet I am not one who believes when we walk away from one thing that we never get something else. Yeah, one opportunity or circle might be gone, but something else is always there, on the horizon. One of these days we will receive that new, in full, as it stares us in the face, because we have dared to come along instead of embracing the old rather than the new.
© 2017 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.