I couldn't believe that I had landed "the perfect job." If I could have picked any ministry post as a 22- year- old youth pastor, it would have been this one. As I sat at my desk on my first day, I had to pinch myself. I was the new Pastor of Students at the church where I had grown up. In only my second ministry gig, I had landed at a healthy, growing, suburban church. My parents and sister were members; my youth pastor was now my senior pastor; and I was leading in a place that had meant much to my own spiritual development.
I'm sure I had read the story of the early disciples dropping their nets and following Jesus. If you had asked me, I would have explained to you that I had left my nets to follow Jesus as a youth pastor. Within the next two years, God would show me that the very ministry for which I had dropped all of my nets had become a net that I was not willing to put down.
I should tell you this about myself: I am an affirmation junkie. You never have to worry about complementing me too much. Believe me, I can take it. Because of this condition (and long before I became aware of its toxicity in my life), I was completely driven by pleasing the people around me. I did whatever it took to make people think that I was the perfect pastor. As I sat in my office that day, I made a commitment in my heart to be a great pastor and make everyone happy, no matter what it cost me personally.
So I set out to do the job; and man, did I work. Fifty hours a week…someone needed to take over the kids' ministry. Sixty hours a week…the Christian school needed a basketball coach. Seventy hours a week…I could cover a couple Bible classes in the school. Before I knew it, I was working seven days a week. If there was a crisis, I was eager to pretend to play the hero role. My personal relationship with God was completely non-existent, but I was making everyone happy.
I should also tell you this about myself: I've been married for almost ten years (although you'll wonder how after you read this story), and I have two beautiful children. I said earlier that I was making everyone happy, but that statement wasn't completely true. My wife was struggling with my misplaced values. Now that we've been married for some time, my wife has little trouble keeping my ego deflated and my priorities in check. When I was working seventy hours a week, however, her protests went unheard. I was holding tightly to the net of people-pleasing and ministry success, and I refused to let it go.
Then one night, everything came crashing down. I hadn't spent any time with my wife or daughter in a couple of weeks, and Patti had one simple request: please get home tonight before we go to bed. As I was leaving the game, I was stopped by a parent. This parent needed to talk to me about the spiritual development of his child. He needed me, and I was there for him. I held tightly to my invisible net as I found a quiet place to talk and pray with this parent.
I should tell you one more thing about myself: I'm a really good pastor. I'm not saying this based on my own opinion. I've got stacks of cards, letters and e-mails telling me what a good job I do. I believe with all of my heart that I really help people. The problem was that, in my effort to be the perfect pastor, I had become a really crummy follower of Jesus.
The house was dark when I arrived home. I grabbed some food out of the fridge and went to the basement to watch TV. Patti was sitting on the couch in the dark, and she had been crying. These weren't the tears that come at the end of a Lifetime television for women movie feature. These were the tears of a woman who realized long before I did that I was losing touch with the Jesus about whom I was telling others. Patti shared her heart, and for the first time I listened. That night, the previous two years of ministry flashed through my mind like a bad movie in fast forward. I began to realize that I had been living in direct opposition to the call of Jesus in my life. Instead of a man dropping his nets to come to Jesus, I had been holding my nets at the expense of my family and my soul.
I never expected my net to come from within the context of ministry. Our nets aren't supposed to be good stuff, are they? Nets are things like addiction, fear, and sin, but not the church…right? I was faced with a piercing question: what do you do when your work at the church becomes your net—the thing that is keeping you from following Jesus? Something had to change, so I let go of the net. It is interesting to me that Jesus didn't promise safety, financial stability, comfort, or convenience to his followers. He called them to a life that they wouldn't have believed if He had told them…and He did it on His terms.
Letting go of the net ultimately led me to the resignation of my dream job. I gave up my pursuit of my plans, and I heard the voice of Jesus in the process. He wasn't calling me to a seventy-hour workweek or slick programs, but rather to my family and my soul. He was calling me to the life that can't be described as anything other than God alive in the human soul.
Now, in reality, my net wasn't the church; it was my own arrogance and pride. I am thankful that I learned my lesson before it cost me my family, and my wife would tell you that my job isn't my net any more. I have come to realize that no matter who you are or what you do, there are potential nets on every step of your journey. These nets come disguised as countless different things (many of which will shock you), but they will all keep you from following the Jesus that is standing on the shore, calling your name.
So may we move forward, fully aware of the things that keep us from following Jesus; and may we hear the words of Jesus in Matthew 16, "Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You're not in the driver's seat: I am. Don't run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I'll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?"
Matthew 16:24-26 (Message)
Ben is the Student Journey Designer at Westwinds Church. He is pursuing his M.Div from Trinity Theological Seminary in Evansville. Ben, his wife, and their two children live in Jackson, Michigan. You can read more of Ben’s stuff at: www.variousparables.com