Pastoral ministry and the law of unintended consequences

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Unleashing a deadly boulder storm: Pastor ministry and the law of unintended consequences

August 15, 2023 -

This illustration made available by Johns Hopkins APL and NASA depicts NASA's DART probe, upper right, on course to impact the asteroid Dimorphos, left, which orbits Didymos. DART is expected to zero in on the asteroid Monday, Sept. 26, 2022, intent on slamming it head-on at 14,000 mph. The impact should be just enough to nudge the asteroid into a slightly tighter orbit around its companion space rock. (Steve Gribben/Johns Hopkins APL/NASA via AP)

This illustration made available by Johns Hopkins APL and NASA depicts NASA's DART probe, upper right, on course to impact the asteroid Dimorphos, left, which orbits Didymos. DART is expected to zero in on the asteroid Monday, Sept. 26, 2022, intent on slamming it head-on at 14,000 mph. The impact should be just enough to nudge the asteroid into a slightly tighter orbit around its companion space rock. (Steve Gribben/Johns Hopkins APL/NASA via AP)

This illustration made available by Johns Hopkins APL and NASA depicts NASA's DART probe, upper right, on course to impact the asteroid Dimorphos, left, which orbits Didymos. DART is expected to zero in on the asteroid Monday, Sept. 26, 2022, intent on slamming it head-on at 14,000 mph. The impact should be just enough to nudge the asteroid into a slightly tighter orbit around its companion space rock. (Steve Gribben/Johns Hopkins APL/NASA via AP)

Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Corinthians 2:16).

I was scanning the news recently when this headline arrested me: “NASA asteroid strike unleashes boulder storm ‘as deadly as Hiroshima.’”

The space agency crashed a spacecraft into the asteroid Dimorphos last September as it seeks ways to protect our planet from meteor collisions that could cause extinction-level events. The impact succeeded in knocking Dimorphos slightly off course, but it also dislodged thirty-seven boulders on the surface of the meteor that are now flying through space at thirteen thousand miles per hour. These boulders range in size from three feet to twenty-two feet across.

According to one scientist, a fifteen-foot boulder hitting our planet at high speed would deliver as much energy as the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

The boulders in question are not a threat to us. But the story illustrates the law of unintended consequences: an action intended to protect our planet from one meteor could in fact produce dozens of them that could strike us as well.

This “law” was on my mind as I clicked on this tragic headline: “Family mourns after apparent suicide of Texas Pastor Phillip Loveday.” The pastor’s remains were discovered by police after he had been missing for several days. A church member told a reporter, “He was the one who kept us going. When we were hurting, he was hurting as well. He was our shepherd, and now we’re a flock missing our shepherd.”

I don’t know any more about the pastor’s story than the news is reporting. But I have known several ministers over the years who died by suicide and am certain of this: they did not intend the devastating consequences their deaths brought to those they served.

The peril of always being “on”

The law of unintended consequences is especially challenging for those of us who represent Christ to the culture as vocational ministers. Nearly everything we say and do is seen and interpreted by someone. Every moment and dimension of our lives reflects on our Lord and our church, for good or for ill.

When I first became a pastor nearly forty years ago, this incessant sense of always being “on” was one of the most frustrating dimensions of my experience. My wife and I quickly learned that we could not go out in public unless we were dressed in ways that our members and the larger community deemed “appropriate.” People took note of where we ate, what movies we saw, and what events we attended and did not attend. When our sons came along, this burden fell on them as well.

I’m not suggesting that such expectations are fair or appropriate, but I do believe that they are typical and typically inevitable. Consequently, our goal should not be to persuade the church and community to treat us as “normal.” Rather, it is to identify and utilize resources that enable us to redeem such visibility and influence for God’s glory.

Opening Napoleon’s mail

This strategy begins with humility that asks with Paul, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16). None of us can bear the burden of public expectations without failure. Each of us will disappoint our Lord, our people, and ourselves at times.

So, we shoulder the responsibility of public ministry by shifting it to our Lord. We accept his invitation to “take my yoke upon you” (Matthew 11:29), seeking to do only what he calls us to do—no more and no less. We ask his Spirit each day to empower us for that day (Ephesians 5:18) and to give us the “daily bread” we need to serve effectively.

Then we measure success as God does: by faithfulness.

In Genius Thinking: Lessons from History’s Greatest Minds on Innovation, Creativity, and Intelligence, Peter Hollins concludes that five traits are essential to our best thinking:

  • insatiable curiosity,
  • hard work and discipline,
  • intellectual honesty,
  • having a wide range of interests,
  • and non-conventionality.

He notes that “nowhere on the list is ‘extreme intelligence’” and adds that “these traits could also be called attitudes or mindsets and consist of behaviors that we can consciously develop in ourselves, whether we consider ourselves gifted intellectually or not.”

In developing and using these traits, Hollins notes that the successful entrepreneur “has failed more times than the average person has even tried.” The difference is that such people see their efforts as a scientist views experiments: activities whose outcomes advance knowledge, whatever they are. As Thomas Edison famously said of his “failed” inventions, “I have not failed ten thousand times—I’ve successfully found ten thousand ways that will not work.” And many that did.

In addition, Hollins advises us to be ruthless with our time, focusing only on what is most missional for us. For example, he reports that Napoleon instructed a friend and biographer to leave all letters addressed to him unopened for three weeks. The idea was that after three weeks, a large portion of the letters no longer required an answer since unimportant issues tend to resolve themselves. That which is truly important will still be important in three weeks, or so Napoleon believed.

I’m not suggesting that you follow his example with your pastoral correspondence. But I am suggesting that we prioritize what is most missional and then give our best for God’s glory. Such focused service constitutes success with our Lord, whether others agree or not.

Four investments for optimal happiness

Arthur Brooks is a Harvard professor focusing on happiness studies . I have followed his work for years with great appreciation. In a class on building a happier life, he identifies four areas in which we must invest for optimal happiness:

  1. Faith and life philosophy: how you define the meaning of life
  2. Family: the people closest to you upon whom you can truly depend
  3. Community and friends: the people and groups who make you feel supported in who you are
  4. Meaningful work: work you do that doesn’t detract but adds value to your life.

When you and I invest in each as God leads and empowers us, we “plant trees we’ll never sit under,” as Alfred North Whitehead suggested. We make an impact on earth that echoes in heaven.

And the law of unintended consequences becomes our friend, to the glory of God.

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