Thursday, January 20, 2011

Trust the Processes

The last 24 to 30 months have brought mind-numbing financial challenges for a few churches and ministries. For others, the days have been challenging to say the least.

For years, it seemed so easy. Revenue increased nearly every year; expenses were allowed to proportionately increase. Everyone received a salary increase each year; there were few lay-offs. The number of people served by our programs went up. Reserves often increased.

But then, revenues began to decline. There was no certainty on how far they would go down. Budgeting principles, as we knew them, were out the window.

Organizations cut expenses but many found themselves behind the curve. Some looked for a “new normal.” While “normals” feel permanent, they never are—they just don’t stick around very long. It has been a process.

It is a sobering thought but a vital one. The things I know best about Him are things I learn through the process of day-to-day ministry and life.

You wake up in the middle of the night—you hear a voice that quietly but firmly points out that there is One who can gather up the circumstances of our ministry and use them to His purposes and to our good.

It is partially, at least from this perspective of bad times and good times, that I so strongly see and believe this fact: one can come to know that God is infinitely willing and abundantly able to bring good out of the processes of our ministries.

In Dorothee Soelle’s book, Death by Bread Alone, she suggests “the language of religion is experience.” She writes about a deep experience she went through: “It began to dawn on me that people who believe limp somewhat, as Jacob limped after wrestling with God on the shore of the Jabbok. The experience of the sufficiency of grace for our life, and the experience that nothing—not even our own death—can separate us from the love of God, are experiences we can recognize only after the fact. Such experiences are not written down and incorporated in drawings and plans which we can examine and check during the course of construction.”

The processes of life are when we come to know Him as we should. We start out with a “profession of faith.” It is not that what we are saying is not true—His promises are definitely real. But we do not own these beliefs yet because we have not bought them with the experiences of our journey. In the last couple of years, many Christian leaders paid the price of buying their beliefs while working through the processes of ministry.

When I was younger, I was a frequent attender of Christian retreats. Bob Benson, an executive with Benson Publishing, was my favorite retreat leader. In one retreat prayer time, he asked us to envision a blank sheet of paper with a horizontal line across the middle. Then, giving us time for reflection, he asked us to remember the good things that happened over the last couple of years—to think about them and rejoice over them. He asked us to put those things above the line.

Then, to help us get a truer perspective of how God works in our lives, he asked us to recall the negative things that had come to us as well—the dark, deep, troublesome times that threatened to engulf our souls. He asked us to list those below the line.

Bob asked us to commit the whole paper to Him—He is the God of the list on the top and God of the list on the bottom.

That day as I made my list, there were some things, for the life of me, I didn’t know where to put them. Some of the things were so evil it would seem their place would be a foregone conclusion. The day they happened, I knew, all right. The bottom of the bottom wasn’t low enough. I did not know whether I would make it or not. But looking back, I could see how God used for good what seemed so bad at the time.

That retreat with Bob Benson was years ago and he has gone on to the treasure laid up in a life-time of devotion, discipleship, and dedication. Still today, even the worst things that have happened to me in the last few years, I find them creeping up, over the line—illustrating that even out of the direst circumstances His call to us can be heard.

Listen to all your ministry has to say to you. He calls you from the processes.

Based on Bob Benson’s book He Speaks Softly, Word, 1985.