The older I get, the more I am coming to believe that ministry is really only about two things: showing up and staying out of the way. When I was younger, I failed to fully appreciate the value of either, but after 40+ years of ministry I think I’m finally beginning to see the beauty and the value of both.
The value of simply showing up can never be underestimated. Showing up says, “I care.” Showing up says, “I’m committed.” Showing up says, “You are valuable.” And most of all, showing up says, “You are loved.”
A few days ago, I traveled a couple of hours to attend the funeral of a good friend’s mom, who had just ended a twelve-year battle with cancer. And as I approached my friend in the receiving line, he said, “Why should I be surprised? You always show up, and you have for the last ten years.”
Showing up is not a one-time thing. It takes constancy and consistency. It takes time and effort. It does not come fast or easily. And in a world that is broken and chaotic and ever-changing, showing up is a light in the midst of the darkness.
But showing up doesn’t stand alone, it must be combined with staying out of the way. When I was younger, I felt like I always had to be something or do something or say something, but the older I get the more I realize that much of that being or doing or saying actually got in the way of what God was trying to do. Luckily, he is big enough to use even my needy bumbling and fumbling to accomplish his purposes, most often in spite of me. But the realization I have made over the last several years is that the need I have to be or to do or to say is often more about me than it is about God. In fact, if I would just show up and stay out of his way, he would do things that I never imagined.
A classic example of this involves the 20 years I spent on a high school football sideline. On the sideline, staying out of the way is an art form. In fact, there are several things that can happen if you don’t stay out of the way, and they are all bad. More times than I can count, I have been responsible for talking to players when they were supposed to be on the field or distracting them while they were supposed to be paying attention at practice. One time I even got one of the game officials (who was a good friend of mine) in trouble because he was talking to me rather than paying attention. I have also been directly responsible for a sideline warning or two because I wasn’t paying attention to where I was standing. Luckily, I’ve never been directly responsible for a penalty. But when you are in the way, and not paying attention to what's going on, there is the distinct possibility that you might get run over by players making sideline tackles or try to get out of bounds, so you have to pay attention and stay on your toes. Thus, staying out of the way is an active process.
One of my favorite stories about this involved a good friend who was a Young Life leader at our high school. One day at practice, our running backs coach came to me and said the head coach wanted to see me. This rarely happened in the middle of practice, so I knew something was up. As I walked out on the practice field, he pointed over to the sideline and asked, “Is that guy in the blue jacket a Young Life leader?” “Yes sir,“ I responded. Then, with a growing grin on his face, he said, “Would you please tell him how we come to practice? I keep trying to get kids to come over to my huddle, but they are too busy being a part of his huddle to pay any attention.” So I had the privilege of talking to my Young Life leader friend about the art of staying out of the way. It is so easy in life and ministry to start making things about ourselves rather than about our God.
Years ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to sit with a couple who had just lost a child. Since that was also something we’d experienced, we gladly stepped into that painful, awful, sacred space with them. We told them our story and our experience and hoped it would offer them some peace and hope and comfort. But as we walked away from the time, I had this overwhelming sense that I had made the time more about us than about them. In my desire to be helpful and comforting, and wise, I had missed the opportunity to just be with them in their grief and listen to what was going on in their hearts. To this day I long for a do-over (click here), for the ability just to sit with them and be with them, rather than feeling any need to be or do or say anything significant. For the chance to not be so focused on my own needs and fears and insecurities that I get in the way of what God is trying to do.
Not getting in the way of what God is trying to do is a significant part of ministry. The best leaders do not take up all the room but make space for God (and for others) to speak, move, and act. Hopefully next time I will remember that.