During my teen years I fell in love with the Church and the idea of vocational ministry. I felt the call, and knew ministry in the organized Church would be part of my future. I was impacted by “hands and feet”, “here I am, send me”, “be-used-by-God” statements and thinking. I wanted to partner with God, and the thought that He would want to include me in His grand and wild plan was humbling, thrilling. I didn’t want to mess any of it up, so “die to self” became an easy mantra, made convenient by severe insecurity and shame. There’s a lot of brokenness that we can cover up with holy-sounding excuses. I believed that there was not much good in me to offer, truly, deep down. I was very set in a very specific way of thinking about ministry and following Christ.
I volunteered in church over the years, and in my early twenties fell in love with someone who loved ministry as much as me. Spencer and I married, and after a few years of being a pastors wife I attended a retreat specifically for women in ministry.
During one of the sessions we sang a song by All Sons And Daughters called “I Am Set Free”, one I was very familiar with at the time.
“I am set free oh
I am set free oh
It is for freedom that I am set free”
I went through the motions and my mind went to all the reasons it was important that I be free: so that I would be a good witness, so that my issues wouldn’t get in the way of people knowing Jesus, so that I would be more effective when it came to ministry, so I could be less insecure and quiet and more acceptable to God. All good and well-intentioned and things.
I’m not sure that the song was even over when one of the women leading the retreat came up to the front to share something.
She said she felt like someone needed to hear what she was about to say, and the word she shared truly changed my life:
“It was for FREEDOM that you were set free. Not for ministry. Not for everybody else. For Freedom”
*cue my uncontrollable ugly crying in the front row
In so many words she continued on to say that Gods love and delight for us was enough for Him to be moved to give Himself to free us. And sure, as an overflow of that freedom and beloved-ness, others would be affected and ministry would happen. But the point of freedom is not just to be used up by God in an endless cycle.
There are few moments in my life that I can compare to that one. God directly spoke to my heart, and I experienced healing in such a beautiful, powerful way. I am still moved and ministered to by those words to this day.
Something I never understood then is that while selflessness is incredibly important (vital) in our walk as Christians, it does not stand in opposition to the knowledge (confidence) that we are deeply loved by God. I’ve come to understand that it is pretty impossible to hear the voice of a loving and truth-telling God when you are so consumed and distracted with self-loathing.
Even if things don’t go quite as far as self-loathing in our minds, I think for those of us in “church world” it can be so easy to forget that because we serve others that we, too, are His prize.
Sarah Bessey writes in this blog and in her book Out of Sorts:
“I wasn’t created to be used. We were not saved, set free, rescued, redeemed, to be used. We aren’t here to work and earn our way, we aren’t pew fodder, or a cog. We aren’t here to prove how worthwhile we are for the saving, there isn’t anything left to earn. God won’t use us up, all of our talents, our gifts, our mind, our love, our energy. Despite our tendency to view ministry as a profession, and the work of the Gospel as worthy of the sacrifice of marriages and attendance at school concerts, our value to God is not buried in our workhorse mentality. Would anyone “use” their beloved? Use their child? Use their friend? If we, being human, know these things, how much more our Father who is Love himself? When we use the word “used” I believe we are missing the wild and crazy upside-down kingdom of God itself, hidden in the very name of Jesus: Immanuel. God with us.
God saved you because he loves you and longs to restore you to relationship. You were rescued and redeemed to be with God. He delights in you. He yearns to walk with you, to be with you, to see you become fully human, fully alive, fully your own self.
God does not want to use you: God wants to be with you because he loves you.”
One Easter week in Sunday school, my teacher was telling us the story of Jesus carrying the cross to His crucifixion. As she spoke passionately about Jesus she was moved to tears because of the story and His love. I remember being taken aback and thinking that God must really love me. Her own experience with Christs love, the fact that it impacted her in a real way, intrigued me to know Jesus. It wasn’t about the object lesson of that day, the craft, or how well the she had planned everything out. But it was how clearly Jesus impacted her personally, and her willingness to let us see it, that made me want to know him more.
Your abilities and ideas will take your ministry so far, but it is the genuineness of your own relationship with and love for Jesus that will draw people in to Him for the rest of your days. It has to start with you and Him.
So I have this to say to my ministry friends (you too, husband): You pour out week-to-week, with work hours that are unclear and at times feel unending. You don’t ever clock out, you are always “on”, always needed by people. Your work and your faith are intertwined and drawing boundaries in one can feel like a betrayal of both. You love, love, love what you do. You wouldn’t change a thing, and maybe sometimes you would change all the things. In all the giving, serving, and leading, please do not forget— You are also deeply loved. By God, and by your people. You are not alone. You are seen. Your abilities in preaching or events or organization or music, your charisma, your talent, your people skills, do not cause you to be loved or valued more or less by Him. What does it all matter if you yourself do not have a deep assurance of our God’s great love for you? What is the point of it all if you forget that you, too, were the One that He’d leave the Ninety-Nine for? Let your unshaken belief in your beloved-ness, the joy of your salvation, be what spills over in your ministries and your conversations and your lives. Settle in to that truth. Rest in it.
It was for freedom, friends. Full stop.