By Joy Wong
In Parker Palmer‘s book, Let Your Life Speak, a common shadow among leaders is named as “functional atheism” – ”the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us,” along with ”the conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen.” According to Palmer, functional atheism often leads to depression, despair, burnout, and embitterment. Boy, did I resonate with this!
I have always been a very results-oriented person. In most areas of my life, I’ve learned to set goals, make a list of all that can be done to reach that goal, and then systematically go through the to-do list. Success never came easy to me, but seeing that hard work paid off, I decided to put in the work necessary to succeed. I now realize that inadvertently, I transferred this mindset into ministry. If I had to organize a fellowship banquet, I’d imagine what a successful banquet would look like (which would become my goal), and then with planning and hard work, I’d make a beeline for that goal. The same went for worship leading, bible studies, etc. Prayer would be woven throughout the process, but I think there was still a part of me that operated like a functional atheist, believing that hard work would guarantee results. Usually they did, but the inevitable and undesirable aftermath was just as Parker Palmer said: depression, despair, burnout, and embitterment.
More and more, I sense God inviting me from my solo act into a partnership. I’m realizing that especially in ministry, the goal is not a successful banquet, a musically-perfect worship session, or even phenomenal teaching (although God can certainly use all of these). The goal is for the Holy Spirit to change hearts and lives through us, and as such, partnership with God is our only option.
Just the acknowledgement that the onus for “success” in ministry is not entirely upon me lifts a huge burden. I can relax and just do my part, knowing that I’m in teamwork with God, without whom nothing of true eternal value can be accomplished. The acknowledgement of my human limitations comes as a welcome relief. I no longer have to make things happen; instead, I can work alongside of whatever God is doing already. And in that, I find rest, contentment, and great joy!
Joy Wong has an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, a BA in English from Princeton University, as well as four years’ experience in industrial distribution management. She is a contributing author to Mirrored Reflections: Reframing Biblical Characters, published in September 2010. Joy and her husband live in Pasadena, California and attend New City Church of Los Angeles.