A couple of weeks ago I was getting ready to do a wedding and I couldn’t find the clipboard I usually use to hold my notes. After some rummaging around, I found an old folder that would do the trick. As I was putting my papers in it, I noticed that there was something in the front pouch of the folder. I pulled out a piece of paper that I instantly recognized. “It’s my to do list!” I thought. “When did I put that in there?” Then I realized that it wasn’t a recent list; it was from at least seven years ago. It had a reminder to call Dorothy, who died the year my daughter was born, and to connect to Freida, who is still alive at 94, but moved out west a couple of years ago. I smiled as I saw these names, remembering these dear women. It also had a note for me about Sunday School lessons. This also made me smile, as I am grateful that our church now has a pastor who focuses on next generation ministry, so I don’t look after Sunday School curriculum anymore.
These things were nice to read, but I confess that my overall feeling as I read was not one of delight. Instead, I got a heavy heart. I couldn’t shake how very similar that old list looked to the one I had sitting on my desk at that very moment. I start each week by pulling out a letter size piece of paper, folding it in half, and writing the things I have to do that week on one side, and the things that I need to do some time soon on the other. This piece of paper gets stuck in my day timer and I cross things off as I’m done. It feels good at the end of the week when my list is full of crossed out reminders. I did the things! Yay me! Yet, for all the things I’ve “crossed off” week after week as a pastor, I couldn’t help but notice that my current list, written at least seven years after the one I had just found, had a lot of the same things written on it.
I was, once again, getting ready for a Baptism class. I had a note to get a membership class happening soon. I had people to call, visit, and email. I still carry a burden for our young adults, who head off to college and university and who are so often lost to faith in those years. I had on my current list the same words: “young adults.” Nothing in particular to DO about young adults – but some sense that I need to do SOMETHING.
When I found that old list I was coming close to marking twelve years since I had begun serving as pastor of my church. I have had a lot of mixed feelings about this anniversary. In my heart of hearts, I know the good things that have happened through this time. I know most of them wouldn’t even rightly fit on any “to do list.” How do you quantify how people respond after a sermon, or someone who has felt God’s presence in grief, or what a child remembers after the Sunday School lesson they were taught in 2011?
Yet, there was this list, starting at me. Looking so much like every other list I’ve made for 700ish weeks in a row. I couldn’t help but ask: Did any of it matter? Did anything ever REALLY change? What did it mean to do these little things, day in and day out? Had I used my time well, and, the most jarring question: Will my lists look like this in another 5, 10, or 20 years? What if they do? What if I am still visiting people who will later die, still running the same classes year after year, still lamenting another young adult that has decided they don’t believe in the God they loved as a child? What if this list is what my ministry, my life, and my calling boil down to…will it be enough?
Some days, I’m afraid that it won’t be.
Some days, some easy measurables would be nice. Some days, some tidy statistics about how my input has led to specific “output” would feel gratifying (Examples: 2 hours of leading Bible study = 5 people helping the poor as a result; 1 hour of hospital visit = 1 week of person feeling assured of God’s love; 1 sermon preached = 10 people remembering anything I said. That kind of thing). Some days, I’d like to feel like crossing stuff off the list had really mattered…that it had mattered so much, in fact, that I didn’t even need to write it down again.
That old list reminded me of all these desires. So I hated that list, and how it made me feel.
Still, I didn’t throw the old list in recycling, as I usually do each week. I laid it in my office where I would see it, and where I have seen it most days since. I have let it remind me about all these questions, all my esoteric “does-my-ministry-matter-why-do-I-do-this-I-could-have-been-a-lawyer-with-how-much-schooling-I’ve-done” questions. And of course the biggest question of all: Does it matter?
And then, when that nagging question comes, I remind myself of the necessary response: It doesn’t matter if it matters.
Isn’t it funny the things that the enemy can use to make you doubt everything about yourself? That day, it was an old piece of paper, an old to-do list telling me that my worth had to be measured, that my job in life was to produce results, that “success” was the goal, and that such success means having something to “show for myself.” How many people at your church, Pastor? How many people baptized this year? How many books written, blog posts read, speaking engagements on your resume? How many things “finished” on your to-do list?
Listen, I know that I could indeed make a big list of all the great things that God has done through my ministry. I know a whole bunch of you will consider commenting on my wall or sending me a message and telling me about the ways you are grateful for my ministry. Those things are nice, and I thank you, but they aren’t the goal. If I start to gauge living out my calling by whether people tell me I’m doing well, in fact, that can lead me to as many misconceptions as focusing too much on a seven year old to-do list. This cannot be where I find my worth.
Instead, every Monday morning I will start again. I will sit at my desk, pull out a piece of letter paper, fold it in half and ask: “God what do you need me to do this week?” Then I will make a list. I know some things will be on that list again, and again, and again. But God isn’t calling me to keep track – God is calling me to be faithful. That is my calling, and it is one rich beyond measure.