Letting Go

You like making a difference, right? You would like it if you could change someone’s life for the better, right? I mean, you’re not a loon, right?

I think that’s the draw for most people that get involved in any ministry. The thrill of stepping into someone’s life, and introducing them to a God so big and powerful and life changing, and seeing step by step happen and progress be made is intoxicating. You are making a real, tangible difference. A difference you believe will echo into eternity.

But for every story that goes well, there are dozens of stories where nothing changed or things only got worse. Worse yet, your impact and your change really doesn’t matter unless it lasts. If the life change comes and goes with the seasons of life, was it really a change at all?

I’ve been involved in a bunch of different ministries through the years, and the one I love most is the one I’m involved deep in right now: student ministry. Saying I feel a calling all the way into my bones would not be too weighty an exaggeration.

Yet ministry is the longest game imaginable. You may plant seeds you never get to see harvested. And you may water seeds someone else planted, and someone else will harvest. You will have a few successes here and there, but you won’t ever know the true impact of your life’s work for decades. If you hear at all.

We build programs and processes and systems. We systemize the Gospel, we count program attendance and small group attendance, and camps and mission trips and serving opportunities and on and on and on. None of this is bad. We need a way to get feedback on how we’re doing, and we need the courage to respond to that feedback and make (even drastic) changes when we’re not doing well.

Maybe this is too strong a statement, and I don’t know if I really buy it yet, but it sounds plausible: sometimes the only feedback we can really get in life tells us when we’re doing it dreadfully wrong. Rarely can it tell us when we’re doing it right.

Why? Because we’re playing the longest game possible. Unlike a business that sends email, or a restaurant that sells experiences or a venue that sells events, churches aren’t transactional. It’s because the gospel isn’t transactional.

Yet so often I want to boil it down to something transactional. Transactions I can count. I can keep track of those. Every kid I can get to say a prayer, do a dunk in water, is another notch on my spiritual belt. Another win. Another success.

Say this prayer, do this dance, and click your heals three times and Jesus’ blood will wash away your sins and make you new. Next!

I guess I am sounding really cynical at this point, especially towards modern Christianity, but that’s not it at all. It’s in our bones to look for success. And you can track transactions. Can you really track life change?

The point that I’m eventually meandering my way towards (while maximizing the number of people that think I’m crazy in the meantime) is that evangelism is a crapshoot.

We give it our best, and long after it’s too late to adjust our methods, we find out whether we were successful or not. We can’t control the hurt that comes into the life of our kids before, during or after our time together. We can’t control the charismatic, yet deceiving, voices that tell them lies like they don’t matter.

It’s just as Jesus’ parable foretold: seed was scattered. Some of it got destroyed by weeds, some of it was eaten by birds, some of it was burned in the sun. And some of it grew. And grew. And grew. And a mighty harvest years later happened.

How can you track that, dear leader? How can you make sure you’re doing everything — everything! — you can to make the seed land on good soil?

How can you see that and keep going? At least with everything else in life, I have more or less instantaneous feedback on how I’ve done. It seems like in ministry, the only instant feedback is when I’ve done it all wrong.

I love the way that Andy Stanley puts it: “Leadership is stewardship. It is temporary and you are accountable.”

All of that terrifies me. Particularly that last bit, I’m accountable! I better not get this wrong! gulp

My instincts in this moment are to clamp down and try to hold on to what’s going on as much as possible. I can’t control all of it, but I can control some of it, and you better know darn well I’m not going to mess that part up!

But what if our instincts are wrong? What if, instead of taking the cross up and tightening down the reigns, I let them go?

What if I released my grip? What if I embraced the fact that my stewardship is a temporary one and one day I won’t be doing what I’m doing anymore and someone else will take my place?

What if I embraced that I am never going to know the exact difference I will make, and released that worry so God could release me to do bigger, riskier and more daring things? What if I said, I’m accountable for what I do, so I might as well go big!

Here’s something I’m convinced great leaders do: truly exceptional leaders let go.

This was illustrated brilliantly for me in January at the YouVersion planning week. Bobby, in talking about the great responsibility bringing the Bible to tens of millions of people today is, put it this way: “We don’t take it lightly, and we don’t hold it tightly.”

I love that and ever since have tried to apply it to my own life. The calling placed on every Christian — you are a leader whether you realize it or not! — the calling to serve others in some capacity should be approached with some amount of trepidation. What God is calling you to is important. Don’t take it lightly! You are uniquely gifted, called and placed to do something God will make great. That’s not something to sneeze at.

Yet, you are utterly replaceable. God doesn’t need you. God chooses you, God calls you, and God wants you, but God does not need you. And one day, you won’t be there.

One day, my seventh graders will be adults with adult problems and adult friends to confide in. (ie: not me!) One day, someone else will sit in my seat, and pray with them, and lead them. One day, I won’t be there.

At times, that freaks me out. I naturally immediately tighten my grip. What I’ve got is good, I don’t want it to go away.

But fighting it would be like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. I can’t fight it. It’s gonna happen.

So instead, I have to fight what seems natural, and I have to loosen my grip. I have to let go. I have to let God do what is impossible for me. And he can only do it when we let go and make room for him to do it.

This has been so powerful! I’m a pretty competitive person, so when I see folks moving in on my territory, I get insecure and tighten my grip. Maybe it’s a process I’m the ‘expert’ in at work, maybe it’s one of my friends spending more time with somebody else, maybe it’s a kid I’m working with getting closer to another leader. I don’t want to be pushed out. (who would?) So I tighten my grip and try to force my way in, thinking it will make me better.

But one day I’m going to be forced out anyway, and there’s not going to be anything I can do about it. So rather than stress about being forced out, I try to remember it’s going to happen anyway, and the best way to leave something better than I found it is to invite other people in.

The best goal? To have other people come in and do what I do, and hopefully have them do it better than I ever did it.

This is so totally selfless, and it’s why it doesn’t come naturally to me. So often I would prefer we all did worse collectively, as long as I’m at the top, than to have us do great collectively if I can’t be top dog.

No wonder God despises an attitude like that. That attitude is so far removed from God’s heart it makes me sick, yet it’s where I go time and time and time again.

Great leaders create margin. They create margin for other leaders to develop. They create margin so other leaders can do great things. They create margin so when they go away, even greater leaders are standing by to take people to even greater heights.

Great leaders let go.

What have you been holding on too tightly to? What, if it was suddenly taken away from you, would flounder and drown without you? What do you need to let go of?