How many and How much...

I remember a day when something shifted under my sternum.  It was about a month after I became a lead pastor and slowly came to my senses as to what that actually meant.  Among many things, I distinctly remember feeling the weight of two numbers on the back of the bulletin that before were compelling, but not compulsive.  The attendance and the giving.

How many and How much.

How many people were here last weekend?
How much money was given last weekend?

Before I would see these numbers and move on to something else not giving it a second thought.  But now, now I felt their weight, like a millstone around my neck, a ball and chain attached to my heart that I was cursed to carry.  I will never forget the moment those two numbers translated into a torment that I can’t put into words.

It didn’t help that things were trending down for some reason when I entered this new season of leadership.  With every week that went by, I noticed the numbers diving, particularly the giving.  I would pray for God to put it on people’s hearts to give, but nothing changed, it only worsened in the months to follow.  Every week I felt more and more like it was my fault, as if the giving and attendance were a ‘vote of confidence’, a ‘grade card”, a “performance review”.  The more they tanked, the more I wondered if I was the reason.  Was I doing something that affected people’s confidence in the church?  Did they not trust our leadership?  Was my teaching on giving not understandable or inspiring?  I racked my brain while my heart was racked while being stretched apart.

I lost 30 pounds over the course of the next 9 months.  It was as if my body was eating itself for survival.  I was starving, but had no appetite.  Tired, but not able to sleep.  I tried everything I knew to do and say to right the ship, but to no avail.  The bank account was running dry and the summer months only made matters worse as people vacationed like there was no tomorrow.  I continued to wither away and my energy waned as my fixation became all the more tunnel-visioned, the peripheral almost non-existent.  I held the outside together as best I could, but my insides were twisted and torn to pieces.  Pressure led to worry, worry led to stress, stress led to anxiety, anxiety led to fear, fear led to panic, and panic led to paranoia.  I wish I was being over dramatic, but I’m not, ask my wife.  She watched me turn into a shell of who I used to be.  Days would go by so slow that I would wish I could sleep them away. 

But it wasn’t just the long days, it was the longer nights.  I had insomnia for the first time in my life, tired to the bone, but unable to shut down my racing mind.  The longer I was awake, the more I would talk myself into believing I wouldn’t be able to sleep.  The stories that would haunt me in the watches of the night between 1am and 5am were unbearable.  Every imaginable worst case scenario would play itself out in my mind and I would talk to myself to keep me company.  I would be on the couch downstairs so that it didn’t wake my wife or kids.  Months and months and months of sleep-deprivation and acute-anxiety crushed me.  I felt like I was aging a month each day.

I was getting migraines, my back went out and my sciatic nerve was on fire, I had gout in my feet, and my chest felt like an overripe watermelon that was about to burst.  My body was literally falling apart, some days I felt as if I were dying and, honestly, felt like if this was living that dying wouldn’t be all that bad an option.  I say that with no jest.  I was seriously questioning if I would make it and whether I would ever slog through this dark tunnel of terror.

There were other things going on that caused the heaviness, but I can’t think of anything more pronounced that the “how many/how much” survival spiral.  Would I be able to take care of the employees under me?  Would we have to take pay cuts?  Would I be able to lead us out of this hole?  Was I supposed to be a lead pastor in the first place?  Would I ever be able to feel peace and freedom again, ever?  Where was God and why wasn’t He helping me or speaking to me or motivating others?  I was a hot mess.

It’s been 6 years now and I can look back and see how God let me experience what He did to shape me into who I am today.  I won’t say that I don’t ever look at the ‘numbers’, there’s leadership in keeping account, but they don’t mean what they used to as it relates to my identity.  My worth and my work aren’t inextricably bound to each other, money and meaning aren’t yoked as one, numerical growth isn’t the only metric, nor the most important metric of evaluating health.  I learned little by little that my focus must remain on being faithful letting God take care of the fruitful part.  My aim had to be to please him motivated by the mission of the gospel first and foremost.  Yes, I had oversee the spreadsheets, but I had to concentrate on the grander vision, not the momentary snapshot. 

There are days when I’m sucked back into the vortex of numbers, but not with the ferocious intensity I struggled with in the early days of being a lead pastor.  I have learned that there are seasons, and that God will provide, even when things seem bleak for a bit.  I continually pray that my true worth isn’t found in the net-worth of our church on any given day.  I ask God to purify my heart so that I can love people well and not see them as “giving units”, but as “children of God” that he has given me the privilege and pleasure of helping along on the journey of the Christian life.  This centers me when I’m pulled back into humanistic measurements of success and significance.

How many and how much have lost a lot of power over the years, and I hope they continue to lose more as I fix my eyes on the rewards that really matter, the things that last forever.  May I never lose the vision even as I find myself wondering about provision.  May the reward of God’s grace and love cause me to lose myself in the wonder of the gospel, and may I be an ambassador of that gospel until I breathe my last.

The real questions now are:
How obedient?
How faithful?

As I’m driven by these quests and questions, my heart’s desire is to hear “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” from my heavenly Father.  This is what I long to live for even as the human part of me finds itself clashing and thrashing to free itself from the benchmarks of success heralded in the marketplace.  May the Word of God be my guide and Will of God my sole desire.

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