Staying Spiritually Fresh in Ministry
By Patricia Hickman
There’s an old story that circulates here on the East Coast about a company that deep-sea fished in the Atlantic to supply restaurant owners. The live fish caught and dropped into a holding tank were swimming to the bottom of the tank and dying before the ship could reach the docks. One day, a sea catfish accidentally slipped into the tank. Sea catfish are trash fish, not good for human consumption. Nonetheless, the captain noticed that when the other fish grew lethargic, the catfish, seeing them as easy dinner, would nibble on them. Not wanting to be eaten alive, the high-quality fish swam away. When the ship docked, the catch that day was fully alive because the catfish’s nibbling kept the fish from growing lethargic and dying. So, the captain started capturing catfish to drop into the tanks to preserve his catch, thus guaranteeing that the fish arrived at the harbor fresh and alive.
This reminds me of how God uses adversity to keep us spiritually fresh as Christian leaders. I didn’t always understand this principle. As a young pastor’s wife almost 20 years ago, I remember how I longed for the days that ministry would get easier. I imagined that one day I would wake up a spiritual giant, traversing life’s difficulties in a single leap of faith. I didn’t understand the principle of “the catfish in my tank.” Nor would I have believed that, after years of seasoning as a church leader, the little fishes of life would continue to assail and try me.
Last fall I had what some might call a mountaintop experience. I immersed myself in an intensive Bible study under retreat teacher Anne Graham Lotz at Billy Graham’s training center, The Cove. There, with nothing on the slate but prayer and guerilla Bible study, I reached more deeply than I had at other retreats or workshops. (I’ve known other seasons where my Bible study reaped high results.) Yet, following that retreat, I felt closer to God than I have ever felt. Never had my path felt more certain. I could see what was ahead and what I was supposed to do next. I understood some things about God that rang so true. I thought I was getting at least a taste of what it must be like to be a more fully formed, mature Christian leader. I couldn’t live on the mountaintop forever, but what I took back down would have lasting benefits that would equate to at least a semblance of transformation. It was like ramping to the top of a hill and then finally enjoying the exhilarating ride down.
Then I descended back into what Paul calls “this body of death.” I had to return to life as a flawed mortal. Still, with such an experience behind me, I could certainly soar for a while, I thought. After all, I had filled up on Anne’s spiritual Wheaties.
It wasn’t long until circumstances in the church, as well as family issues became a weight on top of me. Overwhelming feelings crept back in and I was again dodging those nuisances that, at times, made me feel like I was being nibbled to death. I finally understood why some people were drawn into the monastic life.
Christian leaders know all too well the overwhelming “catfish” that can come at us to feast on our vulnerabilities: rejection, mistrust, divisions, finger pointing, false beliefs infecting the flock, pride, and disappointment. All of these trials contribute to ministry exhaustion. The list grows longer and more trying as we follow Christ in service to His Body.
When we descend into a valley after experiencing a spiritual high, we question our ability and our faith. We start to wonder if the mountaintop was real because the reality of the valley is so dark, but there is a lot going on besides what we’re feeling at the time. The problems we face, that seemingly have been thrown into our tank without our permission, are building our endurance muscles.
Without these trying little fish, I’m tempted to become complacent in my decisions, believing that whether I choose A or B, neither is a bad choice. However, when squeezed by the tension of trials, I’m more alert because the “catfish” have put me on my guard. I’m more likely to discern the truth behind my decisions, and that helps me know whether to lay down my “convictions” and let others win or stand firm even if it makes me unpopular. The scrapes with other flawed mortals keep my decisions bathed in Christ’s humility as well as enabling a continual application of truth from God’s Word.
Human annoyances and crises serve as wake-up calls, alerting me to the fact that the choices I make are a privilege and a responsibility. It’s part of my high calling to choose wisely.
The catfish in our tank—be it a church member inadvertently undermining our efforts or a struggling believer throwing in the towel—all are reminders that we, as Christian leaders, can’t just go to the bottom of life and doze. God wants us to arrive Home having lived life fully alert and thriving.
We weren’t made for mediocrity. Just lifting our feet and allowing life to carry us along can leave us vulnerable-spiritual fish bait. This “body of death” carries within it the capacity to make us into individuals who can accomplish much more than daily life implies we might.
“So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled” (1 Thess. 5:6).
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