Dan Reiland on Ministry in the Past, Present, and Future

Ministry: Past, Present, Future By Dan Reiland

Blaise Pascal.  A unusual name to start the first article of 2005, but one of Pascal's writings stirred some thoughts during a morning devotional time last week. 

Pascal was born in 1623 in France.  He was famous as a scientist and a brilliant mathematician.  Today his scientific work is largely forgotten, except for a few of his more famous ideas, such as "Pascal's Triangle."   Pascal's theological writings, however, have sustained strongly with substantial impact over the centuries.  Even though he was a Catholic, Protestants have warmly embraced his reflections, particularly after John Wesley commended his essay on conversion.

Here’s a quote from a little booklet called "Spiritual Classics:
Selected Readings from Blaise Pascal," by Robert Van De Weyer.  It’s
published by Revel and well done – I recommend the series:

"We never keep our minds on the present moment. We
remember the past, as if we wanted to slow down the passage of time.
And we look forward to the future, as if we wanted time to accelerate.
We wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think
about the only time that does. We dream of times past and future, and
flee from the present. The reason is that the present is usually
painful. We push it out of sight because it distresses us – only on
those few occasions which are truly enjoyable are we sorry to see time
slip away. We try to reduce present pain with joyful hopes of the
future, planning how we are going to arrange things in a period over
which we have nocontrol and which we cannot be sure of reaching…The
past and present are our means, and the future alone is our end. Thus
we never actually live, but hope to live. We are never actually happy,
but constantly planning how to become happy."

OK, so Blaise wasn’t the life of the party, but he was brilliant.
And he has written some thoughts that are worth our reflection.  We
often miss the core of our relationships by not living in the present.
We regret past mistakes, things we said or did, or look forward to how
things will be better in the future. And in doing so, we miss out on
the power of the present moment. Ministry can also be lived in the
past, present or future. Let’s look at some of the problems and some of
the potential.

Looking Back
The past is
where we often find the church. Unfortunately, far too many churches
get stuck in the past. I have visited churches that speak of their own
history, describing their "heyday" as twenty years ago. They point to
pictures in the foyer of the senior pastor who was the leader when the
church was much larger, while the current pastor is standing right
there! They possess a rightful pride in their past, but it’s as if they
have given up.  They inadvertently communicate that they have no hope
in the future. Other churches attempt to continually repeat the past,
and end up never changing or moving forward. 

Another unhealthy form of focusing on days gone by is demonstrated
by explaining or excusing the present by analyzing the past. Have you
noticed that churches that have plateaued have charts and graphs to
explain why, but churches that are growing rapidly often have little or
no idea why? While it’s good to learn from the past, it is dangerous to
over-analyze in order to explain why things are not going how they
should be. 

In addition to learning from it, here is a good reason to look at
the past: To reflect on God’s grace and faithfulness. It is a good
thing to celebrate the kindness of God by remembering and telling about
the victories He has provided. However, it is important that those
stories are told in order to inspire and encourage the people to move
forward and take new risks.

Looking Ahead
future can also be a dangerous place for ministry. I have consulted
with many churches that invest so much time planning that they never
actually implement anything. It’s not that they don’t do anything –
that’s what makes this danger subtle. These churches still deliver a
church service every seven days; marry, bury and have meetings. But not
much life change really happens.  They are good people and busy, but
not productive. 

Another form of "futuritis" is demonstrated by changing programs
rather than developing leadership. This is a constant and real
temptation. We go to conferences and hear about the latest ministry
"black box" or "secret sauce" and think that it’s the answer to our
problems.  It’s not. You can learn good ideas, principles and even get
strategic insight, but without leadership none of it will work anyway.
It’s a long proven ministry fact that a "B" plan with an "A" leader
will win all day long in comparison to the reverse. Nothing quite
carries the power (other than God Himself, of course) like strong and
wise leadership. So, be cautious before jumping to the next new and
cool idea.  Ask
yourself: Have you really given excellent leadership to the plan you currently have?

One other danger of focusing largely on what lies ahead is boredom
in the present. I’m fascinated by the number of pastors who just get
bored. It doesn’t make sense – they seem to be among the brightest
pastors I know. These are pastors who have led well, grown their
churches, found reasonable-to-great success, and have just gotten
bored. (I am not referring to people God has called to a new purpose,
but those who remain in the local church but seem to have lost their
love and passion for it.) They want a challenge and often step outside
the church in search of something new. Personally, I believe the local
church provides no end of challenges at increasingly higher levels. 

The positive side of looking ahead and leveraging leverage the
future and that it’s necessary to cast vision and give hope.  Little
more needs to be said about this for now, except to acknowledge this
obvious truth.

Focusing on Today
why is it that we have trouble with the present? Is Pascal bleak or
insightful?  Is our ministry so painful and difficult that we prefer
the past or the future?   

Sometimes, yes. When a pastoral leader deals with marriages that are
crumbling, boards that are arguing, finances that are struggling, and
people who are leaving, it is painful. It is difficult and the natural
response is to either retreat to the past, or run to the future. But
breakthroughs come when we define and face current reality. We never
grow when we largely live in the past or dream of the future. The
present is where the action is. 

Our model for ministry in the present is Jesus. As I carefully read
the New Testament, it is plain to me that He touched people in the
moment. Jesus met the needs that were real, relevant and current.  Even
when He quoted scripture from the past or spoke of the Kingdom to come,
it was about a lesson in that moment in time.

The key to the power of the present is life change. As leaders, we
must seek to impact the heart and mind, helping people to become all
that God designed them to be. No one experiences life change in the
past or in the future. It is in the power of the present. Whether it
involves confronting a staff member, telling someone that God loves
them (or that you love them), or
challenging the people on Sunday
morning in your church service, you must give your whole heart to the
moment or the moment will be lost. 

How to Live in the Moment
I have found that there are several ingredients that are needed to grant full power to the moment:

  • Truth
  • God’s favor
  • Your undivided attention
  • Heart and passion
  • Preparation (whenever possible)

Capturing all of the above isn’t easy. In fact, it’s work. It
requires leaders to get in the game and pay attention. Leadingfully in
the moment takes much energy, but the results are worthit.

It is easy to miss the moment—I have done it so many times,
especially with hospital calls. My phone rings, I get the story, and I
think "OK I need and want to go." Then I am simultaneously faced with
the serious and significant demands I am already committed to. It takes
me a couple of days to get to the hospital, and I’ve missed the moment
to minister. Living and doing ministry in the moment requires tough
decisions. It requires decisions that will cost you something. But
again, it’s
worth it. 

People need your heart fully engaged in the moment. They need your
eyes to find their heart and you to listen in a way that shows you
really care. As a leader, your people need you to live fully engaged
with the mission of your church as if today is your last day to make a

Don’t get stuck in the past or daydream about the future. Learn from
the past, cast a vision for the future, and live and minister in the

This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland’s free monthly e-newsletter ‘The Pastor’s Coach’ available at http://www.INJOY.com.