It started with a huge mistake that I made in Germany – filling our diesel car with gasoline (yeah, I know). Then, what should have been a quickly corrected error turned into a not-so-funny comedy of errors due to non-existent customer service (it took them 5 days to pick up their car from the side of the road), unforeseen personal issues (our cat at home died and my wife fell down the stairs in Germany) and problems with our new rental car.
Despite all of it, we picked up some principles that helped us get through the week and on to our destination. Principles that will apply to pastoring a Small Church and to most of life’s challenges.
1. Having a plan matters – especially when life tries to change that plan
Perhaps the #1 reason many Small Churches never get out of the rut of failure after failure is that they don’t have a plan to do so. Often, when I ask pastors “so what’s your plan/vision/goal for the church?” the response is some version of “I roll out bed in the morning and deal with whatever hits me that day.” They never say that exactly, of course, but that’s the gist.
If that’s your plan, you and your church will fail. You need a reason to keep going when challenges come – because they will come.
Yes, your plan will change. Life does that to us. But without a plan to adapt from, we will wander aimlessly, wondering why our life and ministry isn’t getting any better. One of the simple reasons is this: Nothing gets better if we haven’t defined what “better” looks like.
Our plan on this trip was to get to Croatia by a certain date – about three days ahead of the conference I was speaking at. We got there one day ahead of the conference. The plan changed. But because we had a plan to adapt from, the primary goal was accomplished.
2. Don’t let regret win – you’ll regret it
The moment our car sputtered leaving the gas station, a wave of nausea swept over me. I realized I’d put the wrong fuel in and had destroyed at least a day or two of our trip.
As the expected couple days’ delay stretched into a week-long ordeal, I kept kicking myself. I felt so guilty, so helpless and – mostly – so stupid!
I replayed that moment in my mind over and over again. “If I’d taken just grabbed the green hose 8 inches to the right, we’d be on our way by now!”
But the sad truth was, throwing myself a giant pity party didn’t make anything better. And it blunted the joy we could receive from the friends in Germany who were putting us up in their home, feeding us wonderful meals and blessing us with their gracious hospitality.
Life will throw things at you. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is.
You can either look back in shame and regret or look forward with faith and hope. You can’t do both. Leave regret, shame and guilt behind and keep on going.
3. When all the doors close, crawl through a window
In 5 days of relentlessly calling and emailing the car rental company, here are some of the responses we received:
- “That’s not my department” (dozens of times)
- “I’ll transfer you” (usually becoming multiple transfers until the called dropped)
- “I don’t speak English” (hard to get mad at that one when you’re in Europe)
- “I’ll call you back” (we never got a call back)
- “Fix the car yourself” (Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a winner for bad customer service rep of the year!)
Mind you, we weren’t calling random phone numbers. These were the responses I got from the Roadside Customer Service phone number on the information packet they gave us.
After three days of this I knew I’d never get help through traditional means so I ignored the doors they told me to walk through and crawled through a window of my own – I complained about the company by name on Twitter. And, voila! within hours I received a response from the company. They expressed their concern and connected me to a customer service rep who saw the issue through to its conclusion.
That’s a big part of Small Church leadership. Be persistent. Think outside the norm. And never give up.
4. Keep moving and keep praying
One week from the day we became stranded, we were finally on the road again thanks to my wife’s persistence at getting us a new rental car from a different company. We were looking at 10-12 hours of drive-time through Austria and Slovenia and across Croatia, and we had two days in which to drive it. Very doable if everything went right. But that “if” was feeling like a big word now.
We were cruising along the Austrian Autobahn at about 80 mph with cars tearing past us at 120 mph when three things happened all at once. A loud “ding” came from the car, a warning light flashed on the dashboard and the car’s speed dropped to 25 mph and would not go faster.
We were in the middle of nowhere. No town nearby. No one we knew within 500 miles of us. And no skill at automotive repair.
We remembered seeing a gas station about a mile back, so we turned the car around and – emergency lights flashing – hugged the highway shoulder as we crippled back at 25 mph with traffic zipping past us at 100 mph faster than our current top speed.
Long story short, the rental company explained the electronic problem our car was facing (“that happens sometimes” they said) and we were on our way.
Now we weren’t just frustrated, we were afraid. As we drove on towards the underdeveloped nations of Slovenia and Croatia, my wife and I held hands and prayed. What else could we do? – keep moving and keep praying.
Discouragement can pile on in Small Church ministry. Just when you think you’re finally getting somewhere, warning signals go off and everything grinds to a halt – or a severe slowdown.
Keep moving and keep praying. Sometimes that has to be enough. Because sometimes it’s all we have.
5. Where you are matters less than the direction you’re facing
We arrived in Osijek, Croatia without further incident and had an amazing time of ministry with some of the most faithful, sacrificial ministers in the world. Seeing the trials they face every day in this war-torn, rebuilding nation made our problems seem petty.
Then I noticed something interesting. As challenging as their situation is, they had more joy and fewer complaints living in buildings still pockmarked with the ravages of war than many of us do living in what they would consider unattainable luxury and safety.
The reason? Their society is poor, but it’s less poor today than it was a decade ago.
Our society is rich, but it’s less rich than it was a decade ago.
The direction we’re facing makes all the difference.
We need to stop comparing our churches to others. If my new Croatian friends constantly compared their financial state to their western neighbors, the depression would overwhelm them.
Instead, they remember where they used to be. And they work towards where they want to go. They clean the streets every day in front of bullet-ridden buildings and are grateful that they haven’t had to cower in fear of falling bombs for more than a decade.
Where is your church today? Is it moving forward from where it was last year? Then thank God for that. Direction matters more than location.
6. Jesus never called us to be safe – he called us to be faithful
Most of the ministers we met in Croatia are from the towns where they are ministering. But not all are. Some moved into dangerous places because God called them to leave comfortable homes and ministry positions to help rebuild lives, churches and a nation.
We’re so used to safety and comfort, it’s easy to forget that Jesus didn’t call us to that. He called us to be faithful.
No one knows that better than Small Church pastors, but sometimes it’s helpful to get a little reminder of it.
So what do you think? Are you ready to keep being faithful even when success seems farther away than you think it should?
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