I saw Jeff Ingram yesterday morning. We were both away from home and overnighting at the Hampton Inn, it turned out, in Ruston, Louisiana. I had spoken at a local church the night before and he had led a conference for Sunday School directors at an associational meeting held in a neighboring community.
He said, “I had 14 directors in my conference. It was great.”
I have never worked for Jeff’s employer–the Louisiana Baptist Convention headquarters in Alexandria, Louisiana–but I know what he is experiencing.
Without asking him or any of his colleagues, I can tell you the high point of his day.
Jeff is sitting in his office and the phone rings. A pastor or church staffer or lay leader from somewhere across this state is on the line.
“I need help,” he says. Jeff’s heart races. “Great,” he thinks to himself. “Someone needs me.”
What he says is, “Well, I’ll be happy to do anything for you I can.”
If it turns out that the caller has a problem of untrained leaders or an anemic organization that needs a shot in the arm or his Sunday School is in disarray and he is desperate for assistance, all the juices start flowing in Jeff Ingram’s veins.
This is great.
This is what a denominational worker lives for. (He even uses the Esther verse of himself: “I’ve come to the kingdom for such a time as this.”)
This is why he’s there.
I guarantee it’s true, whether the worker/leader/denominational-servant (sometimes teasingly called “denominational serpent”) is the employee of the association, the state convention, the national organization, one of our mission boards, or Lifeway.
The best part of their day is when someone calls needing what they have to offer.
An even greater thing is when the call asks for something they don’t know how to give and don’t know what to do about, but recognize as a genuinely needful situation and determine to find the answer. The worker/leader/servant loves a good challenge.
The worst part of his job, I guarantee, is to sit in his office and the phone never rings. He begins to wonder if he is selling something no one needs, answering questions no one is asking, offering what no one wants.
Finally, what he does (when the phone is not ringing and no one is asking for his help) is to work up a program, an event, a training session, something! and make it available to his constituency. He sits down with his co-workers and they brainstorm on “what do pastors need?” (Instead of “pastors,” insert the appropriate term: education leaders, choir workers, finance chairmen, etc.)
Then, when they get the program ready, complete with powerpoint and handouts, they market it. That is, they get the word out to their constituents informing them that, “We have this training coming to your area.” They schedule themselves into a church or conference center somewhere and then try to do something nearly impossible.
They try to convince the pastor/staffer/leader out in the boondocks that, “We can help you; attend this conference.”
Poor guy. The response is typically underwhelming. Only on rare occasions does he have the kind of turnout and participation he was praying for. Instead, what he hears is griping: “Another denominational program!” and “Here comes Nashville (insert your state or associational office here) pushing another program they want us to attend.”
The most frustrating part, friends in this work tell me, is not the poor attendance at their events. (They’re glad for anyone who shows up and will do their song-and-dance for three people when they had prayed for fifty. If one person found the material just what he was looking for, the leader is pleased.)
The sad part is looking at churches and their leaders who desperately need what they have to offer and either don’t know it or don’t care.
I’ve been on both sides of this equation.
I’ve been the pastor (staff member, too, for three years) who has sometimes felt the outside experts coming with their programs were irrelevant or out of touch or boring.
I’ve been the denominational guy (if associational Director of Missions qualifies) who knew how to help that church down the way but who could not force-feed the pastor or its leaders.
I once wrote a blistering letter to a group of pastors in one area of my work. “My colleague and I drove 80 miles each way last night to attend your meeting. Only two of you showed up.”
Feeling my oats now and enjoying venting–something pastors and denominational guys almost never get to do–I continued, “This is your meeting. I don’t need it. We did it because you asked for it. I don’t get paid extra for doing this. I could have stayed home with my family last night. Instead, I got in at 11:30.”
Finally, I said, “If you are not going to support your own meeting, then neither am I. Let me know what you decide.”
I heard from only one of the half-dozen pastors in that parish. He was upset at the bluntness of my letter. But I didn’t back off. (That’s one of the advantages of my not having been a longtime denominational employee: I had not learned to take this kind of guff in silence. Someone needs to talk back to these guys and speak the truth. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” says Proverbs 27:6, and I believe it.)
The odd thing is that all six of those churches were in bad trouble and were struggling, dying even. When Hurricane Katrina arrived on August 29, 2005, she put every one of them out of business and relocated the pastors.
I am completely aware that even had the pastors received my amazingly insightful input and my expert guidance (!), the hurricane would still have ended their ministry in that parish and it would have come to naught. But still….
Paul and Silas were having trouble finding someone to help. Everyone they saw needed the gospel–that’s the advantage of being a pioneer with Christ’s message–but they kept running into closed doors. Here’s how Luke tells it in Acts 16: “And they passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia, and when they had come to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them….”
These guys had to have been wondering, “Well, Lord, we see all these places you don’t want us to go, and we see all these closed doors–but where do you want us? There has to be someone out here open to our message and ministry.”
Acts 16:9 has the answer. “A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a certain man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.'”
Finally! Someone needs us!
“And when he had seen the vision, immediately we (that’s a clue Luke had just joined Paul’s team) sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” (16:10)
And that’s how the gospel came to Europe.
I conclude from this that someone in Macedonia was praying for help (of some kind; maybe he/she knew what they were asking for or perhaps it was a general cry to the Heavens and God picked up the signal) and relayed it to Paul and his team.
Cry for help.
That’s the best thing that happens in a worker’s day. Someone needs me. I’ll not have another day of marking time, doing busy work, shuffling papers, filling out the endless reports that comes with denominational work. I can do something that actually makes a difference for someone.
The hardest thing for a pastor or staff member or lay leader to do is to call out for help. Don’t ask me why. Is it pride or is it ignorance (“I don’t know what help I need!”) or something else entirely?
I tell you that when one does ask for help, even if it’s only from a colleague in the same town, everyone wins.
In seminary, Bill Lowe asked for my help in Hebrew. He was a dozen years older than me and had been out of school a long time. “This Hebrew is killing me,” he said. “I need to study with someone.”
We lived on the same street on campus at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary within a block of one another. Thereafter, we began studying together several nights a week.
That’s when I made a life-changing discovery. When I helped Bill, I helped myself.
Nothing makes a lesson clear up in one’s mind like trying to explain it to another.
I have no memory what grade Bill Lowe (who went on to pastor in Georgia and eventually served as associational director of missions) made on that course. I made an A. And it was all because of his cry for help.
Calling for assistance is a win/win proposition. Everyone benefits.
Now, pick up the phone. Ask for help. I dare you.
Someone will appreciate it.