Making Things Happen vs. Letting Things Happen

December 11, 2013

Right on schedule, my hair started falling out this week in response to the chemotherapy onslaught. Once again, I experienced that loss of control over something as simple as grooming. It has not been upsetting—how I thank the wonderful staff at the cancer center for good preparation—in fact, I broke out in laughter as hair cascaded down my back in the shower. It was as if I were washing away my mane; what an exercise in futility!

There are all sorts of directions I could go with this, but I think today I am going to reflect on a concept important to church leaders. That is the difference between making things happen and letting things happen. I worked with a pastor once who believed the only way to be a leader was to make things happen. This philosophy of ministry manifest itself in meticulous planning, control over every step of a process, forceful persuasion to one point of view, and tireless labor. Patience was exhibited in the context of dogged perseverance toward a goal.  Aside from creating a driven personality, this approach did not leave a lot of room for God to work, in my view. To “let things happen” was to admit defeat and abdicate responsibility, relinquishing one’s control over a situation. Tantamount to giving up, there was no room in the leadership portfolio for letting things happen.

There are times and places where leadership requires the kind of focus I have just described, but it is a spiritual task to keep a few eternal truths in mind as we barrel forward. The illusion that we can control everything and everyone as we exercise our leadership in the church is folly on so many levels: relationally, physically, and spiritually.

A relational folly. The drive to control by its very nature involves controlling people, not just processes. There is a fine line between godly shepherding, which does involve a rod and staff every once in awhile, and coercion, which forces one’s will upon another. In the church, not only do we want to get things done but we also want to participate in the people-shaping process of discipleship. The goal is not to bend people to my will, but to encourage the atmosphere in which we all together submit to God’s will. The relationship between leader and follower, in the Christian community, requires even the leader to view herself as a follower of Jesus, pointing others to the Good Shepherd. This approach allows pastor and congregant to relate authentically and humbly, engaging in the mutual submission that is to characterize our life together (Ephesians 5:20).

Further, if one’s focus is on making things happen, then relationships very easily turn into utilitarian arrangements. As long as congregants are useful to the task, a “relationship” exists. But if they flake or chafe or show creativity in another direction that doesn’t fit the thing a pastor is trying to make happen, the relationship wanes.

A physical folly. I have seen control-freaks all too often crash and burn from the burden of holding everything together. It is exhausting to control everything going on around you. Granted, there are seasons in the church year when the ministry demands require an extra effort, but if one’s Sabbath is violated on a regular basis under the banner of making things happen, a line has been crossed. And it is not good for the body.

A spiritual folly. The heart of the matter revolves around one’s view of God in the midst of ministry demands. I believe it was Mother Teresa who turned the phrase: “Pray as if it all depends on God; work as if it all depends on you.” I personally have a problem with the idea of praying one way and acting another, but the kernel of truth here is that God not only must be informed and even consulted, but followed! If “making things happen” means telling God what and how things are to unfold, we have reversed the roles and taken unto ourselves what is rightfully God’s. Psalm 146:10: “Cease striving, and know that I am God!” And from Proverbs: “A person plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps.” Sometimes we forget the Lord’s direction, at our peril! From this perspective, patience is a virtue as we seek God’s will and good timing for things to happen.

A case in point: I remember years ago, arriving at a new call and discovering that the church-sponsored nursery school was not overtly Christian in its orientation. Seeing this as a missed opportunity, I set a goal to change that. But very clearly God said to me, “Mary, I want you to wait. I am going to take care of this situation myself, and I want you to stand back and watch what I do.” So that task fell to the bottom of my things-to-do list. I can’t remember now the actual time lapse, but within a year or two the director resigned and we were able to place a wonderful new leader to set a new direction. It was an (almost) painless, organic, and smooth transition that bore much fruit in the years to come. All I had to do was let it happen in God’s good timing.

So, back to the hair. It would have been “making things happen” to shave my head two weeks ago, before it was known certainly that I would lose my locks. Now that it is a fact and a process unfolding, I am invited to let it happen. I might even shave my head tonight, just to save the mess of a clogged shower drain and the discomfort of a hairy shirt. But whatever I do, I believe that God, who can lovingly account for every hair on my head, is directing my steps. It is my desire not to seize control but to follow well and to lead others to the One who really does make things happen.


6 Responses to “Making Things Happen vs. Letting Things Happen”

  1. Craig Pynn Says:

    Great points, Mary. It’s all about who’s really in control, isn’t it? Today’s Moravian reading included the story of Jonah’s anger when God changed his mind about destroying Ninevah. It took baking in the desert sun for Jonah to learn that in most things we “are concerned about the bush, for which [we] did not labor and which [we] did not grow.” When we try to wrest control from God, the outcomes are inevitably sub-optimal. I just wish I could have learned that lesson earlier in life.


  2. Gwen Brown Says:

    Again, Mary, your blog–born out of your very real circumstance–speaks to me in a completely different circumstance about leading a church–a wee kirk that is pastor-oriented. In the year to come I need to follow the Good Shepherd more closely to know when to lead with the guiding rod and when to wait patiently or simply let go. Blessings and prayers as you face your “dailys”. You are still as always an amazing role model! Gwen

  3. emd5542 Says:

    Dear Mary, I pray your enJOYing of permission-giving living as God’s PEACE flows over and into and through you will strengthen us to live into that harmony with you. May Christ’s LOVE abide as we witness, remembering that the Glory is to God. Thank you for this teaching and preaching.

  4. Stephen Eyre Says:

    Your blogging is a wonderful gift as you invite us to share, a little, in your journey of faith and hope. Today’s entry is not only about grace but it is graceful in tone and writing skill. Full of grace and smooth as silk. Thank you.

  5. Heather Says:

    Mary, you don’t know me, nor I you. Your Seattle sister is a friend, and she sent me your link to share. I love your writing, your attitude, and your faith. I will look for your blog regularly, and I wish you all the best in your cancer process.

  6. Bruce Pope Says:

    You meant Psalm 46:10…just editing:)

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