Ministry without Power

June 6, 2014

As the church family awaits the celebration of Pentecost on Sunday, I have been reflecting on what it would have been like if the Spirit had not come as promised. From the testimony of the gospels and the book of Acts, we know that the disciples—waiting as instructed for “power from on high”—basically did nothing risky or bold in the interim. Unless you consider the nomination and election of a new elder to fall into that category . . . (see Acts 1:12:26).

I have two personal experiences to share that gave me an inkling of what it is like to minister without power. The first took place in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Pentecost Sunday, 1994. The pastor of the largest Presbyterian Church in Zimbabwe was called away on a family emergency the week before this holy day, and asked me to preach in his stead. I chose as my topic “The Power of Pentecost.” I climbed the staircase to the “birdcage pulpit,” and preached what was a good, solid piece of work on the Holy Spirit. But there was something wrong with the sermon; I did not feel the power of the Lord behind it. I told the pastor when he got home, and he solicited a few comments from parishioners. Their feedback affirmed my orthodox theology but acknowledged that the sermon was more treatise than testimony. Yes indeed, it is possible to preach “The Power of Pentecost” without power! I learned a big lesson that week: I need to take as much time preparing the preacher as I do the sermon.

The second story comes from the fall of 2006. It was late September and I was launching into the new “program year” at church, feeling by that time that my work there was drawing to a close. I had been applying for new pastoral positions for a few months, but nothing was materializing. It was a Saturday, and I was reading a New York Times article about women in the pastorate when God broke into my thoughts and out of the blue said, “Mary, your time at First Church is completed and I want you to move on. I am asking you to go before you have a new call in place. Trust me. And just to make sure that you do what I am requesting of you, I am withdrawing my power from your ministry.” It was so definitive and accompanied by the surety of God’s peace; I just knew I had to begin to take the steps to exit. And yes, God did withdraw his power from my work. I’m not sure the people knew this was happening, but I definitely felt it. God was calling out of me an obedience in one direction (exit) and making it clear that this was my only option. [For those with active imaginations, no, I was not being “chased out” by hostile elders; quite the contrary, things were sweet at the time.]

So what does that feel like, to be doing the Lord’s work without power? There is a sense of waiting, because one’s spirit knows that help is needed in order to have spiritual impact. There is a retreat into listening mode to hear how the Lord is redirecting one’s efforts. There is a summoning of a sense of duty to do the work faithfully without the consolations often present when power is flowing. There is a sense that one’s faith is being tested and that one’s motives are being examined (by God). And it becomes far easier to say “no” to the things that are counterproductive to God’s new plan emerging. But because ministry without power is not sustainable, a certain kind of misery also sets in, causing me for one to do a thorough “examination of conscience,” confession, and repentance. I think this is what Ignatius of Loyola had in mind for his spiritual exercises, which originally were designed to help disciples discern their vocational call.

I am happy to say that the mourning lasted only a little while, and in time the Lord rejuvenated me with his power and direction for the new life I have been leading since leaving that parish at the end of 2006.

Desiring the Lord’s power is not being selfish, it is an absolute necessity to rely on divine help to accomplish anything of lasting, eternal value. And so, in a very real sense, these days before Pentecost offer the simple reminder that we are to wait for the Lord’s power, stay in fellowship in the meantime, and with the help of fellow disciples to fully embrace the Lord’s energizing direction when it finally does come. It is not the time to barge ahead with our great ideas, our agendas, or our plans, without first asking God to confirm them by pouring out his Spirit and showing favor for those ideas, agendas, and plans that are actually his. [I am not saying that an idea that is popular is necessarily God’s will; I am saying that somehow we must sense God’s favor with an idea. I suppose this is a subject—that is, how do we detect God’s favor?—for another blog!]

We know what it feels like to force a size 10 foot into a size 7 shoe. If that is what you are feeling in the pursuit of some particular plan, may I suggest it might be time to check in with God about your reading of his will, and ask for wisdom and power to proceed in the right direction for the sake of his Kingdom.


2 Responses to “Ministry without Power”

  1. Do you think that we can always feel when God’s power is on us? My experience is that sometimes when I feel weak God works with me. His power if made perfect in weakness. Also I wonder if we can always go by results. I think that Jesus told the disciples stay in Jerusalem and wait for the gift of the Holy first of all so they wouldn’t leave Jerusalem which was a hostile and dangerous place for them at the time, and secondly that God wanted to have the maximum number of worshipers witness the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. That didn’t happen until Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks came, the Jewish festive celebration that we call Pentecost. The Holy Spirit always seems to do her own thing.

  2. L. Lee Says:

    Thank you for this witness….to how we can discern the
    Holy Spirit in seeking God’s guidance.

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