Among the critical questions every minister and staff needs to ask as we begin a new year is this one: Which parking spot will you choose? Clearly, this question needs to be put in its proper context.
My father was the finest and healthiest minister I have ever known. While that sounds like typical son-talk, many others have concurred, and he had a unique and my profound influence on my life. His piety, wisdom, life-balance, integrity, and passion for leading a church to both reach out and reach in were unique and memorable. One of his traits that I have come to appreciate more and more across the years has been his humility. As I work daily in congregations and with clergy, I have a growing sense that humility, as scripture defines it, is a needed and often missing component of a healthy ministry.
In Romans 12, Paul makes it clear that pride is the enemy of our ministry. In verse 3 he insists “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think”, and in verse 10 he suggests an alternative to our tendency toward self-absorption: “Outdo one another in showing honor.” Even more forcefully, he reminds the Philippians: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”
One of my childhood memories as a pastor’s son was going to church early on Sunday mornings with dad. We would get there before anyone else, and he would pull into the large parking lot and head to the far end, eventually finding the parking spot that was the longest distance from the building. I would complain every time, about passing by all those good spots up near the building, and he would just smile and remind me that someone else would need that spot more than us.
I knew that not everyone thought that way. At banks, businesses, schools, and some churches, the leaders had designated choice parking spots. Not us. We parked in the far country.
That simple act hinted at a fundamental understanding that clergy and congregations desperately need to emulate. Humility is at the heart of what it means to follow Christ. Self-absorption or narcissism will negate and destroy us if left uncorrected.
When I went to seminary, I naively thought every minister was like my father. I had a rude awakening. I eventually found my circle of like-minded friends and graduated full of optimism and hope. Unfortunately, my first congregational experience found me in the midst of a group of clergy who embodied pride rather than humility. I soon found that my clergy colleagues were guilty of embezzlement, theft, adultery, alcohol abuse, and habitual lying. On the verge of leaving ministry, I decided instead to try and embody a healthy orientation to ministry for those I would encounter in the future.
Thankfully, I found three wonderful congregations and a host of colleagues across the ensuing years who also wanted to live out a Christ-centered model of ministry. I had seen the dark alternative, and I was convinced that we needed a clear voice for the kind of leadership that chose the distant parking spot rather than the prime one.
All of this personal reflection is intended to lead us back to the original question: which parking spot will you choose?
Congregations and clergy face a daily choice regarding our approach to our ministry. Will this be an exercise in self-fulfillment, or will we lose ourselves in the greater good of helping the kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven? No clergy or congregation is pure in our motives, to be sure. We all have our dark sides that clamor for attention and resist the light.
However, if we can acknowledge our pride and submit it to the gracious lordship of Christ, there is hope. When we choose to forego the temptation of “me first” and instead practice the radical notion of “outdoing one another in showing honor”, something very special happens in a church. Conflict withers, minor irritants subside, competing views become cooperative, and the community senses a fresh aroma (2 Corinthians 2:14) that defies conventional wisdom and is attractive and compelling.
In the end, we accomplish great things for God when we give up our need for attention and acclaim. Some of those will be things others notice and praise us for. But there will be times our actions will only be seen by those who look to the far reaches of the parking lot.
It all starts with a choice by each of us. Which parking spot will you choose?