Introductory Note:

What is a pastor’s job? Miriam Dixon had years of pastoral experience before a crisis in her congregation brought her face to face with two erroneous assumptions she had made about the pastoral role. Mimi has written a letter sharing the reorienting message she received from Jesus in hopes that these words might encourage pastors and leaders in our midst.

Renovaré Team

Dear pas­tor,

You may have seen a recent Bar­na study that says over a third of all U.S. pas­tors are con­sid­er­ing leav­ing the min­istry1. Per­haps you are one of them. After serv­ing as a senior pas­tor for 34 years, I can relate to many of the chal­lenges you are fac­ing in this sea­son and I’m con­cerned about you. That’s why I’m writ­ing this let­ter. Think of it as a per­son­al note of encour­age­ment from one pas­tor to another. 

In the past few years, every­thing and every­one has been dis­rupt­ed. But as pas­tors, the pres­sure is sin­gu­lar. Our peo­ple are look­ing to us to help them stay ground­ed in God and find their way through the storms of change. Afraid, they are unset­tled and prick­ly. They look to us for help in a time when, hon­est­ly, we our­selves are strug­gling for perspective.

If I could tell you just one thing, it would be this: Keep First Things First. This mes­sage anchored me when I was reel­ing from the relent­less impact and dis­may of church conflict.

I was sev­en­teen years into my min­istry as pas­tor of a church in Col­orado when storm clouds began to gath­er and the wind picked up. There were ear­ly warn­ing signs that some­thing was brew­ing, but in my busy­ness I paid lit­tle atten­tion. Then, almost overnight, our church was plunged into a bliz­zard of complaint.

The leader of a group of twen­ty dis­grun­tled peo­ple pri­vate­ly announced his group’s dis­sat­is­fac­tion with my lead­er­ship. When I asked to know the cause for their con­cern, he reeled off a half dozen or so grievances. 

I was deeply alarmed. Had some­one known to pass me the note I am giv­ing you today, it would have made all the dif­fer­ence. Instead, I mobi­lized all my resources to man­age the con­flict and spent tremen­dous time and ener­gy attempt­ing to solve pet­ty issues. I explored and pre­sent­ed solu­tions I hoped would be accept­able in the attempt to restore peace,” but this only made mat­ters worse. I would solve one prob­lem only to have anoth­er pop up. I did not real­ize that a per­son­al mis­un­der­stand­ing of my role was fuel­ing the storm.

I car­ried two unex­am­ined expec­ta­tions for myself that lay dor­mant like unex­plod­ed ord­nances wait­ing for the right con­di­tions to detonate. 

The first was the con­vic­tion that I was respon­si­ble for the choic­es peo­ple made (rea­son­ing that if I prop­er­ly intro­duced Jesus, a pos­i­tive response was vir­tu­al­ly guaranteed). 

The sec­ond was the con­vic­tion that it is a pastor’s duty to keep the church com­mu­ni­ty hap­py and intact. 

I pur­sued these two goals with great care and deter­mi­na­tion, mak­ing them the mea­sure of my suc­cess in min­istry. When things floun­dered, when this con­flict arose, I fig­ured it must be my fault. 

I did not tell the lead­er­ship body what was hap­pen­ing because I was ashamed. I viewed the con­flict as a fail­ure of lead­er­ship. If only I had effec­tive­ly pre­sent­ed Jesus and his invi­ta­tion to fol­low him this would nev­er have hap­pened — so I thought. I took com­plete respon­si­bil­i­ty for what was happening.

I with­drew into a silent place as my prayer life devolved to a sin­gle, repet­i­tive phrase: I failed. Jesus, I am so sorry…”

What broke the cycle was my habit­u­al prac­tice of the core spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines. In Cel­e­bra­tion of Dis­ci­pline Richard Fos­ter presents these as the way that Chris­tians for mil­len­nia have ground­ed them­selves in Christ and suc­cess­ful­ly nav­i­gat­ed per­ilous passages. 

I med­i­tat­ed on Scrip­ture, prayed, fast­ed, and lis­tened. I even took a sabbatical.

To a retreat cen­ter in Scot­land I car­ried my ques­tions: How could I have failed so com­plete­ly to com­mu­ni­cate the king­dom life that is avail­able through Jesus? What is wrong with me? What happened?

Jesus met me there.

One morn­ing a ques­tion of his own inter­rupt­ed my lament: When you urged your peo­ple to fol­low me, what did you expect would happen?

I answered with­out hes­i­ta­tion. I expect­ed them to be smit­ten by you! I expect­ed revival! Instead, every­thing is com­ing apart. I failed….

His response was sim­ple and clear: Have you not read the New Testament?

Imme­di­ate­ly, the sto­ries in the Gospels ran through my mind. Jesus — the per­fect Son of God — had not been well received. Con­flict dogged him every­where he went. The crowds who eager­ly fol­lowed him in the begin­ning by the end shout­ed, Cru­ci­fy him!”

One sto­ry in par­tic­u­lar was high­light­ed: the Rich Young Ruler. When the ruler refused Jesus’ invi­ta­tion to fol­low, Jesus did not attempt to nego­ti­ate a com­pro­mise; he let the young man walk away.2

I sensed Jesus say­ing to me, Peo­ple get to choose; no one can make that deci­sion for them. And what they choose is not your busi­ness, it is between them and me.”

This was an epiphany, rivaled only by the accom­pa­ny­ing rev­e­la­tion. Jesus addressed my mis­guid­ed con­vic­tion that it was my job to keep the com­mu­ni­ty hap­py and intact. Your job,” he stressed, is not to sat­is­fy com­plaints. The moment you make com­plaints your busi­ness, you lose focus. The result­ing con­fu­sion is like a ship with­out a rud­der. You are the leader. Your peo­ple will fol­low your gaze, so fas­ten your eyes on me.”

C.S. Lewis called this re-order­ing of goals the Prin­ci­ple of First and Sec­ond Things.” In a note he passed along to a strug­gling friend, Lewis wrote, Jesus tells us to seek first the king­dom of God and his right­eous­ness, and all these things will be added to you.’ When we put first things first, we get sec­ond things thrown in. But if we put sec­ond things first, we lose both first and sec­ond things.”3

Our church came dan­ger­ous­ly close to los­ing both first and sec­ond things because I mis­un­der­stood my duty. As pas­tors we are not respon­si­ble for the choic­es made by peo­ple under our care. And we are not free to pre­serve the peace at any and all costs. Our duty is sim­ply to Keep First Things First. So, stay focused, stand fast, expect a mess, and scan the hori­zon every day for evi­dence of God’s gra­cious intervention.



Mimi Dixon
Win­ter 2022

  1. 38% of U.S. Pas­tors Have Thought About Quit­ting Full-Time Min­istry in the Past Year,” Lead­ers & Pas­tors, Novem­ber 162021. ↩︎
  2. Matthew 19:22 ↩︎
  3. Matthew 6:33; C.S. Lewis, First and Sec­ond Things,” God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerd­mans Pub­lish­ing Com­pa­ny 1970), pp.278 – 280. ↩︎

Pho­to by Kristo­pher Roller on Unsplash

Text First Published February 2022 · Last Featured on February 2022

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