The third of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People talks about the need to put “first things first.” Looking back over my adult life – as a Christian, husband, father, and youth minister – I’d say that this has been one of my greatest areas of struggle. I think I’ve spent more than my fair share of time working on or worrying about the wrong things.
I’ve found it particularly easy to get sidetracked in my professional life. In ten years of parish youth ministry, I found myself as the youngest person on a parish staff – and in most cases, the one with the most care and concern for technology. As a result, I put hours of work into my parishes websites, sound systems, and computer workstations... and I was glad to do it (in fact I usually asked for these responsibilities!) The only problem was that every hour I put into these areas was an hour I wasn’t spending with young people, preparing upcoming activities, or generally building up the whole structure of our youth ministry. While part of working on a small staff means going above and beyond your job description, the fact remains that working in youth ministry (or for the Church in general) means that there is never enough time to get everything done.
But looking back, misspent time is not the worst way I worried about the wrong things.
Luke’s Gospel tells us of an occasion that John came across an exorcist who was not one of Jesus’ twelve, but who was casting out demons – doing what they had been called to do. Believing that this man was infringing on the disciples’ exclusive work, John tried to stop him. Jesus’ reply is succinct and to the point: "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you" (John 9:50). I imagine this was a bit of a wake-up call for John, helping him look beyond himself to see not competitors in the work of evangelization, but potential allies. I don’t believe he had bad intentions, just that he got a bit sidetracked and self-centered.
I can think of far too many moments that I was just like John. Moments where I let my ambition or pride get in the way of the big picture of ministry (helping grow disciples). One of the most notable of these began with the noblest of intentions. I saw that some of my young people needed something that would challenge their faith more deeply than our regular gatherings were doing, so a group of us established a citywide evening of praise and worship/adoration. As a youth ministry event, it was incredibly successful: beyond consistent and growing attendance we had people discerning vocations to the priesthood and religious life, leaving for missionary years with NET Ministries, and the event itself spawned off several similar events in neighboring parishes.
It’s this last “success” that caused me all the trouble. I regarded these as duplicate events as threats to my event. I got defensive of the name and format, and resisted promoting the “competing” events at my own... after all, this had been my idea, it had grown because of my work, and it was supposed to be the lasting legacy of my ministry. And while my original motivation in starting these evenings had been good, as time wore on (at least in my own heart) parts of it had become more and more about me. Like John, I had started to believe that this was my exclusive work – and, like John, I needed a wake-up call to be snapped out of it.
It was in confession that I heard some haunting words that are most applicable here: would it not be a tragedy would it be if young people came to me looking for Christ and found (instead) only me? These words come to mind often when I struggle with prayer, but also when I’ve gotten sidetracked, allowing things to become too much about me, and not enough about Him. If Stephen Covey’s third habit of putting first things first is important for Christians, it’s doubly important for those of us engaged in ministry. I see ministry at its core as a love story. The first and greatest commandment is that we are to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength... and the second is to love our neighbor as ourselves (cf. Mark 12-30-31). But the beauty of it all is that God loved us first (1 John 4:19).
I’d be lying if I said I’m perfect at this today – it’s a regular item on my examination of conscience. I know that when I’m doing ministry right, it is this love story that drives me. I am loved by God, and to return that love is to share it with anyone who will listen. But like John, I’m easily distracted – not only by good things, like trying to help anywhere that I can, but also –and much more dangerously – but by a self-centered concern that makes me sweat far too much of the small stuff.
- Mike Landry
(Mike Landry is the Chaplain for Evergreen Catholic Schools west of Edmonton. Visit his site at www.thirdplaceproject.com.)