The most dangerous place in which pastor can ever find himself is when he forgets why he is doing what he is doing. This vulnerable place can lead the pastor to make bad choices, or become ineffective in what he does. Some become angry, or impatient. I refer to this as “disorientation in ministry”, or what my friend and professor at Toccoa Falls College, Phil Howard, refers to as disorienting dilemmas. The pastor can either unknowingly slip into this condition of ministry, or a crucible event can force him off track. Sadly, some pastors suffer from disorienting dilemmas and never know it.
Several years ago, under heavy stress, I slipped into this disorienting condition and it took writing an angry blog and a subsequent call from our District Superintendent for me to realize I was losing control. Fortunately, someone was willing to risk a relationship with me to tell me I was way off my game. What drew me back was aligning my heart, mind and soul again to the purpose of ministry, to my reason for pastoring, my call to the Gospel and to the Great Commission.
I am a pilot and one of the things I had to learn early on in my training was how to recover from a situation in flying called spatial disorientation which is defined as the inability of a person to correctly determine his/her body position in space. Spatial disorientation happens when you are flying under certain conditions, whether it’s cloudy and you can’t distinguish the orientation of the airplane, or it can also happen when you are flying over water and you can’t distinguish the sky from the water. Your brain and your inner ear are telling you something different than what is actually true. That can be dangerous. This actually happened to me once when, living in Wisconsin, I decided to fly over a portion of Lake Michigan. The airport was situated in a low valley just ten miles from Lake Michigan, and I loved flying toward the lake and then soar parallel to its edge, either south toward Milwaukee, or north toward Port Washington. On this occasion I chose to fly east facing the vast blue horizon separating sky from water.
I immediately regretted it.
Panicking, I could not tell what was water and what was sky. So to get out of it I turned right, but the plane pulled up. I pushed the controls in, but the plane lost speed, something which is only possible if I was climbing, not descending. If you lose control as a pilot, you enter into this frightening thing called spatial disorientation and it is actually possible to be flying upside down and think you are right side up. Or you are flying at a rapid speed down, but you think you are maintaining a level altitude. Many pilots have died doing this. It is believed this is how JFK Jr. died, when his plane crashed to the ground on July 16, 1999. Now, it was happening to me.
There is only one way to recover from spatial disorientation.
You lock your eyes, and full attention, on the instruments. You must trust your instruments, despite what all the external indicators are telling you. In my training, my instructor would cover my eyes with a hood (blindfold me) and after putting the plane into various positions he would remove the hood and expect me to recover the airplane. I did this by ignoring what was going on outside the plane, and concentrating completely on my instruments: turn coordinator, attitude indicator, altimeter, speed indicator, horizontal turn indicator, heading indicator and vertical speed indicator. Every internal impulse would tell me something different than what the instruments were telling me, but I was told to trust the instruments, not my instinct.
So it is in ministry, or actually for anyone who serves Jesus. The only way to recover from ministry-spatial-disorientation is to lock your eyes, place all your attention on the instrument of God’s Word. In my situation I recovered by fixing my gaze on why I did what I was doing, what I was called to do by Jesus and for him. My recovery came when I made a recommitment to the gospel, a renewed devotion to the Great Commission. This reminded me that in whatever was going on around me, there were some very certain realities I could trust. I will trust in your unfailing love, wrote David following the 4 verses in Psalm 13 in which he expressed his disillusionment and discouragement in God. His own recovering from disorientation came in an instant. I will trust in your unfailing love. (Psalm 13:4).
For pastors, the signs of disorientation can be easy to detect. Impatience, angry responses, withdrawal, demand-filled preaching, not grace, depression, a sense of being overwhelmed, falling into sin, or beginning to look elsewhere for ministry opportunities. However, when the pastor fixes his eyes again on Jesus, the author and perfecter of his faith, who for the joy set before him, endured far more than what the pastor will ever endure; the pastor, and all of us, are able then to consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:2-3)
Jesus never took his eyes off his mission, and purpose. He was fully oriented to the will of his Father. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. (John 6:38). He is not just the example for those who suffer disorientation; he is the way out of such dilemmas. This is far more than being able to say, I can do it because Jesus did it.
By living in me, by his Spirit who indwells me, I have the capacity and the responsibility to never trust the circumstances around me. I trust him and him alone. His Spirit living in me pushes me to fully trust in God. If you’ve suffered from ministry disorientation may Jesus call you back to himself and his mission. Like he did for Peter following Peter’s three denials, Jesus is eager to call us to look to him again, to lock eyes with him, and to hear him say, “feed my sheep.”
Now, go and serve him!