As a young pastor, I took Jesus command to be a fisher of men seriously. My goal was and is to make disciples, equipping them for ministry. That goal is not unique or cloudy; it even seemed achievable in my community. I went to seminars and read books on church growth, consuming all the information I could get. I practiced what I learned and God blessed our little church plant with numerical and spiritual growth. Then, something started to happen that I did not expect. I should have expected it, but thought that our church was the exception. People started to leave the church. Some left because they got divorced or moved away. Others left because they had an interpersonal conflict, didn’t like the music, or didn’t like my preaching or leadership in general. I knew people change churches all the time, but in my head, I really didn’t think they would leave our church. Why would they? We had everything they needed and we were doing ministry, lots of ministry. My expectations were not only unrealistic, they were unhealthy. For years I lamented those who came to our church and eventually left it for one reason or another.
Unwittingly I had envisioned our church as a pond of sorts. People would come and I would minister to them and with them. I imagined the pond growing larger and larger eventually turning into a lake or reservoir. We would fish and God would draw people in, that was my logic. Unfortunately, this analogy set me up for failure. What I envisioned to be a pond is in reality a river.
The difference between a pond and a river is simple. A pond is where water collects, and fish live. A river is moving, it ebbs and flows as the tributaries supply it. Fish live in the river as well. Small streams add to larger streams and larger streams lead to rivers. Rivers typically flow into the oceans. When you think of yourself pastoring a pond of people you only pastor those that are in the pond. When you think of yourself pastoring a river, you pastor a section of the river and people ebb and flow through it. Some stay for a while, possibly even years or decades and others pass through your area rather quickly. Either way, you are responsible to pastor those who flow through your slice of the river.
I used to get upset and take it personally when people left our church for a different one. Now, I remind myself that I am only responsible to pastor those who are in the river in front of me. They may stay for a while or pass through quickly, and how long they stay is always a mystery. Do I want people to connect with the church and grow there? Absolutely. Do I want them to stay for a long duration? Absolutely. But if they swim to a different church I should not take it personally because they are still in the river and they are still being fed.
Changing my mindset to pastoring on the riverbank has helped me navigate the COVID-19 fiasco, stay in ministry for over 25 years, and look ahead with anticipation of what God will do in the future. After all, I pastor God’s church and shepherd God’s people, they don’t belong to me. All I can do is fish and feed them while they are part of our church community. You need to have the same mindset if you plan on being in ministry for the long haul. If you don’t, you will start to resent people if you haven’t already. You will be mentally and emotionally better off if you think of your ministry as part of a river.