Jason Butler: Constrained by expectations

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Christian leaders must have clear expectations for their ministries -- but not rigid expectations that prevent us from being surprised by God, writes a church planter.

How often do our preconceived expectations about God’s plan blind us to the possibility of resurrection?

In Matthew 16, we see that it happened to Peter. As Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross, Peter tried to steer Jesus to another future, proclaiming, “God forbid it, Lord!” We know Jesus’ bruising words in response: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matthew 16:22-23 NRSV).

Imagine how Peter must have felt in that moment -- dejected, angry, afraid. Peter had a vision of Jesus as Israel’s new king and was shocked that God had other plans.

Have you had an experience like Peter’s? I have, regularly.

Of course, Christian leaders must have clear expectations of ourselves and those around us to serve with excellence and integrity. But we can also get trapped in our ideals and plans, seeing those around us as simply pieces of our own ministry puzzles. How then do we cultivate faithful expectations for our ministries -- high, yes, but also flexible enough to make space for the surprise of resurrection?

Ten years ago, I embarked on the work of planting a new church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as a 20-something first-timer. From day one, I thought I knew exactly what God wanted to do -- which looked a lot like what I wanted to do, what was best for me. Like Peter’s, my expectations were a stumbling block and constrained my imagination about what was possible. Thankfully, God’s grace swept away my plans and birthed the church that exceeded my expectations.

We experienced this again as we began a ministry for children and teens. Many of our children came from under-resourced neighborhoods often described as “trouble spots” in the city. We thought if we simply got them the resources they needed to flourish, their lives would be changed.

That didn’t work.

Our plans to “help” the children blinded us to the beauty right before us -- those kids! We realized that we were treating them as problems to solve and were trying to satisfy our own desire to “fix” them. So we stopped trying to fit them into our ideals and began to simply enjoy and celebrate them for the gift that they were to our lives and our church.

Holding rigid expectations can affect personal relationships as well. Early in that congregation’s ministry, a man in recovery with mixed feelings about Jesus said he wanted to be part of our church.

I immediately went into fix-it mode but quickly found myself frustrated that he did not fit into my preconceived expectations of what God wanted to do in him.

When I stopped trying to create him in my own image, I began to see the beautifully complex and brilliant person he was. I learned that God had not sent him to us so I could fix him but rather so we could understand God’s love in a deeper way through him.

As Thomas Merton has said, “The beginning of [godly] love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

As I endeavor to live into this love for others, I focus on five principles that help reorient my expectations and open me up to new possibilities:

  • God is supplying everything I need to do this work, but I may need to be creative in how I use those resources.
  • I need to work hard to celebrate the present moment and let go of my desire to control the future.
  • I can seek the best for each person and the church as a whole at the same time.
  • Being generous with people cultivates hope.
  • Instead of being afraid of failure, I should be constantly searching for the surprises of grace.

Today, I again find myself in the daily rhythm of planting a new church, in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I am actively trying to recruit new partners and leaders. But this time my approach is a little different.

Learning from Peter, I’ve become more cautious of my own expectations, because I find that they are often rooted in my personal desires. This is a sign for me that I really need to be focused on seeing each person for the gift that he or she is, a gift not to be used or fixed but a gift to be received, embraced and beloved.

This time around, my eyes are wide and my heart is open as I try not to become trapped in my own expectations for what this church will be or my own biases about how God should work. Rather, I am looking out and seeing God’s infinite surprises of resurrection lurking around every corner and in every person.