When I was applying to grad schools, one of my professors advised me to treat grad school like a job: go into the office during business hours and do class work and research there, then go home and have a life. I have tried to take those words to heart — which is probably why I have gotten so involved in activities outside of academia. I am a third year grad student working on a PhD in biomedical engineering. I also lead a small group for the grad chapter of InterVarsity and lead in the high school ministry at my church.
The problem with all of this is that there is very little time when I am not doing school work or something for a ministry. The small group requires planning; high school ministry requires keeping in touch with students and prepping for each new series. A few months ago, I was at a retreat with the high schoolers and started to realize how much of my time was being devoted to ministry. The youth pastor commented that I treated ministry like it was my full-time job, and in an only slightly exaggerated way, he was right.
Working with high school students is a passion that God has put in my heart. But I have taken on a bigger role in leadership this year and it has been more work than I expected. And even though I knew high school ministry was going to take more time, I agreed to continue leading my grad IV small group because the ministry was short on leaders. Somewhere along the way, I stopped serving in these ministries from an overflow of God’s grace and started trying to do everything that needed to be done on my own strength.
At the retreat, I realized my relationship with God was suffering because I was so focused on doing ministry. It had gotten to the point where I wouldn’t really talk to God, just check in with him about how things were going in ministry and situations that seemed too big for me to handle alone — as if God were my coach or my adviser. I’d taken a very “grad student” approach to my spiritual life. I checked in with God on how things were going but took primary responsibility myself for how I lived and did ministry.
This is a default attitude that has come up time and again since I started walking with God. I get freaked out by the demands of the tasks in front of me and try to take control and accomplish them in my own way. I focus so much on my own limits that I cannot see God’s love and provision. The only way I have found to combat this is to be constantly reminded of the Gospel: that there is nothing that I can do to earn God’s love. God already loves me, he has a plan, and I can trust that he will accomplish it with or without my “help.” God chooses to work through broken and rebellious people, but I have learned that I can most effectively work for God when I am resting in his love rather than getting bogged down by details.
Since then, I’ve been working on ways to reduce the amount of ministry leadership I’m doing to free up more time for my own walk with God.
A discussion with my small group on Matthew 14 helped me find a productive perspective. Matthew describes Jesus walking on water and an enthusiastic (and probably sleep-deprived) Peter jumping out of the boat to meet him. Peter walks for a bit before starting to sink. While Peter was focused on meeting Jesus, he was able to walk on the water. The trouble came when the wind picked up. Did the wind fling some cold wet “reality” in his face? Did he remember that feet don’t normally stay on the surface of the water? Did he start wondering how he was doing what he was doing?
The reality for me is that the demands of ministry may be higher going forward than they have been. For all my attempts to reduce my leadership role, several situations have come up to make that more difficult. In the grad fellowship, my small group co-leader stepped down and in high school ministry a student I’ve been working with all year is beginning to open up about some tough situations.
But what’s interesting is that because I now feel that these situations are beyond what I can do alone, I have been forced to be talking to God more regularly and about more than just “status updates.” As I’m pushed beyond my limits, I have to trust that God will provide a way. In 2 Corinthians 12:9–10 Paul tells us that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. I don’t have to provide strength to do God’s will. I don’t need a plan to accomplish what he wants. I simply need to trust him, like Peter did initially. The author of Hebrews instructs us to “run the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus.” God’s plan is already in place.
To me, it’s freeing to not have to know all the answers or even to have any idea how I’m getting from Point A to Point B. God will take care of it. I just have to keep going, and keep trusting. Jesus fed the 5,000 with barely enough food for him and his disciples. He is not limited by my abilities (or lack thereof). I can only give God what I have — time, money, talent, ability, relationships, etc. And even when those are sorely lacking and seem woefully insufficient to accomplish what God asks, by his grace he can bless what I give to him and give it back in overflowing abundance that is more than sufficient for the task at hand.
As hard as it can be to remember, I know that if I want God to use me in big ways, I have to fix my eyes on Jesus and take a step toward him, and then another and another. I need to persevere in trusting God and following the path that’s marked for me. It’s not convenient to know only the next one or two steps and it is certainly contrary to the academic life. But it’s enough for following Jesus.