Our Means for God’s End
What are your guidelines for saying yes when you want a change in your career? Jeff Nelson discovered that, in order to have a Clear Conscience, he couldn't force his desired end to fit a means that looked exciting but actually didn't fit who God had created him to be.
The question came after several conversations with a trusted mentor, during which I hinted at dissatisfaction with where I was and what I was doing. The programs I’d attempted to start didn’t seem to be producing much, and I wasn’t sure I was making a difference. I had been pastor at a small rural church in northeast Ohio for nearly three years at that point, and for these reasons, I didn’t have much of a sense that things were going in a positive direction.
I was considering the possibility that it was time to start over someplace else. As it happened, my colleague was ready with a suggestion: “How do you feel about becoming pastor of a new church start?”
Shortly after hearing the suggestion, I allowed myself to imagine the possibilities that could come with a faith community that in many ways was a blank slate: it wouldn’t hold itself captive by entrenched decision-making structures or cling to institutional memory.
My decision seemed pretty easy, except in all the ways it wasn’t.
Honest to God and Self
In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola writes at length about prayerfully making a significant decision. He begins with the reminder that we must remain focused on what we have been created for, namely “the praise of God our Lord and the salvation of my soul.” In other words, no matter what, we are to be faithful to our identity as made and beloved by God, meant to reflect that back to God and to the world.
Because of this, he says, “I must not make the end fit the means, but subordinate the means to the end.”
Ignatius appreciated the great care we should take in considering a life-changing decision, particularly as it relates to our sense of work or vocation. He was also painfully aware of the ways human beings can trick ourselves into choosing the option that doesn’t suit our gifts or temperament as well as we think. We often try to “make the end fit the means,” rather than consider honestly what we have been created to do.
Reading the Signs
There were several signs that cast doubt on what I thought was a clear path. The first was an assessment administered through my denomination to determine whether I had the proper skills and energy for leading a new church start. The results were explicit that I was not an ideal candidate for that type of ministry. At that point in my life and career, my gifts were better suited for pastoring an established congregation. The second sign was simply personal timing. I had a son on the way, and we had begun looking for our own house away from the parsonage in which we lived. The prospect of my taking on such a risky venture made both my wife and me nervous.
While God does call us to stretch beyond what makes us comfortable, God also calls us to more than one vocation at a time, and I needed to be faithful to my call to be a responsible and attentive husband and father-to-be.
The final sign was a series of shifts I noticed around the church I was serving. I detected an increased energy around the senior high ministry and could see potential for further improvement. People also started to take ownership of my expressed desire to serve the community in mission, shown in others’ brainstorming ways to do it apart from my prompting. These items that had been sources of frustration for several years were starting to turn the corner.
As I discerned where these signs led over several months, I realized that they directed me right back to where I already was.
An Affirming Voice
Initially, I was convinced that God was calling me to an adventure in church planting. But when I seriously considered the factors involved—my own skillset and experience, the needs of my family, and what I was only beginning to accomplish in my current position—I gained a deeper sense of who I am and how I might share myself with the world most effectively.
If I had insisted that this other church was the correct path, I would have been forcing the end to fit the means. Subordinating the means to the end, the true end of faithfulness to God and to myself, meant giving up pursuit of a role that from a distance looked wonderful but up close would have hindered my ability to live as God’s beloved creature.
In my vocation as a pastor, I needed Ignatius's perspective to make a God-honoring decision. In your vocation, how can you guard against making a desired end fit the means? How can you subordinate the means to the end?
The Sunday after I finalized my decision, I stood in my church’s sanctuary entrance as I did every week, greeting each new worshipper. As I surveyed the growing crowd in the pews, a voice from within said, “This is where you’re supposed to be.”
This was where I was supposed to be because of who I was created to be.