Navigating the Relational Roller Coaster
By Shane Rhodehamel
Relationships are God’s primary vehicle for ministry, encouragement, accountability, and partnership. In the local church, very little ministry happens outside of relationships. Relationships in general can be complicated and challenging, but throw in colliding cultures, generation gaps, and myopic mindsets, in an economic pressure cooker and you have the context of 21st Century ministry. The preciousness of the souls of people is what drives us to reach as many as possible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but the hurt and pain that we walk through to reach those people cause many of us to grow calloused and never reach our full potential as leaders.
The relational aspect of ministry is definitely like a roller coaster. There are times you feel nervous, anxious, and excited! There are times you feel like every aspect of a certain relationship is uphill! Sometimes, there is a relational freefall, you are gripping the bar, stomach in one big knot, and not sure where the bottom is. There are ups, downs, corkscrews, and loops. Sometimes you come off the ride ready to go again, other times you have to find a bench and regain your composure.
Two weeks after becoming the pastor of our church at age 27, I sat in a meeting with the most influential leader in our church. His previously stated 100% support of my new role had for some reason turned into bitter spite. The affects of his new attitude were like dropping a boulder in a small pond. Three of his sons came through our youth ministry under my leadership. One of his adult daughters had become our office administrator while another daughter and son-in-law were leading our children’s ministry. The relational web that had developed between our families was extensive and the relational fallout would impact every aspect of our church’s stability and future.
Looking back on that critical juncture, this ability to navigate the relational roller coaster has been my single greatest arena of prayer and the skill that has required my constant attention to develop. There is a foundational and Biblical principle that my dad has taught and lived by for years that has shaped me and guided me through the highs and lows of life and ministry. Here it is:
Some relationships are seasonal, but ALL relationships are eternal!
How we respond relationally to the people that God sends across our path will make or break our influence and effectiveness for God. How we think and talk about the people who have wronged us will set us on a course toward total forgiveness and freedom or cause us to be caught in a cage of bitterness for months or even years. The fact of life is that every season will eventually come to an end. The Bible declares that each of us have the tremendous privilege and responsibility to go from faith to faith and glory to glory. In each season of faith and in each season of glory are relationships with people who are tied to that church, ministry, city, or organization for that season. It is statistically proven and historically illustrated that if you lead anything from a Bible study to an international ministry, you will have people who are with you at all different levels and for all different lengths of time. Those you start with are very rarely those who stay with you for the long haul. BUT, as seasonal as SOME relationships are, we cannot lose sight of the reality that ALL relationships are eternal. Every act of kindness, forgiveness, and love affects eternity. Every harsh word, bitter gossip, and harbored hurt also affects eternity. Relationships that stand the test of time have 3 major ingredients. Loyalty, flexibility, and vulnerability are 3 attributes that are vital to healthy relationships. In many cases the absence or low level of these attributes cause severed relationships and bring ministry partnerships to a halt. I believe the development of these attributes in the life of a leader are just as much a matter of prayer and devotion to God as they are a strategic focus to cultivate these arenas of integrity in our lives.
It seems that loyalty is a lost art in our culture. Leaders often use people and ministry roles as stepping-stones to greater influence and notoriety. People often totally neglect God’s leading and shop churches for the best programs for the least amount of investment. When conflict arises, it is never easy to work through tough issues and rely on God to bring restoration and healing. It always seems easier to “move on” and declare God is leading us in a new direction.
Proverbs 27:10 says “ Never abandon a friend—either yours or your father’s.” (NLT) Ironically, it is never a temptation to abandon your friend when your relationship is smooth and mutually beneficial. It is only when times are tough and challenges arise that the temptation to bale out surfaces. This scripture may be more personal to me since my father is the reason that I am in the ministry today. He provided for me naturally and spiritually, invested in me, and mentored me. His friends in life and ministry encouraged me and invested in me. A secure and mature father shares his friends with his son both naturally and spiritually. I am the product of my father and His friends and so this scripture is very pertinent and personal to me.
We all have experienced what it is like for someone we loved and trusted to walk out on us. Like Job said in chapter 19 “My closest friends have turned against me.” I believe each of us long to have tight, lasting friendships. We desire to have people who are loyal to us like Jonathon was to David when He said in 1 Samuel 20 “Tell me what you have in mind, I will do anything for you.” We all want people who would be loyal to us, but have we demonstrated consistent loyalty to those God has placed in our lives?
In this day and age of fast paced communication and busy schedules, miscommunication and misunderstandings abound. Flexibility is required to maintain God honoring relationships in life and especially in ministry. Flexibility is defined as adaptability, suppleness, give, springiness, or resilience. Can you handle a change of plans? Can you adapt when things don’t work out the way you planned? Can you give people the benefit of the doubt? Can you spring back after being hurt or let down? The farther we go in ministry, navigating relationships will require resilience and an absolute refusal to get or stay offended. After all, 1 Corinthians 13 in The Message says 4Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, 5Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always me first, Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, 6Doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, 7Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end. Love sounds a lot like flexibility and resilience to me.
This last area raises the stakes a little. I believe my generation is tired of ministers preaching a Word of Truth while they refuse to be truthful about their own lives. This generation is not just looking for demonstrations of God’s Spirit in a healing line, they are looking for demonstrations of kindness, and character, and leadership in the home life. This generation is no longer impressed with spiritual super stars, but is looking for some real super servants who will walk what they talk and live what they say they believe. I call this attribute vulnerability. I believe this generation is crying out for someone to get real. Drop the facades, put away all the “church language”, please stop trying to impress me with what you know and just tell me the truth about the challenges that you have faced and how you overcame them through Jesus.
I realize that many ministers and leaders have been hurt tremendously by well meaning people and our natural tendency when we are hurt is to recoil and build walls around us so that we don’t get hurt the same way again. Some of us need to receive from the Healing Jesus that we so adamantly preach and begin to open our lives to others again.
Proverbs 3:3-4 says “Never let loyalty and kindness leave you! Tie them around your neck as a reminder. Write them deep within your heart. 4 Then you will find favor with both God and people, and you will earn a good reputation.”
As we navigate all the relationships that God has given us, let us find new value in the people that God has called us to serve. Let us come to a place of strength and security through the power and grace of God that we can open our lives afresh to those who desperately need us.