During my first six months at Newport-Mesa as pastor, the church emptied out. You could have fired a shotgun in the sanctuary on Sunday morning and not hit anybody. Even the church finances began drying up. I had been faithful to build on the strengths God had given me, but I was a total failure.
That’s when I came face to face with another principle of godly leadership. It’s not enough to build on your own strengths, because they’re not enough to build God’s kingdom.
As a pastor, I’ve always found it difficult to talk about money, but I decided to bring the problem to the board. I asked the seven deacons to begin meeting me every Saturday at 6 a.m. for breakfast at a restaurant where we could have a private table. We would do three things: eat breakfast, pray and decide what bills to pay during the upcoming week.
We were in really bad shape, and deciding which bills to pay was especially difficult. While we were discussing the bills, though, one of the deacons pointed out, “You know, Pastor, since you’ve been here, we have not met a single missions commitment.”
He was right. I’d been pastor of the church for eight months, our missionary commitments were $257 per month, but we had not met a single monthly commitment. The deacon persisted, “I think we ought to take whatever comes in tomorrow’s offering and pay at least two months’ missionary commitments before we pay any bills.”
That’s $514! I thought to myself. We never see an offering like that. But they all, being deacons (whom I discovered many times had more faith than I), thought it was a great idea. So they agreed, and we prayed.
When we finished praying, the deacon who’d made the motion looked at me and said, “Now, Pastor, you understand the bills we won’t pay also include your salary.”
That was when Jewel and I were selling stuff out of the house just to make ends meet. But I said to them that, while I had not realized the motion also included not paying me, it was OK. If that’s what they felt we should do, I would go along.
So Sunday morning arrived, and we had our usual handful of people. I said nothing to the congregation about what the board had decided. I didn’t make a special appeal, didn’t talk about the prayer we’d prayed, or mention anything about money. The ushers took the morning offering and then another on Sunday night.
The two deacons who counted the money after service that night came to me, looking very happy. “Pastor,” they said, “guess what the offering was today.”
I had no idea. More than $1,350 had been given. I was astounded. It was a record-breaking offering.
The next morning, as usual, I was in my office, but my thoughts weren’t “usual.” I said to the Lord, “Whatever the lesson is, help me to learn it from this offering.”
Another impression hit. I felt the Lord say quietly, to my heart, “George, I’m not interested in building this church on your personal-ity; I’m interested in building it on Mine. Put Me and My cause, My kingdom, front and center, and I’ll take care of you.”
The first part—“I’m not interested in building this church on your personality” — was a direct rebuke. I had been 29 when I became pastor of that church and felt I had a great pedigree for ministry.
I was a missionary kid, an evangelist’s kid, a pastor’s kid. I had “seen it all” while growing up in church. I had a bachelor’s degree, a master of divinity degree, even a doctorate in pastoral theology. I was as well trained and prepared as you could get, and I thought I was just the answer to that church’s problems. I was super-confident that I would come in and turn things around overnight. Instead, they went south.
What the Lord allowed me to understand in that desert time was that I wouldn’t be the one to turn it around. While it may be true that a leader should build on his or her own strengths, personal strengths are not enough. Unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain.
Your own strengths can’t work miracles—only God can.God expects you to use your strengths to serve Him the very best you know how, but He builds the church only by His own power. Sometimes you have to step aside to be in step with Him.
Whose personality do you think your church is being built on — yours or God’s?
George O. Wood is general superintendent of the Assemblies of God.