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The Struggle in the Middle

Sometimes the hardest place to be is in the middle. There seems to be more adrenaline in the beginning of a new project and a lot of excitement on completion, but when you are in the middle it can be challenging. Just like a new year with new commitments and a new resolve. We want to do better and we are determined to make changes but somewhere along the line we lose steam. Any project can start strong and fizzle as quickly as it began.

One example is in the area of prayer. We know we need to pray more and we believe prayer makes a difference but then the reality of the discipline required sets in. Eph. 6:18 describes this well, “Pray at all times in the Spirit with every prayer and request, and stay alert in this with all perseverance and intercession for all the saints.” Did you see it? Perseverance is required once we begin doing what God has asked us to do. Paul says to stay alert about the need to not only start praying but to continue!

In a study on the effectiveness and fruitfulness of pastors, Thom Rainer has discovered stages where we struggle in the middle. Years four and five and years eleven and beyond have proved to be crossroads where the challenges can be overwhelming. Years six to ten have proven to be the most fruitful but many never make it there because in years four and five most pastors decide to leave and go elsewhere. Could it be that this is because we struggle in the middle? During these crucial years it is easy to see progress and be productive, but if not careful, you can lose your passion.

Here are some things you need to know about any new project or endeavor you begin. Whether it is a new position, new church, new program, new building, or new initiative there are some steps you need to be aware of to help you while in the middle. The reality is that we hear a lot about the excitement of what is new and the commitment to finish strong, but we also need to be aware of how to remain faithful when we struggle in the middle. Think through these four natural phases we go through.

First, there is the initial excitement and passion. Everyone likes something new, such as that new car smell, but it only lasts so long. They have even produced a spray to give your car that fresh new smell again, but it just is not the same. There is also an initial adrenaline rush when we tackle a new project that propels us forward at a breakneck speed, but it usually cannot be maintained long. This time period lasts anywhere from three to six months and can even last a solid year. Has anyone ever heard of the honeymoon stage?

Second, reality begins to set in with a little bit of time. We begin to see, as the newness wears off, that there are many problems and challenges we did not notice in the beginning. You may even begin to wonder what in the world were you thinking? You also may even begin to question why you got into it in the first place. Remember, this is natural and is why so many can struggle in the middle. Use this time well and leverage it to evaluate your present reality.

There are two great dangers here to be aware of with the first being an unwillingness to evaluate. It is not comfortable for us and can be very difficult because of the transparency required. The second thing is, when we finally do evaluate the temptation, to do nothing about what we discover. The change it requires causes us to struggle in the middle because it requires an unbelievable amount of energy, effort, and cooperation. Capitalize upon this opportunity to determine what changes must be made in order to see the needed improvement.

Third, figure out what you do not want to do anymore. This sounds cold but please listen closely. We struggle in the middle sometimes because we are unwilling to admit what we have been doing is not working. We default to doing what we have always done while desiring different and better results. Webster defines the word default as, “a selection automatically used by a computer program in the absence of a choice made by the user.” Has anyone ever heard, “that’s the way we have always done it?”

A second definition for default is, “a selection made usually automatically or without active consideration due to a lack of a viable alternative.” You must be careful about settling for the same old same old and being unwilling to consider that there are other options. Innovation can be scary but it is necessary. When you consider your present reality and envision a preferred future you must be willing to prayerfully consider “viable options” even if you have never done it that way before! You struggle in the middle when you default to what you have always done and expect different results.

Fourth, a clear vision and plan of where you are going. It takes time to observe, build relationships, develop team atmosphere, and communicate that vision clearly. Systems must be developed such as outreach, spiritual growth, assimilation, ministry placement, worship service planning, pastoral care, and finance. It takes time to train and recruit leaders to lead the ministry teams and keep these systems functioning properly. The initial passion can wane and we struggle in the middle when we have to dig in and work on the ministry creatively and diagnostically.

God’s plans are discovered, discerned, and defined in God’s presence. The beginning excitement and adrenaline rush will last only so long. You need to be prepared for the crossroads that often occur in years four, five, and eleven. Remain passionate about your ministry and your church by maintaining a passionate relationship with Jesus Christ!

Get started because the speed of the leader determines the speed of the team.

Planning in His Presence

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In Uncommon Life Daily Challenge, Tony Dungy says that one of the keys to life is self-control, discipline. He says we need to “discipline ourselves to do what we need to do so that at a later time we can do what we want to do.” This truth focuses on our core, our inner most being. The necessity for disciplines in our life that will insure that our core is strong and that it remains strong. Paul prayed for believers in Eph. 3:16, “I pray that He may grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power in the inner man through His Spirit.”

Prayer is one of the disciplines that is crucial to keep our spiritual core healthy and strong. When our prayer life begins to diminish then everything else begins to deteriorate. It requires discipline to dedicate oneself to prayer but our primary job is to listen to His voice. The exciting thing is that when we do our job, listening, then He promises to do His job, guiding and directing us. Prayer is the key to opening our lives to the power and purpose of the Holy Spirit. Planning is necessary in our lives and in our ministries.

First, realize that you become empty on the inside before it shows up on the outside. We have even learned to fake it, put on a mask, and appear to be spiritual when we are not walking closely with God. The truth is that your life will eventually catch up with your heart. Putting it very plainly, you will burn out sooner on the inside than you are able to see on the outside. Our prayer must be, “Holy Spirit, would you show me what You can do through me?” Remember, He is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think.

Second, the primary purpose of prayer is to get into God’s presence. You must desire and pursue prayerful planning because the plans of God are only revealed in His presence. You will be tempted to trust your instincts and hunches but the Holy Spirit’s direction is so much better. You want to figure it out and come up with a better idea on your own but even the smartest people in the world are not always right. You may think you will just work harder and longer than anybody else. A good work ethic is admirable but God’s power is better.

Third, believe in the power of prayer to accomplish great and mighty things for Him. It has been quoted often, “The Christian should work as if all depended upon him, and pray as if it all depended upon God.” You know you are not perfect but He is working to perfect you. You do not always know what to do but He knows how to direct you. You do not have the strength or stamina to do all that He has asked of you but He gives you the strength. In Draw the Circle, Mark Batterson says, “When you pray to God regularly, irregular things happen on a regular basis.”

What does prayerful planning look like? It begins by praying with a reason. Paul says, “For this reason I kneel,” and prays a specific prayer for the Ephesians to receive spiritual power. In Gen. 24, Abraham’s servant asked God to show him who would be Isaac’s wife. The Bible says in verse 15 that “before he had finished speaking there was Rebekah.” Jesus prayed specifically for His disciples in John 17 that they would be protected, have joy, be sanctified by truth, and live sent lives as He did. Be specific! What is your need right now?

Prayerful planning continues by praying with an attitude of humble intensity. Paul said he bowed on his knees. The normal Jewish prayer posture at that time was standing, with hands stretched out, and eyes looking heavenward. By kneeling he submitted, bowed, to the reality of his total dependence on God. The intensity is determined many times by the severity of the circumstances. Sometimes our prayer is a casual conversation with our heavenly Father but other times it is intense intercession. The leadership of the Holy Spirit determines the need!

Humble intensity means that we are not just fixated on getting an answer or victory over our circumstances but learning how to live, grow, and glorify Him in and through our circumstances. It is not only praying, “get me out,” but also asking God to “see us through.” Quoting Mark Batterson again, “The primary purpose of prayer is not to change our circumstances. The primary purpose is to change us!” As Jesus faced His greatest challenge, the cross, He prayed, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify You.”

Then we need to pray with a focus. In Eph. 3:14 Paul said, “For this reason I kneel before the Father.” The focus of prayer is not on what you are asking but whom you are asking. Prayer is more about our relationship with Him than Him meeting our needs. If we desire His direction and guidance we must press and lean into His presence. This is where He outlines His agenda for us and shows us what to think, how we should feel about it, and what we are supposed to be doing. It is being in His presence to allow Him to work in us so that we can become more like Christ.

Healthy churches are always asking, “What do we need to be praying for specifically right now?” They seek to plan their work and then work their plan but that is a plan that is bathed in prayer!

God’s plans are discovered, discerned, and defined in God’s presence!