Wearing multiple hats

Today, one of my students wrote a note on their assignment about job descriptions, “I think I have too many jobs.”

I can identify. I have two mission job descriptions. Both of them are leadership roles. One of them is supposed to take up about 60% of my time and the other the remaining 40%. I have wondered at times whether they are not in actuality two full-time positions that have somehow both found their way on to my plate. Following that analogy, pieces of both do fall off the edge and slop on to the floor every once in a while.  Maybe more often that I admit.

Besides those two mission-assigned jobs, I serve on a church plant here in Kyiv, as part of the pastoral leadership team there. Although I do not have a job description that goes with this ministry role, it does take up a lot my time.

What my student and I are experiencing is quite common in the missions world. In missions, the urgency of the task, the lack of workers, and the lack of sufficient finances to hire more workers requires most of us to fulfill multiple tasks. We don’t have the luxury of doing only one job.  Mission team leaders are almost certainly going to face this dual responsibility.  Team leaders need to be deeply involved in the work of church planting.  But they also need to give time to overseeing and caring for their team.

But we are also not the first generation to deal with this. I think of my uncle who ran a farm and pastored our church at the same time – or my dad who also ran a farm, but also was one of our deacons, president of the local Co-op store board, served as missions board chair, taught Sunday school every Sunday and served as treasurer of the church. I don’t think I am working hard than he was.

We often long for a single focus.  I think of the apostles in Acts 6:2 who refuse to be distracted by the complaints from the cafeteria line, and say,

It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. – Acts 6:2

The apostles believed that they could not do both – preach and teach the Word, and also serve as administrators of the food distribution system. But very interestingly, Stephen and Philip seem to have figured out a way to do both. Admittedly Philip’s ministry in Samaria only happened after he was forced to leave Jerusalem due to persecution. But Stephen was accused of unceasingly speaking against the law, which seems to suggest that he was preaching regularly, even if his accusers were twisting his message. So here is a guy who figured out how to wait on tables and be thoroughly involved in the ministry of the Word.  Unfortunately it also got him killed. So maybe not such a great example after all.

I could use this post to talk about how we need to say “No” more often.  We need to practice Sabbath, and admit that God doesn’t need our help to run the world. I do say “No” and I do practice Sabbath. But I still wear multiple hats.

Instead I am going to point you to another biblical example, that of Nehemiah.

From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. … So we continued the work with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out. At that time I also said to the people, “Have every man and his helper stay inside Jerusalem at night, so they can serve us as guards by night and as workers by day.” Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water. – Nehemiah 4:16–23

In order to finish building the wall, Nehemiah, his staff and all the people in Jerusalem working on the project accepted the fact that they would each have to fulfill the dual role of builder and of guard/soldier at the same time.

Nehemiah and his men were able to resist the temptation to quit the construction work in order to defend themselves, and they were not so foolish as to neglect the duty of defending themselves in order to finish the building more quickly.  As a leader, Nehemiah was a master of organizing the people so that two concerns could be addressed at the same time – the continuation of the work and the precautionary measures against possible attack. Nehemiah realized that they did not have enough people to allow the builders to focus exclusively on building – and besides these builders would feel less safe without their weapons. Both of these tasks had to happen at the same time.

How did he manage these multiple responsibilities when it really gets busy?  Here are a few ideas from Nehemiah 4-6.

  1. For a season, he could simplify life to the bare essentials.  For a short time, he gave up some of the normal routines and comforts of life. During the height of the crisis, Nehemiah asked the farmers to stay in the city during the night rather than returning to their homes in the villages, so that they would always be available to ward off attacks. He slept in his work clothes so that he would immedately be ready to repel the enemy should they attack in the middle of the night (Neh 4:22-23).  This was not a long-term solution, and eventually created its own set of problems (see Neh. 5). But for a season, it provided them the space and time in their lives to be able to work hard on the building project, and defend the city at the same time.

2. Nehemiah identified what is of primary importance, and what is secondary.  He recognized that some tasks just aren’t that important, and could be just neglected or ignored when the primary task was at risk. In response to a repeated invitation to participate in a conference, Nehemiah sends the following message to Sanballat and company:

“I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” – Nehemiah 6:3

When the invitation comes again, Nehemiah didn’t even take the time to craft another message. He just forwarded the same email he sent the last time (Neh 6:4).  When Sanballat accused him of rebellion against the Persian king, Nehemiah didn’t bother with trying to collect some evidence disapproving the accusation. He just dismissed the accusation altogether.

I sent him this reply: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” – Nehemiah 6:8

Daniel Sinclair, in his great book, A Vision of the Possible, writes to team leaders,

Folks, you cannot do all those tasks. You have no choice but to triage. In other words, take all the expectations on you as team leader—whether they be from the organization, from your team members, from your church back home, from yourself, or wherever—and divide them into three categories: What you must do, what you must delegate to others, and what will simply be left undone.”

We all have to have some things on our to-do lists that can be neglected in busy times. There are times when I just don’t take the time to read my friends’ newsletters. I am glad I am on their mailing lists, but when I am hit by multiple responsibilities at the same time, I delete or archive “less important” emails much more quickly.

3. Nehemiah kept his focus on the reward he expected from God.  Multiple times, especially in the last chapter, we see prayers that ask God to “remember me with favor”.

Remember me with favor, my God, for all I have done for these people. – Neh 5:19

Remember me for this, my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services. – Neh 13:14

Remember me for this also, my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love. – Neh 13:22

Remember me with favor, my God. – Nehemiah 13:31

These prayers show us that Nehemiah sought reward from God, and that is why he was able to serve so selflessly. Nehemiah believed that God was seeing what he was doing for the people, and was pleased, and would one day reward him for his service.

Those of us who have multiple responsibilities can sometimes look with envy at those who seem to have simpler, less demanding responsibilities. Particularly in missions, where everyone is paid at the same level, we wonder whether the additional responsibilities we carry are worth the stress and sacrifice of time. Peter struggled with this, and told the Lord,

“We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”  Matt 19:27

Jesus makes it clear that He will make it all worth while in the end. Rewards will be given that will dwarf the sacrifices we have made (see Matt 19:28-29). He does not forget our work and the love we have shown his people (Heb 6:10). This was the hope of Nehemiah.

4. Nehemiah remained very dependent on God, and in fact emphasized that dependence.  During this crisis, he may not have had time for an hour or two of uninterrupted time in the Word and prayer every morning, but his life and work was frequently punctuated by many short prayers (Neh 4:4, 5:10, 6:9, 6:14). Nehemiah believed that both of these tasks (building the wall and defending the city) had been given to him by God, so he trusted God to provide all the resources to do both.

But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”  Neh. 6:9.

He repeatedly reminded the people that God is on their side, and that He is totally reliable.

Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”  Neh. 4:14.

Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!”  Neh. 4:20.

Nehemiah did not fall into the trap of thinking that everything hinged on him, that he was indispensable. It is God who is indispensable, and Nehemiah kept that perspective in sharp focus.

What have you found helpful to help you manage multiple roles?

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