What I Learned on Sabbatical: Lesson 3

In my previous posts I began a series of blogs on lessons I learned while taking a 6-month sabbatical from pastoral work. Start at  Lesson 1 to read the following post in context, and catch the rest of the series with the links below.

Lesson 3: Jesus Builds His Church

“Jesus builds His Church.”

Those four words capture a simple theological truth that provides profound clarity on ministry in particular and church life in general. I cannot tell you how many times I have used those words in a sermon, leader meeting or prayer group, nor how many times I have shared them with a fellow pastor or church member discouraged by the challenges they are facing in their local church.

I have spoken the sentence countless times.

I just don’t think I ever actually believed it.

I always thought I believed it, of course, but that belief was never tested. Not until my burnout forced me into a much needed six-month break from serving Emmaus Church as pastor. It was at this point that my belief in the words “Jesus builds His Church” would be tested.

I served as lead pastor of Emmaus Church from July of 2006 to April of 2013 without more than a week away at any given time. During this time I preached between forty-two and fifty weeks a year, discerned and communicated vision, developed and maintained church systems, handled the vast majority of counseling and discipline issues, led most meetings, developed lay-leaders, hosted and led small groups in my home, performed nearly all of the administrative duties and even printed the weekly bulletins. In other words, I did way too much. At the time I thought this was because I was the only paid staff member and, thus, these responsibilities fell on me even though I did not want them. I now think I wanted these responsibilities because, at least in part, I thought the church had the best chance of thriving if I ensured everything was done the right way (read: my way). In other words, I had my hands in everything because I didn’t fully believe that Jesus builds his Church. I thought he needed my help.

@@I had my hands in everything because I didn’t fully believe that Jesus builds his Church@@

So what would I do when my sabbatical forced me to be away from the church for six months? What would I do when I could neither perform the up-front nor the behind-the-scenes tasks I had done the prior seven years? Would I be able to stay away? Would I be able to believe that Jesus builds his Church and trust him to do so with Emmaus?

I am happy to say the answer to each of those questions is a definitive “yes.” But that’s not because of any great faith in me. It’s because I didn’t have a choice.

And thank God I didn’t.

Circumstances forced me to sit on the bench and simply watch as Jesus continued to build Emmaus without any contribution from me. And it was glorious! I had the privilege of watching Jesus powerfully speak to his church through preachers with limited training and experience, and the pleasure of watching Jesus lead people to faith and repentance in the process. I rejoiced to see Jesus raise up leaders who had previously not led, and open doors of ministry that were never opened during my time at Emmaus. I was able to watch as people identified and grew in gifts they (and I) did not know they had, as the church benefited from their faithful use. Because of all of this and more, during my absence, Emmaus’ covenant membership grew by roughly 20%, generous giving continued, and multiple first-time visitors transitioned into regular attenders. It was impossible to watch all of this from the sidelines and not be convinced that Jesus builds his Church. And he does so through whomever he chooses in any way he chooses.

All of this is not to say that everything went perfectly. It didn’t. There were some less-than-stellar church services and some flawed execution in various areas of ministry. Yet the same was true of Emmaus when I was the primary leader in each of those areas. The deficiencies in both phases only served to reinforce the point: church leaders are not the means through which Jesus’ church grows. How could we be if we cannot even consistently do our job as well as we and our members would like?

Never had I been so happy to see how unimportant and unnecessary I am to Emmaus Church in particular and to Jesus’ Church in general. This relieves immeasurable pressure from my shoulders and arrogance from my heart. It also relieves the fear of losing other key leaders, because as wonderful as they are, Emmaus’ growth and health ultimately does not depend any more on them than it does on me. I will be eternally grateful that Jesus allowed me to burnout so I could see how little my flame was needed in the first place.

@@Never had I been so happy to see how unimportant and unnecessary I am to Jesus' Church@@

Now I can both say it and believe it:

"Jesus builds his Church."


The meaning of this statement is not that every church will grow regardless of who leads or how well they lead. The point is that if Jesus wants a church to grow he does not need me, or you, or your favorite minister to do it. This means if your church thrives, it is because Jesus himself is laying the bricks of his choice upon the foundation of his choice – himself. Conversely, this means if your church struggles – or even dies – it is because your church’s struggle is part of Jesus’ architecture of his victorious global Church. Remember, he promised to build his Church with a capital “C” not your church with a lowercase “c.”

A church that depends on someone other than Jesus to survive is no church at all. May we repent of trusting in anyone and everyone other than Him.

Questions for Reflection:

for Ministers: If you walked away from your church tomorrow do you believe it could be just as strong as if you stay? What does your answer reveal about your heart?

Question for Reflection for Church members: If your favorite leader were to leave your church would you consider leaving as well? Or otherwise lose confidence in your church’s potential for health and growth? What does your answer reveal about your heart? 


Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He is the founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-ethnic church in Portland, and now serves as a missionary helping plant churches in Mexico City, Mexico. Connect with him on twitter or facebook