The Covenant Prayer, composed and adapted by John Wesley, invites complete humility and obedience to God’s service, asking God to work through us or to work around us, and to take us to places and to put us alongside people we would never choose if left to our own inclinations.
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee,
exalted for thee or brought low by thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.*
Like many United Methodist leaders, I have prayed Wesley’s Covenant prayer hundreds of times, sometimes in gatherings and many times quietly on my own. The prayer always has the power to unsettle me and provoke me to deeper reflection about my own motives. Repeating the prayer strengthens me while also making me more attentive to my spiritual vulnerabilities. It restrains my propensity to use the language of God’s will to describe and defend what is merely most convenient and desirable for me. It curbs my natural tendency to justify my own views and desired outcomes and forces me to wrestle with what submission to God in Christ truly means for my ministry. Several phrases penetrate the veneers I hide behind to preserve my pride and ambition. It’s a powerful prayer, but be careful where it leads you!
The line that disturbs me the most is, “let me be employed by thee, or laid aside by thee.” This forces me to face the truth that while God works through me to achieve certain good things in the world, God also works around me to achieve many other good things. Sometimes I’m not the right person. Sometimes I don’t have the right gifts, the right strategies, the right voice, or the right ideas for this particular moment and context of ministry. My ways, my experiences, my passions, my certitudes and biases and approaches may not be the ones for this particular time and for a particular work God needs accomplished.
Sometimes my conference, my staff, my congregation, my friends, my seminary, my board, or my committee is the one that is ripe and ready for the task, and other times mine is the one that must be set aside so that God’s good purpose can be fulfilled in another way by someone else. There are challenges that are not mine to resolve and strategies that are not mine to develop. The institutions where I have found my place and the methods I have developed are sometimes those that need to be set aside because the season for which they served is past or because another voice and another approach are needed to reach a generation I cannot.
General Conference delegates will deliberate on several significant organizational initiatives that involve reducing the size of governing boards, unifying numerous functions under a fewer number of agencies, and streamlining the general church structure. Those who are most at home with the existing activities and arrangements are likely to most keenly experience the impact of such changes as personal setbacks. Even those who know that change is necessary will consider such suggestions strategic mistakes and ill-advised tampering. They will feel the losses far more acutely than they will see the opportunities. Most of the people voting, in addition to the bishops on the platform and the agency staff members in the audience, have been the beneficiaries of the systems that have brought us to this point, and so they naturally grieve the losses that come with transitions. And yet the models, behaviors, and attitudes that we need to let go of are the models, behaviors, and attitudes that got us this far. This requires a spiritual maturity that surpasses mere organizational strategy.
How do I pray for the fulfillment of God’s purposes when sometimes fulfilling them leaves me on the sidelines or redirects my path from what I had expected? How do I develop the humility to be laid aside graciously, and even joyfully? God has work for me to do as long as I have breath, but sometimes it is not the work I expected. Praying deeply the Covenant Prayer requires discernment, a countercultural spirituality and a counterintuitive openness to God. It requires saying with Jesus that we have come “not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45 NRSV). It requires accepting the emotional impact of truly believing that “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39 NRSV). It prompts us to think about what it means to no longer be our own, but God’s, and causes us to meditate on what it means to yield and step aside with humility.
* The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 607. Used by permission.[B.A.D.1]
When was a time you experienced God working around you rather than through you? How did it feel? How did you handle any negative feelings of uselessness or abandonment, and how did you come to find a renewed sense of purpose in serving in other ways?
Have you ever voluntarily stepped down or stepped back or stepped aside so that a ministry could move in new directions? Where did the spiritual discernment come from to help you do this?
For deeper consideration, meditate on Matthew 20:20-28.
For resources about the loss and grief that comes with change in organizations, check out Managing Transitions by William Bridges or Leadership on the Line by Ronald A. Heifetz and Martin Linsky.
Read Bishop Schnase’s series “Remember the Future: 30 Days of Preparation” here on the Five Practices website or at www.ministrymatters.com/30days