Even when we don't do the New Year's resolution thing we usually turn the page to the New Year with a great deal of resolve. There's something about clean calendars and next chapters that ignites a revived sense of intent and purpose in us. Since life do-overs aren't really possible, a New Year offers opportunities for correction, or at least, levels of improvement. There's a prerequisite, however. Before we can jump-start the New Year we should possess some awareness of the pulse beat just now. How does it compare to the hyped up energy that super-charged us into 2016, a year ago? What is my pulse now? Is my heartbeat as strong today as it was when I entered the year equipped with vim and vigor and purpose, with such great expectations?
It's not hypothetical either, this thing about a year-end pulse check. Self-examination is a critical spiritual discipline, a bullet point of self-awareness. In fact, since personal renewal is a daily expectation, checking the pulse should happen more frequently than once a year. Yet, a world of spiritual slackers often relegates such discipline to more critical times, if at all.
Jeremiah wrote about it centuries ago, and Paul included some instruction about the personal pulse check in his letters to the Corinthians.
Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!
Lamentations 3:40, ESV
Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
1 Corinthians 11:28, ESV
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do
you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed
you fail to meet the test!
2 Corinthians 13:5, ESV
For thirty-five years of pastoral leadership New Year's week was an important pulse check time. There were other exams along the way but the New Year gut check helped set the stage for the challenges that were always around the corner in the New Year. It's presumptive to believe that any of us, spiritual leaders included, are the Energizer bunnies of faith and can maintain the buzz of spiritual vitality for 365 days without regular and close personal inspection. Our reluctance to check the pulse, however, may explain the broad spiritual impotence so visible in the nation today at just about every level. In thirty five years five simple questions were the sphygmomanometers (look it up) used to check my personal spiritual pulse at the end of each year.
Q1: Did I spend daily time in Bible study beyond sermon preparation?
Q2: Is extended prayer notable in my personal daily routine?
Q3: Is there a regular opportunity for frank personal accountability?
Q4: Are there opportunities for me to be enriched by the influence of others?
Q5: Did I share my faith every single day?
Two additional personal resources helped to form a backdrop for this kind of personal review every year. One was a detailed daily journal and calendar, the other a personal scorecard for measuring time investments. The daily journal was simply a calendar that noted the hours of each day and how they were spent. When computers entered the picture it wasn't paper and pen maintained but annotated in a personal calendar folder. The standard by which my time entries were evaluated was a recommended ministry template from Pastoral Leadership by Bob Dale (Abington Press, Nashville: 1989). That work suggested that 30% of a pastor's work schedule be equally divided in pastoral, proclamation, and administration duties, with 10% being variably utilized in various other activities. I've never been OCD in adherence to either of them. But, there needed to be some measurable way to routinely check my personal spiritual pulse, especially when preparing to turn the page to a new year.
Data about the working hours, conditions, and demands of pastoral and church staff leadership have been an interesting topic recently. While much of the new study research has been encouraging there are still several troubling trends: the relatively short tenure of ministerial positions; and, the number of churches in survival or maintenance mode. How these two basic areas of church life are affected by the personal spiritual life of leaders and church members must be part of our year-end pulse check if the health of local churches is to be re-vitalized.
So, this week I'll be reviewing several areas of personal spiritual health as a means of checking the pulse of individual believers. These thoughts aren't the findings of a well- staffed and funded research department or just a recitation of what others are saying. No, they are the learnings of one retired guy who struggled for thirty-five years to maintain a sense of spiritual vitality for the ever-challenging roles of leadership.
Is life hard? The answer would be an affirmative! Paul wrote about having the treasure of the gospel in jars of clay, the certain limits of the human species. He added, "So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day" (2 Corinthians 4:16, ESV). It's the renewal thing day-by-day that keeps the heartbeat strong. A year-end pulse check may be a start in this area.
2017 is coming Sunday. This New Year will challenge us as never before. The question is: will our heartbeat be strong enough for us to influence the world for the sake of Christ and his kingdom?