John Fehlen

Do you want to know how to catch a monkey? No? Well, I’m gonna tell you how anyway.

In order to catch a monkey, a hunter will take a gourd and cut a small hole in it that is just big enough for the monkey to fit its hand through. Inside the gourd is placed something that the monkey craves, such as nuts, sweets or fruit. Then, the hunter waits.

Sooner or later, the monkey will put its hand into the hole, grab a fistful of goodies, then try to pull the hand back out. But it can’t. It is stuck. The monkey won’t surrender but, instead, will pull harder, refusing to release its grip and let go. It’s at this point that the hunter can snatch the frustrated and distracted monkey.

This illustration speaks to the need for surrender of that which is being held onto tightly. Most Christian leaders will nod and wholeheartedly agree that, if the people in our churches would simply “let go,” they would find freedom. It is true that we minister to many people that grasp, struggle and refuse to let go.

But what about us? What about you and me, pastoral leaders, who are also stuck in the gourd, so to speak? I know I was.

Last summer, I was blessed with a sabbatical from my pastoral duties. The 10-week “gift of time” came at a juncture in which I was celebrating 45 years of life, 25 years in ordained ministry and 25 years of marriage to my wife, Denise. We have been so blessed through the years with great churches, amazing people and wonderful experiences. However, I was also feeling very stuck emotionally and spiritually. I had been holding tightly onto ministry because it had been my primary focus since a young age.

I was stuck, if you will, in the gourd of “success”—public performance and pleasing people. It’s difficult to release that grip when it’s all that you’ve known to do. In many ways, releasing it requires starting over and relearning how to have ministry flow out of relationship with Jesus, rather than the other way around.

My sabbatical season greatly helped to cement these truths in my heart. But I need to tell you that my sabbatical would not have been nearly as fruitful had I not had an unexpected “day of surrender.” A few months prior to the start of my scheduled sabbatical, I experienced a sovereign move of the Lord upon my heart. It was an extended time of deep repentance, cleansing, and emotional and spiritual healing. It would take too long to unpack all that the Lord did in me, but suffice it to say, I was undone.

I released my white-knuckled grasp and was able to remove my hand from the trap of the hunter. Now I’m approaching life and ministry as an amateur again, rather than as a professional. My success isn’t determined by the attendance of the flock, but by the approval of the Father. It feels good, like how it felt when I first said yes to follow Jesus. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I’m rediscovering the pure joy of ministry and how it can flow out of the fear of the Lord rather than the fear of man. Doesn’t that sound good?

Prayer Points

  • Ask the Lord to compassionately reveal areas in your life that need to be surrendered.
  • Ask the Lord for the discernment regarding the potential need for a pastoral or professional sabbatical.
  • Ask the Lord to help you approach life and ministry as an amateur rather than a professional.

Share your thoughts. See comments below, and add your own.

is the senior pastor of West Salem (Salem West Foursquare Church) in Salem, Ore.
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