By Alan Ahlgrim
The distractions just keep on coming! Within the past few weeks, I have been hit with a variety of special challenges. Each one has taken an emotional toll and worse, each has threatened to distract me from my primary purpose. I know I am not alone.
Most people, especially those in leadership, seem to regularly experience the same thing. All of the easy jobs have been taken! What is left seems to require some heavy lifting.
If that describes your current assignment, don’t be disheartened.
Remember the story of Nehemiah? As soon as he and the workers began to make significant progress, they faced significant challenges. Their enemies openly insulted them and did everything possible to distract them. This is a common pattern. It’s happened for thousands of years.
We’ve even experienced it in our community. When we went before the Boulder County Planning Commission last year and presented the master site plan that was required, one of the planning commission members insultingly said: “We never expected your church to get so big . . . we’ve been trying to stop your growth for 10 years. When are you going to get the message?”
It was clear from him, as it has been from others, that not everyone in the community is pleased with our ministry. In fact, some have made it plain that they wish we would just go away. Some don’t agree with our strong Christ-centered convictions; some don’t appreciate our high visibility; some don’t like our large campus and facility; in fact, some see it as a blight on the landscape.
Even though we see ourselves as an asset to the community, providing hundreds of volunteers and even free space for hundreds of community events each year, that carries little or no weight with those who have another opinion or agenda. Sometimes people just can’t see the good that others do; some are even threatened by it. That was certainly the case with those who opposed Nehemiah.
Take heart, God blesses those who keep their focus. For me the key phrase here is found in Nehemiah 6:3: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down.”
Sanballat and company invited Nehemiah to a meeting, but Nehemiah had other plans; more than that, Nehemiah had a higher calling. Ordinarily having a meeting to seek reconciliation with an enemy would be a good idea; however, in this case Nehemiah needed to stay focused on the much higher priority of rebuilding a wall.
Whether you realize it or not, you and I have been called to a much higher priority than some would imagine. That’s true for some well-educated moms who have chosen to remain home with their little children. It’s true for some determined students who are repeatedly invited to the wrong kinds of parties but have instead determined to remain faithful to their values. It’s true for some men who are regularly asked to enjoy some after-work drinks with colleagues, but have made it clear they are headed home to their family. It’s true for leaders in this ministry who are repeatedly encouraged to do all sorts of things that are good but are not the best.
I could have appointments scheduled all day, every day, and be out virtually every night, but I need to draw the line and so do you. So repeat after me: “I am carrying on a great project . . . and I cannot go down.”
In Good to Great, author Jim Collins asks: “Do you have a ‘to-do’ list? Do you also have a ‘stop doing’ list?” Collins believes most of us lead busy but undisciplined lives, and he’s right. We have an ever expanding list of things that we want to do or feel we ought to do.
And if you’ve got kids at home, you also have to deal with their lists. Is it any wonder that so many feel so absolutely frazzled? And it’s not just because of things that happen to us, but things that we allow and even invite into our lives.
One of my challenges is to schedule more “white space” on my calendar. That is, I’m trying to put some blocks of time in my schedule that are uncommitted.
One of our former elders wisely said he would sometimes decline invitations by simply saying he already had other plans. One time someone was pushing to know what his “other plans” were and he simply said, “Nothing. I plan to do nothing!”
When Nehemiah told his distracters he couldn’t come down to meet with them, it wasn’t because he had already planned to do “nothing.” Far from it, Nehemiah had serious plans to do something really significant.
What sorts of distractions are most likely to interrupt God’s good work in you and through you? The secret of highly effective people is not that they do more things than others; but that they focus on just a few things better than others.
Andy Stanley said the two best kept secrets of leadership are: 1) the less you do, the more you will accomplish; and 2) the less you do, the more you enable others to accomplish. This is not an excuse for laziness; it is a challenge for focus.
The secret of concentration is elimination. We must move some of the distracting things off of our calendars and personal agendas. Every invitation, opportunity, and good offer doesn’t come directly from God.
Just like you, I live with an abundance of opportunities, and just like you I lament that I can’t do more. The problem is I don’t have unlimited time and neither do you. That’s why each of us must prayerfully set clear priorities and focus on a few things that will in time enable us to do something truly good for God.
Nehemiah took on a special short-term project that had a powerful impact on a lot of people. And one reason Nehemiah was able to lead those people to do so much was simply because he totally invested in its success.
A year ago I rented a movie starring Mel Gibson called We Were Soldiers. It is based on the true account of a brutal battle in Vietnam in which American forces suffered horrendous causalities. This is not a film for little kids or the faint of heart. However, if you want to see an illustration of inspiring leadership you’ll find it in the colonel who led his troops.
Even while still in the U.S. he told them of the special challenge that was before them. He knew the odds were against them. But he said, “This I can assure you, my boots will be the first to hit the ground, and my boots will be the last to leave.”
Sure enough as the helicopters were bringing in the troops the camera focused on the colonel’s boots as the first ones to hit the ground. And after the battle that resulted in so many casualties, once again the camera focused on the colonel’s boots as he was the last one to board the last helicopter leaving the battleground.
I don’t know what particular set of challenges you are facing right now, but I know the enemy is seeking to distract you. He will use anything or anyone to get to you. He will use criticism, fear, discouragement, and disunity. He will try to keep you from fulfilling your special mission with your family, friends, career, and church.
The enemy is not pleased when God’s people determine to work together, so you can be assured he is working right now to distract and dishearten you. Don’t let him get away with it!
Alan Ahlgrim is the lead pastor with Rocky Mountain Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado, and a member of Standard Publishing's Publishing Committee.