Beware of the Shadow Mission

shadow mission

Two things began happening in my twenties: I began attending church leadership conferences to build relationships with other pastors and gain training to better lead within my church. And I also began getting asked to speak at other church’s events and conferences.

My world was getting larger. In many ways it was wonderful. I was meeting fascinating new friends and seeing first hand how the Spirit of God was moving in other parts of the country and beyond. I was also being exposed to the realities of racism and sexism that, yes, sadly do exist within the Church. It was sobering to say the least.

I was struggling for the first time to make sense of my place, not outside of the Church, but within its four walls.

On one occasion, I was attending a gathering for youth pastors in Southern California. During one of the breaks, a fellow staff member asked me to join a conversation he was having with another youth pastor about some pretty heavy pastoral care issues taking place within his youth ministry. The youth pastor was tackling an increase in suicidal depression within his group of teenagers, and was trying to identify some resources to aid his students in need of mental health support. Our youth ministry had the year before seen a recent trend, and we had formed a team to compile resources and training to better care for our students.

I joined the conversation empathizing with the youth pastor and offering to share with him the resources we had found.

Bizarrely, the man refused to acknowledge me. He didn’t even look at me when I spoke. He then continued to ask my fellow staff member (who happened to be a man) if he knew of any resources. My teammate was just as dumbfounded as I was, and believing the man must not have heard me, reinforced that I had some experience and resources to offer. That’s when the man made himself clear, “I don’t have one-on-one interactions with women. I am sure she has resources, but I would prefer to speak with you.”

I promptly excused myself from the conversation, biting my tongue, and holding back tears of rage. Needing a moment, I left the building and found my car in the crowded church parking lot. I sat in my driver’s seat, away from everyone, and with tears streaming down my face said to God, “This is insane! Who does this guy think he is? He won’t talk to me because I’m a woman?! How is this okay? And what about his suicidal students who are missing out on support because this man is too sexist and proud to receive counsel from a woman?! I’m so angry right now! I can’t believe this can even happen in the Church!”

And then I said the words that had been brewing in my heart for quite some time, “I’ll show him. I’ll prove to him and everyone else like him that women have something to offer worth listening to.”

Immediately, the Holy Spirit challenged my rage-induced declaration. Jesus Himself spoke to me in that moment, “Daughter, you can make the mission about pointing people to Me or about proving something to others, but you can not do both.”

A different kind of tears began to race down my cheeks. These were not tears of anger. These were tears of surrender. I immediately remembered a message I had heard John Ortberg teach at a conference a couple years prior. It was a riveting sermon, and one phrase from it stood out: shadow mission. In his message he described this as the ulterior motives that one can develop within their hearts as they follow Jesus. He encouraged us to examine our hearts and to beware of allowing a shadow mission of any kind to guide us down paths that seem pious externally, but inwardly are motivated by bitterness, pride, and selfish ambition.

“Jesus said to all of his followers, ‘If you truly desire to be my disciple, you must disown your life completely, embrace my ‘cross’[l] as your own, and surrender to my ways. 24 For if you choose self-sacrifice, giving up your lives for my glory, you will embark on a discovery of more and more of true life. But if you choose to keep your lives for yourselves, you will lose what you try to keep. 25 Even if you gained all the wealth and power of this world, everything it could offer you, yet lost your soul in the process, what good is that?’” (Luke 9:23-25 TPT)

I had to face my own shadow mission that day in the parking lot. The great ambition in my heart couldn’t be to become a woman who proved women (and in my case, specifically minority women) should have a place in ministry. I had to simply be a disciple who makes disciples. Any other mission, even if noble and justified, would simply never be worth giving my life to.

I wiped my tears, laid down my ego, picked up my cross, and determined that I would not allow bitterness to dictate how I responded to the injustices I experienced.

That wasn’t my last run in with my shadow mission, but from that moment on it had a face and a name. It could no longer fester disguised in my soul as small feelings of resentment, bitterness, or anger. It wasn’t a welcome guest in my heart and mind anymore. It was an enemy to my calling, and I would be on guard against its attacks.

In the course of following Jesus, we all have to confront our shadow missions. Mine came in the form of personal vindication. Perhaps yours comes in the form of pursuing a certain paycheck and lifestyle, a climb to the top of the career ladder, a desire to be liked and applauded, a need to prove someone wrong or earn someone’s approval. Shadow missions may seem like worthy causes, but in the end only serve one purpose- to distract you from complete surrender to Jesus and the work of making disciples. When we let them pull the strings of our hearts, we may just gain the whole world and yet forfeit our souls in the process.

How do we move beyond our shadow missions while still confronting injustice? Well, I began learning to trust God to vindicate and make right the injustices I was not only being exposed to, but were experiencing firsthand. I didn’t need to defend my calling in ministry. I didn’t need to demand I be understood or even heard. I didn’t hold my breath for apologies and I didn’t need them to feel justified. God had called me and that was enough. He is the Righteous Judge, and I had a growing trust that He would not only give me favor and influence as He saw fit, but He would make right what my outrage and disappointment never could.

In Psalm 7, David is faced with injustice and has every opportunity to exact his own revenge, yet he refrains. Instead, David turns to God for justice. He recognizes that it is God who is truly the Great Defender, that He probes the hearts and minds of men, and even that His desire is to see people repent before experiencing judgment. Through this Psalm David acknowledges that in the end it is the troublemakers, not the troubled, that will experience the greatest heartbreaks. And with this perspective, in spite of his own injustice, David is still able to give thanks to God and praise His name.

In Psalm 7:17 TPT, David solidifies his trust in God with these words, “But I will give all my thanks to you, Lord, for you make everything right in the end. I will sing my highest praise to the God of the Highest Place!”

There is great peace in knowing the Lord will make everything right in the end. When you begin to grab hold of this hope, you are no longer limited by the wrongs done to you. You can live in the wide, open spaces of God’s favor and blessing in your life- free from bitterness and hostility.

So whatever God is calling to, may you do it in freedom, my friend, trusting Jesus every step of the way. May you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is with you, He is for you, and He can do in and through you what seems humanly impossible.

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  • Reply
    Jaye Miller
    February 1, 2019 at 2:50 pm

    Thank you.

  • Reply
    February 1, 2019 at 6:23 pm

    So good!

  • Reply
    amanda collazo
    February 1, 2019 at 7:00 pm

    i needed to read this so desperately, more than i like to admit. this is so powerful and God is so sovereign over every part of our lives. thank you for this and your vulnerability.

  • Reply
    Julie Ragsdale
    February 7, 2019 at 3:56 am

    Oh Nicole!! Such a good word!
    I remember during a question answer session you were asked about sexism in ministry. Your reply “rectifying injustices in ministry is not my calling. Making disciples, leading people to Jesus, that’s my calling!”
    Your reply buzzed in my ears for months. The Holy Spirit was already at work in me about taking on things that were not my responsibility… and then that reply… it was the nail in the coffin of my “shadow mission”… thank you for your transparency!

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