This article is adapted from Chapter 9 of Stalled: Hope and Help for Pastors Who Thought They’d Be There By Now.
Have you ever heard Jesus speak directly to you through someone else? Sometimes His message is something you have been searching for. Other times He unexpectedly reveals what’s coming next in your life. In either case, you know on the inside that He is calling you out.
I was on a staff planning retreat a few years ago when the latter happened to me. It was at a time when I was finally content with the trajectory my life was on. Although I never would have declared that I had arrived, I was confident that Jesus was going to use me as executive pastor of my church and as a consultant for The Unstuck Group for the foreseeable future. It was such a fulfilling season.
Imagine, then, the discomfort I started feeling when I realized that Jesus had something to say to me concerning my future. During the retreat, I asked my friend Brad Cooper to lead a devotion for our team. As Brad was walking to the front of the room, he shared that he had been impressed by the Holy Spirit to change his original message. Clearly something was about to happen. I learned a long time ago to be especially receptive when speakers say the Lord changed their message on the day of an event.
The Unknown Sweet Spot
Brad began his talk by drawing a large circle on the whiteboard. Inside the circle he wrote phrases that describe a successful ministry. He referred to the circle as our “sweet spot of ministry.” He continued by discussing how Jesus will lead us into the sweet spot, where we will experience fruitfulness and contentment. This comes from knowing we are exactly where He wants us to be and doing exactly what He created us to do.
So far I was tracking right along with Brad. After all, I had finally let go of thinking I would be there by now and had joyfully accepted that I was right where God wanted me.
Soon, however, Brad changed things up on us.
While continuing to talk about ministering in our sweet spot, he drew another circle in the upper right corner of the whiteboard. He labeled it “The Unknown Sweet Spot.” Then he shared how the Lord had been showing him earlier that morning that He often has another sweet spot for us, which we will never experience until we are faithful and contented in our current sweet spot.
In other words, contented faithfulness where you are today will often open opportunities you didn’t even consider possible.
I knew in that moment that Jesus was about to take me to a new place in ministry. And for the first time in my life, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go anywhere new. I was experiencing unprecedented success at what I was doing—finally. Did I really want to give this up to take on another opportunity? In all honesty, I really didn’t want to change.
After a few months of personal turmoil, I accepted the position of executive director of 95Network. There was no way to know in that moment exactly what God had in store for my life. I often say I went kicking and screaming into blessing. It was painful to let go of what I was holding on to at the time. I wanted to hold on to the security I had. However, I never could have dreamed of the opportunities that have opened up since I said yes to His direction.
The Sweet Spot of Purpose
Hearing Brad talk about purpose that morning didn’t surprise me at all. He has a deep desire to help people understand how to connect their gifting and passion to fulfill their God-given purpose. In fact, he has another illustration he often uses to communicate with people who are searching for God’s will in their lives.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Brad has shared this illustration with hundreds of people over the years. In fact, the majority of people he has met with over the past decade can testify about him drawing the Sweet Spot diagram on a napkin in a coffee shop or restaurant. His insight into how to know the will of God and His purpose for your life is thoroughly practical.
This insight applies to you too. We all need guidance at times. Whom should I connect with? What do I need to do differently? When do I start? Where do I go? Why change at all?
After drawing three circles, Brad defined each of them. One represents God’s glory, the second represents your joy, and the final circle represents the world’s good.
God’s Glory. The Scriptures make it abundantly clear that our first goal in life is to glorify God, even in our common daily actions: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31 NKJV). The first circle represents God’s glory because we should desire to bring glory to God in every aspect of our lives.
Your Joy. The second circle represents the things that bring you joy in this life. Even though many Christians haven’t figured this out yet, we were created to live in joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4 NIV). Also, according to Nehemiah, “The joy of the LORD is your strength” (8:10 NIV). We are expected to live lives of joy as believers.
However, we should keep in mind two critically important truths concerning joy:
1) The joy of the Lord and happiness are not the same.
While happiness is often determined by what’s happening around you, joy flows from what is happening inside you. Christians deal with the same sufferings and setbacks as everyone else. But as Christians, the highs and lows of life should not defeat us.
We can begin living in the joy of the Lord when we accept the fact that we’re not in control. Joy is available when we let go of worrying about everything and begin to rest in His perfect plan for our lives. I still don’t like the patience required to live this way, but it’s impossible to experience His assuring presence any other way.
2) Your joy will never be in opposition to God’s Word.
There are obviously some things in this life that will bring temporary joy yet are in direct opposition to Scripture. It is never wise to trump God’s Word with what you want simply because it brings you temporary joy.
The World’s Good. The final circle represents God’s intention in creating each one of us. His master plan is for us to be involved in advancing His kingdom throughout the world. I believe this is especially critical when it comes to reaching the next generation. Ephesians 2:10 says, “We are His workmanship” (NKJV). Every one of us has the purpose of bringing the hope of the gospel to others. There is no higher calling or purpose in life than helping people find Jesus.
The church is called to preach the gospel and expand the kingdom of God. It’s up to us because Jesus provided no plan B. You and I are commissioned to bring light into the darkness. We are also here to ensure the next generation is firmly planted on solid ground as we hand off the ministry to them. We are here for the world’s good in order that they may know Him.
Brad’s diagram clearly shows how to determine your God-given sweet spot. It happens where God’s glory, your joy, and the world’s good intersect. Understanding your purpose in each of these areas is critical to finding your sweet spot. It is imperative that you be willing to make all necessary adjustments in the way you are currently operating in order to get there.
A time may come in which you find yourself in the same place I was. You are finally content in your sweet spot, and suddenly opportunity comes knocking. Jesus begins to whisper to you about your unknown sweet spot. Like me, you might resist the first nudges. If you do, please remember this: your sweet spot can become a sour spot if you stay there too long.
One of the biggest challenges you and I will face in leadership is not being able to recognize when the current season is over and it’s time for a change. It is possible for a wonderful season of fruitful ministry to turn sour when your time has come to an end but you resist acknowledging it.
Here are eight indicators that you are on the verge of allowing your sweet spot to turn sour:
1. You can no longer motivate those you lead to take action.
2. You no longer enjoy the day-to-day tasks required by the job.
3. Your trust in those around you is severely diminishing.
4. You seldom see new converts in your ministry.
5. Your attitude about sermon prep shifts from anticipation to going through the motions.
6. You invest the majority of your energy in activities away from ministry.
7. You have no desire to invest resources to reach the next generation.
8. You would not attend your church if you weren’t getting paid.
Thousands of pastors and other leaders in our churches today feel stalled in this way. If they were honest, they would admit they no longer desire to see their ministries succeed. However, tenure has caused them to become dependent on the income from the job. If they refuse to step out when the time is right, they will become passionless leaders of passionless ministries. Sometimes our desire for security limits our willingness to follow the Lord’s leading to the next adventure, especially as we get older. Eventually we wake up to find that the missed opportunity has limited our purpose and effectiveness in the long haul.
I don’t believe we ever fully retire from ministry. Obviously, responsibilities change with age, but the calling to ministry is a lifelong call. This is why it’s critical to understand your sweet spot and recognize how it changes over the years.
I am really looking forward to seeing Jesus face to face. I hope He will give me a little fist bump and say, “Thank you, Dale, for helping My church.” I most likely will end up on my face, worshipping Him and thanking Him for saving me and calling me into His service. I hope you have this anticipation too. If not, then it’s time to find your sweet spot of purpose. Maybe some things are different for you now. But don’t spend another day thinking you should be there by now. Move forward today by walking in what brings glory to God, joy to you, and good to the world.