Wrestling with the expectations of God’s investment.
by Mark Coleman
[7 minute read]
It was a bit of a shock to discover that I was no longer the promising young leader. For a significant chunk of my teens and early twenties, I’d been the one that leaders had encouraged to follow my sense of call into pastoral ministry. I had been given every opportunity to grow as well. An internship in a large London church, invitations to leadership conferences, one on one investment from an incredible bunch of inspiring mentors, prophetic words inviting me to believe that God would use me in significant ways in my future. And all of these experiences marked by one word that continued to worm its way into my understanding of self: Potential.
Potential is a strange burden to carry. From the beginning of my exploration of a future in pastoral ministry at the age of 15, potential was an exciting concept. A bold and invigorating horizon, filled with possibility and genuine anticipation of the sort of life God might prepare and equip me for. As someone who has always appreciated an affirming word, or more honestly, needed them, being the ‘someone’ with potential was a pretty satisfying position to be in. But God didn’t let my insecurities get in the way, He kept on investing in me. I was invited to preach my first sermon at 17, then to become the leader of my university Christian Union in the first year of my industrial design degree. I got to experience the world, to see God at work in extraordinary places. From a shelter for street kids in South Africa, to an underground church in Beijing, God lavished training ground after training ground before me, all the while shaping and forming my understanding of what it means to walk alongside people, to pray for them, to speak with and to them, to lead them.
The problems start when you begin to realise that you haven’t done much with all that potential. In my mid-twenties I went through a spectacular breakdown as an engagement collapsed in the rubble of my anxiety. I later ended up in Australia, in need of a change, but quickly had to face the grim reality that I was now 15 years on from that first sense of call to leadership. 15 years on and now living in the spare room of someone I had just met, working 2 days a week in a bike shop, unable to afford proper rent and scraping together enough money to eat from sporadic graphic design projects. I wasn’t even using all this free time for Jesus either. I’d become a church consumer, regularly visiting three different ones, mainly in search of new friendships and perhaps even a wife. There was no world changing ministry, or influential young Christian family that I imagined would define the transition into my thirties. Potential now felt like a skeleton in a closet that belonged to another me. “Hi, I’m Mark, people used to say I had a lot of potential.”
A lot has changed in the ten years that followed. I did finally study at Bible college, I did get married to someone who has done remarkably well at coping with my baggage, we have a truly delightful son who has an extraordinary ability to shine a light on my own insecurities, and I did find myself working for a large church in Sydney. Then came Arrow, and with Arrow came the terrifying theme of potential again.
Despite working for a church that many at my Bible college would have regarded as ‘making it,’ I still had a nagging sense that I wasn’t quite doing what God had designed me for. This all got real when I became a rare achiever of the ‘un-plottable star’ during Arrow Res One’s session on the Leading From Your Strengths wheel. The un-plottable star, in case you are unfamiliar, means that you really aren’t working how you’re designed to be working. Unfortunately, I knew the star, or lack of it, was not wrong.
The lack of star kickstarted a process of trying to redefine my role description, seeking to change the focus of my working week to better reflect the sort of ministry I thought I wanted to be in. Helpfully – I’m saying this word sarcastically – this process was rudely interrupted by a global pandemic, which made pastoral ministry much harder to recognise for almost everyone I know who works for a church. Amongst the stress of constant adaptation, I began to wallow in why my ministry looked nothing like the glorious vision I sensed was being laid before me at the age of 15. Then I received a phone call from a small church in Sydney’s inner west, who were looking for a new pastor.
I have long thought I was being called to be someone in the second chair, that my gifts and skills were designed for me to support someone else’s vision. I felt called to champion and encourage, but not to be the bow of the ice-breaker as it carves its way through the frozen seas that can be church leadership. But, what was I going to do with this invitation to apply for the role of sole pastor? Then a few more offers came. “Ok God, I’m paying attention.”
Arrow Res Two opened a sketch pad on which to draw out this mysterious new focus of my attention. I began to realise a vision more closely aligned with the man I think God had been investing all that potential in. After prayer and the sorts of chats you cherish for ages with a shiny new set of treasured ministry allies, I was teetering on a decision, but there was still a pull to the warm and cosy comfort of doing absolutely nothing. Do I really want to expose my back to the attrition of church leadership? Perhaps I should become a chaplain? In an act of late 80’s revival, our moving on service (a structured process at the conclusion of a residential helping participants finish well their Arrow immersion) at the end of the week involved writing on one side of a cassette tape. The instruction for side A, was to name the narrative that you’ve been living under up until this point, with side B reserved for the narrative God would sing over you into your future. I wrestled for a while, and then the words formed. Onto side A I scribbled; ‘Unrealised potential.’
Those two words shape a question I offer you, if you’ll excuse the impertinence, but you have just read this far into my life story.
Will you let your life be shaped by unrealised potential?
I’m not into guilt and condemnation, that doesn’t smell like the Jesus I know, but Jesus did ask a lot of questions, and the one He asked me was the one you’ve just read. It’s a question that has been with me a long time, I just didn’t realise it, but I knew its discovery brought the inconvenient request for an answer. Will I willingly step into every insecurity of having more of the bucks stop with me? Will I confront my fear of failure and accept the reality that success has very little to do with me anyway? Will I embrace the possibility of being described with the words; “Not quite what we expected him to be capable of?” Will I let myself be found out? Can I cope with preaching every week?
I read some stat somewhere that churches are struggling to find new young leaders, and someone else said it might be because it looks terrifying. You’ll have to dig these stats up elsewhere, I don’t remember stats, but I do remember fear. I do remember the fear I felt of actually having to do something with all that God had invested in me, standing up and giving account of the gifts and skills that God has been honing for more than half my life. I remember that fear because I’ve got really good at avoiding it for so many years. The question of unrealised potential, however, wouldn’t let me escape that fear much longer.
I am now four months into pastoring that church in Sydney’s inner west, and it does have moments absolutely as terrifying as I’d expected, but there’s one burden that is a little lighter than before. I don’t think you ever realise your potential, it’s destined to always be several kilometres up the road from you, but I’m slowly learning, that when you start to run towards it, start to exercise what potential has been developing in you, you discover potential is far less about you and far more about the God who invests it. I’m no longer the promising young leader, but I am now a leader gradually realising the potential of God’s promise.
Want to unlock the unrealised potential invested in you by the Divine, as Mark did? For Mark, Arrow Leadership is a key. You can be part of Arrow’s transformative experiences in 2022 by acting now. Start a conversation. Explore some more. Apply.
Mark is married to Nicolie and together they have a tiny giant called Alexander. Mark is ordained as a Baptist Pastor and currently serves at Ashfield Baptist Church in Sydney’s Inner West. Mark loves seeing people of all ages go deeper in their faith, grasping more of their God given identity and becoming more fully who they are. Mark also loves praying with and for people, the transformational power of God’s Holy Spirit, a good chat, watching Great British Bake Off with his wife, running in the wilderness, efficiency, tidy spaces, good design and hates comic sans.