A Wilderness Experience: Has God Put You on a Shelf?

I am so thankful to feature a fellow Redbud, Michelle Van Loon, on the blog for the first time. I have often stated that God uses the wilderness to shape the hearts of his leaders and to prepare them for the work ahead. Michelle is gracious to share her wilderness or “shelf” experience and the leadership lessons learned. I hope this post encourages and challenges you today. Blessings, Natasha

Michelle Van Loon

Have you ever been shelved after a period of active ministry?

“How can God’s kingdom be advanced if I am sitting “useless” on the shelf?”

I hope you can hear the out-of-bounds pride at the root of that question. During my own shelf time, I will confess that I entertained thoughts like this—as if God was depending on me to save the world!

Besides exposing my pride in what I could accomplish for God (an unpleasant discovery, to say the least!), my place of ministry “uselessness” was a crucible where other long-ignored issues in my life bubbled to the surface. The biggest one? I didn’t know how to really, truly rest in my identity in Christ. Though I understood I was saved by His grace, I’d lived as if I needed to work (and work and work) to gain His love and the acceptance and friendship of my Christian family. Every Martha neuron inside of me fired like a machine gun: Go! Do! My busyness was masking a much deeper problem in my soul.

My empty planner was a tutorial in healthy ministry motivation. It taught me that much of what I called “ministry” was self-serving, rooted in my need for the approval of others rather than flowing out of my relationship with Christ. There was no place on the shelf to hide from the truth about my neediness. Christ invited me there so I could re-learn what it meant for ministry to flow out of my relationship with Christ, a by-product of that relationship instead of some sort of emotional reward for my performance.

Shelf time is a kind of a magnifying mirror, allowing us to have an up-close look at our motivations for ministry. It is important to note that some who end up on the shelf may be there after a harsh church experience where their motivations have been questioned, gossiped about or misunderstood. In those circumstances, it may be difficult to gain healthy perspective on your own motivations without the help of a trusted friend or spiritual counselor.

Though the shelf is a quiet, safe place to reflect and experience transition, our Master Potter can also use it to repurpose our lives. He is asking us to surrender to who He is and what He is doing in our lives here and now.

Some who are shelved may try to leap off the shelf into the recreation of a past position of authority. That’s what I wanted. I’d hoped for a tidy, victorious ending for my shelf time. For a long time – too long, I’m sorry to admit – I’d hoped I’d be able to tell people that my sabbatical was finished, and I was back in leadership, healthier than ever!

Getting back into a leadership position was not the point. Change was.

Devotional author Os Chambers said, “We have an idea that God is leading us to a particular end, a desired goal; He is not. The question of getting to a particular end is a mere incident. It is the process, not the end, which is glorifying to God.”

Counselor Dr. Beverly Smallwood notes the need to ask new questions in the midst of a process as disorienting as shelf time: “The perception of lost opportunities is at the root of some of the deepest of grief. Acknowledge to yourself that it’s true: some opportunities have passed. Feel the sadness of that. Write about it. Talk with a trusted friend about it. Then ask yourself, ‘What have I learned? And what are the implications of that for my life today? Are there people in my life who need what I have to give?”

I’m a different person than I was when I was placed on the shelf several years ago. My passions are continuing to be purified. God has brought fresh purpose into my life. As He’s pulled me off of the shelf, He’s launched my service to Him and to others in some surprising new directions.

However, the shelf continues to be a mirror, a surgeon’s table, and a refinery for me. I’ve learned to periodically choose to return to the shelf, taking time away to pray, to write, to practice the spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence, and to connect with a couple of trusted friends who are willing to challenge me to continue to live out the things I learned during those “useless” years. The shelf is custom-designed by the Father to be for us a place of safety, truth and transformation. I remember there that my identity is not found in what I do in the body of Christ.

Dr. Larry Crabb captures the message the shelf is meant to communicate to us: “We are not our problems. We are not our wounds. We are not our sins. We are persons of radical worth and unrevealed beauty. If we face ourselves fully, we will be broken by what we see, by the selfishness and fear and rage and lust that cover our spiritual beauty like tarnish on silver. But the silver is there. Something brilliant and intact gleams through the stain of our brokenness.”

And that something may be uncovered by the Lover of our souls only if we are shelved.

If you’ve ever been shelved, what have you learned from the experience?

Michelle Van Loon is a published author and blogs at: http://michellevanloon.com/

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