When I was a college freshman, I contracted bronchitis while living in the dorms. I was sick for weeks and sharing a dorm room with one other person and a common living area with many more. I would attempt to sleep all night, drag myself to class in the morning, then slink back to my dorm to hopefully rest again. One night, about a week in a half into my bronchitis stricken existence, the fire alarm in my dorm went off. It went off all of the time. People would accidentally burn popcorn, pop tarts, and all manner of things in prehistoric microwaves that triggered the alarm. It was 2 am and I was not getting out of bed. I had just fallen asleep, no alarm was going to get me to leave my warm, comfortable bed. I remained in my quilted cocoon until firefighters entered my dorm room and encouraged/demanded that I leave. I wrapped myself around my comforter, went downstairs and sat on the curb until the whole debacle was sorted out (it was popcorn). I was sick, tired, and just wanted to sleep and the unwelcome interruption only exacerbated the misery I felt at the time. As with most interruptions, this one did not come at a good time. Interruptions rarely come at ideal times. They often come when we are worn out, in a hurry and unprepared. Interruptions usually always come our way when we are focused on something else entirely. But what if the interruptions ARE indeed necessary and vital to the flourishing of our ministries?
Mary was a rather ordinary teenager, engaged to Joseph. Her life was interrupted by the angel Gabriel, as he told Mary that though there was absolutely no biological reason for it to happen, she would be pregnant with a son. And this son would be Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah. As far as life events go, having a baby is one of those huge game-changers. Here was Mary, an ordinary young woman who had her life interrupted for something divinely extraordinary. Mary’s ministry legacy was being the mother of the Savior of the World. We can also look at the example of Jesus himself in Luke 8. In this chapter, Jesus is walking through a huge crowd when he is approached by a man who asks him to heal his very sick and dying 12-year-old daughter.
There is actually a second interruption in that story. While Jesus is making His way through the crowd listening to the needs of the people, a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years and thus an outcast in her community, touched Jesus’ cloak. Jesus feels healing power leave His body and asks who had touched Him. He approaches the woman and says “daughter, your faith has healed you, go in peace”. In this story, Jesus not only stops what He is doing in the crowd to acknowledge and heal the woman, but He also restores her by calling her daughter. This woman interrupted Jesus’ journey, but Jesus knew there was ministry to be had in the interruption. In these stories, ministry itself was not interrupted because the ministry was the interruption.
Most ministry leaders have a plan. A plan for how each service, each event, each bible study will flow. Some groups and leaders may hold more strictly to a plan and others more loosely, but it is human nature to have some sort of expectation of what will happen. And then a new family arrives at church out of nowhere in a week where you are already short on volunteers, a child who is struggling has a meltdown in their class, or you receive a text message from one of your families asking for immediate help with a growing crisis. In those moments, we have two choices. We can become frustrated and flustered that the interruption foiled our preset ministry plan, or we can lean into the interruption and look for the divine opportunity. As in the Biblical examples outlined above, perhaps the ministry is in that interruption, no matter how inconvenient it may seem. Instead of telling that new family “oh I’m sorry we cannot support you this week”, think through creative solutions on how to welcome and connect that family to your congregation that morning. Instead of seeing the child’s behavior as a distraction to the rest of the class, work to build a positive relationship with that child to determine what may be the best ways to love and support them when they struggle.
Instead of ignoring that text message or lamenting about how you may have to rearrange your schedule to help, think about how lonely it feels to be in a crisis and the courage and boldness it takes to ask for help. When we reframe interruptions to ministry, we are more able to respond lovingly and sincerely to those who God may be putting in our path. Leaning into ministry interruptions also allows us to ensure the focus of the ministry is actually on God, not on our own talents or competencies. We, and the ministries we lead, are better able to grow and flourish when we respond to real needs in real-time.
Imagine if Mary would have told the angel Gabriel “no thanks” when he told her life would be interrupted to give birth to the Messiah. Or what would have happened to the bleeding woman had Jesus’ not stopped to heal and restore her because He was too focused on where He was going next? It seems a little ridiculous to ponder the alternatives, as in retrospect, the choice for both Mary and Jesus seemed obvious. But maybe that is what we need to begin to look at ministry interruptions as opportunities and not derailments. Let us go forth and welcome the interruptions, as they may be the avenues where we see God’s work most powerfully.