By Luke Holmes
I was never good at math. I’m still not.
I can add and subtract and do the basic things, but when math started adding in letters is when I stopped understanding. I remember asking the classic question: “When will I ever have to use algebra?”
As a pastor I don’t use algebra equations very often, but I’m constantly counting. And pastoral math can be even harder than algebra.
Pastors often use math when they have a big decision to make in the church. Will there be enough people on our side to move forward? Can we make the change we want to?
In more dire circumstances a pastor will wonder if there’s enough confidence from church members to survive a vote for removal.
We’re constantly counting people in a service. Is the crowd bigger than it was last week? Is there reason enough to justify continuing this ministry? The pandemic has brought on a different kind of math from before.
There’s one example of pastoral math from the Bible that comes to mind, only this time it was a from a prophet.
In 1 Kings 19 Elijah has already stood up to the prophets of Baal. But now he’s running for his life from Jezebel.
After God cares for him through bread and water, the Lord confronts him and asks Elijah what he was doing there.
Elijah replies that he’s been faithful to God, and now he is the only one left, but he is in fear for his life. Elijah has done the math, and he’s come up on the short end of it.
After Elijah complains to God, the Lord tells him there are 7,000 other prophets who have not bowed the knee to Baal.
God preserved them, keeping them for his purpose and for his glory. Elijah thought he counted correctly, but his math didn’t add up.
Elijah’s anger is understandable, at least from my perspective. Everyone has felt like the odds are stacked against them at times.
Many pastors have felt this not only figuratively, but literally. The votes are counted and the pastor is fired. At some point you’ve found yourself backed in a corner, the odds are against you, and there is no way out.
That is just the way Elijah felt. He had a great triumph on the top of Mt. Carmel, but now he’s in the valley and being chased by a wicked queen who wants to take his life.
But no matter how much time a pastor (or even a prophet) spends counting, we always seem to forget to count the ones that matter the most. Elijah didn’t know that there were thousands of other men on the side of the Lord.
Like Elijah, we have no way of knowing what God is really up too as He works around us. All Elijah could do was count what he saw in front him, and he didn’t like the answer he got.
It’s tempting to be frustrated with the situation or circumstances of ministry.
But we’re counting what we can’t see. We don’t know what God is really doing as he works around us and through us.
The world we live and minister in right now has changed over the past few months. It’s tempting to run the numbers and make comparisons to other ministries—or even to our own pre-COVID realities.
As we draw near to an election it’s tempting to say that if any person or party wins, then the odds will be against us.
But the fates of God’s people don’t rise and fall with numbers. Our future, our ministries, our very lives are in the hands of our Father.
We’re not told the reaction of Elijah upon learning about the thousands of other prophets God had kept. If it was anything like my response when God humbles me, it was shame followed by tremendous gratitude and hope.
Scripture does record that Elijah went to go find the prophet Elisha and call him to God’s work. He knew God’s work would continue long after he was gone. Elijah learned that God’s work was bigger than he was.
God’s work is bigger than you, too. Even when the math doesn’t add up, even if and when we do get voted out, even when the odds are stacked against us, we should never forget to count the fact that God is with us.
Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world is not just a warm platitude—it’s a statement of fact.
As you start to do the math of the problems you’re facing, don’t forget to count on God working in ways we can’t understand.
As His children we should be able to rest. No matter how much the world changes, no matter how hard things get, God is working in your midst—even if you can’t see it.
LUKE HOLMES (@lukeholmes) is husband to Sara, father to three young girls, and pastor at First Baptist Church Tishomingo, Oklahoma, since 2011. He’s a graduate of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and can be found online at LukeAHolmes.com.