Bucket Brigade the Ocean

The ocean is truly a majestic place. I can spend hours watching the powerful blue waves crashing onto the sand. The sheer power of the ocean is humbling. The vastness of the water is a good reminder of how big the world is in comparison to the things of my life. My soul finds peace and calmness in the sound of the crashing surf and the feel of the ocean breeze. 

Unfortunately, you can’t capture the ocean in a jar or bring it with you in a bucket. I’ve tried. Once you’ve separated a container full of water from the ocean, that majestic power is lost. No crashing waves. No unfathomable depth. The vastness is contained, it’s just a container of salt water.

But what if you could take the ocean with you? What if you could, bucket by bucket, bring the ocean home? According to Google it would take 352,670,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s 352 Quintillion) one-gallon buckets to empty the ocean’s 332,519,000 cubic miles of water. Now I’m not so good at math anymore, but the wise folks on the interwebs give estimates of something well over 100 trillion years to fully empty the ocean with a one-gallon bucket. Of course, that time increases exponentially if you’re using a child’s sand pail.

And so, to bring the ocean home with you, bucket by bucket, is an exercise in futility. It will never happen. You will never empty the ocean. In fact in your entire lifetime, you won’t make a noticeable difference in your attempt to drain the ocean. No matter how fast you move, no matter how hard you work, no matter how long you work, no matter what you do or what sacrifices you make along the way, you will never finish the task. It is unrelenting. It is never-ending.

Much of pastoral ministry is just like that. Then again, many aspects of life, for the majority of us, can seem a bit like that.

Recently, I was lamenting some of the tasks of ministry and the work tempo I keep. A brother pastor was quick to share with me that parish ministry is much like emptying the ocean, bucket by bucket. There will always be more to do, the work will never be done, and a pastor will never truly be “ahead of the game.” There will never be a day where a pastor can honestly sit back, rub his hands with satisfaction, and declare, “well, I got a little closer to completion today.”

Now certainly, one can work through a schedule. You can manage your to do list and check off task after task each day. You can meet with people, write what needs to be written, study and plan, work and accomplish, all the day long. This is good and proper for us all. It is the work we have been given to do!

But as frustrating as it may seem at times, the task is not futile! That’s really important to remember. Yes, the work, like emptying the ocean, will never truly end, but there is value in the effort and in what is done. In fact, each task can benefit another and presents an opportunity for Christ to be at work among His people. After all, St. Paul reminds us that, “[your] labors in the Lord are not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).

The work of the Lord is humbling. Christ, working through the means of a minister and a congregation is a powerful thing. The partnership of the Gospel between congregation and pastor is a treasure! I am often awed and inspired by the way God continues to work among His people in such magnificent ways. And, while I may lament the tasks at times, it is truly something special to be utilized by God for such a time and for such tasks as He gives.

But like a bucket brigade at the ocean, when it comes to the work of the church, there will always be more to do, the ocean will still be waiting.

It is important to remember this truth while going about the tasks of life. The work will always be there waiting, so sometimes it’s important to step back and ask if every sacrifice of time, health, sanity, and family is necessary, for a task that never ends.

In their book, “Resident Aliens,” Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon warn, “Underestimating how terribly deep other people’s needs can be, [clergy] enter ministry with an insufficient sense of personal boundaries, and are devoured by the voracious appetites of people in need. One day they may awake to find that they have sacrificed family, self-esteem, health and happiness for a bunch of selfish people who have eaten them alive. Pastors then come to despise what they are and to hate the community that made them that way. The pastor realizes that people’s needs are virtually limitless, particularly in an affluent society in which there is an ever-rising threshold of desire (which we define as “need”). With no clear job description, no clear sense of purpose other than the meeting of people’s needs, there is no possible way for the pastor to limit what people ask of the pastor.”

Pastors, if you are not wise to the magnitude of the tasks at hand, you will find yourself trying to drain the ocean one bucket at a time, and then become frustrated that you never get anywhere. Instead, find joy in what you have been given to do. Take time to pause and reflect on what God is doing as He works in your midst.

As futile as draining the ocean with a bucket may seem, there’s no rule that says you can’t stop for a moment to appreciate the beauty and power and vastness of the ocean before you.

The same can be said of the church, and the work which God has given you to do. Appreciate the beauty, and the power, and the vastness of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness, and then get back to it!