We all know of men or women who, in the pursuit of greatness, have left their families in ruins. This affliction affects people from all occupational backgrounds, from plumbers to police officers to pastors. Cases abound in which those who derailed were seeking little more than personal gratification and significance. However, a more subtle form of this syndrome latches onto those of us who have explicit goals to please God. We’ll call it “ministry leapfrogging.”

Mike Sciarra, a fellow Grace Brethren pastor in Orange County, California, is the one who introduced me to this term and concept. Mike suggests that God has given us spheres of ministry that form concentric circles around us. The closest circle of ministry is to our own families. The next closest might be to our extended families, and then to our church families, and then to our neighbors, and so on. We could debate the exact placement of these circles. The point is that some spheres of influence are nearer to us (relationally and geographically) than others.

Mike has noticed that it is common for a person to pursue ministry involvement in a church setting— say, in a men’s or women’s group—and to focus on this ministry to the exclusion of his or her family ministry. He calls this “leapfrogging” because the person has jumped over ministry to those who are closest to him or her in an attempt to minister to those who are further away. I find this observation convicting.

In a fascinating chapter in his book Heretics, called “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family,” G. K. Chesterton explains the dynamics that make leapfrogging attractive.

If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives…He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is still essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of this flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive…

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor. *

Contrary to our expectations, perhaps, ministry to the circles further away from us tends to be more comfortable than ministry to the circles closest to us. Additionally, our involvement in the further circles is more a product of our personal choice than our involvement in the closer. As a result, the more expansive and “distant” our ministry becomes, the greater the possibility that we are choosing this ministry to flee the more basic responsibilities God has placed in our lives.

What are your thoughts on ministry leapfrogging? Any suggestions on how we can help one another avoid it? Leave us a comment.

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* My thinking on this topic has been heavily informed by Chesterton and Michael Horton’s similar analysis in Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World. I am indebted to the American Chesterton Society for introducing me to Chesterton’s take on these issues.