Counteracting the Perils of Ministry Success

I want God’s best for you, my friend. But I’ll be honest, I fear for you.

Why? You are gifted. You have the ears of your congregation. They hang on your words. They love and trust you. So what’s the problem? One of the most vulnerable times in your ministry is a season of success.

In a chapel service at Dallas Theological Seminary, I spoke on how to counteract the perils of achievement in ministry—especially early achievement. It’s straight talk that just might be exactly what you need to hear. Today. At this very moment.

So may I request of you? Give me the next half hour and allow me to share with you through this video how you can truly succeed in ministry.

—Chuck

Can One Person Make a Difference?

In our vastly populated, impersonal world, it is easy to underestimate the significance of one. With so many people, most of whom seem so much more capable, more gifted, more prosperous, more important than we, who are we to think our part amounts to much? I’m just one person, who cannot make much difference.

That’s the way most folks think. They really do!

Aren’t you glad Patrick Henry didn’t? And Henry Ford? And Martin Luther King, Jr.? And Walt Disney? And Martin Luther? And Winston Churchill? And Jackie Robinson? And Irving Berlin? And Abraham Lincoln? And Charles Wesley? And Dwight L. Moody? And Corrie ten Boom?

“But it’s a different world today,” you say. Back then, there was room for an individual to emerge and stand out in a crowd, but now, there’s no way!”

Wrong. God has always underscored individual involvement . . . still does.

  • How many did it take to help the victim who got mugged on the Jericho Road? One Good Samaritan.
  • How many were chosen by God to confront Pharaoh and lead the Exodus? One.
  • How many sheep got lost and became the object of concern to the shepherd? One.
  • How many were needed to confront adulterous David and bring him to his knees in full repentance? One.
  • How many prophets were called to stand before wicked King Ahab and predict a drought? One.
  • How many did the Lord use to get the attention of the land of Israel and prepare the way for Messiah? One.

Never underestimate the power of one! And that one just may be you.

—Chuck

A Servant Not a Superstar

A familiar essay anonymously written many years ago says this about Jesus Christ:

Nineteen long centuries have come and gone and today he is the centerpiece of the human race and the leader of the column of progress. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever were built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.

Impressive words regarding the most phenomenal Person who ever cast a shadow across earth’s landscape. Without question, He is unique. He is awesome in the fullest sense of the term.

But what was He like personally . . . down inside His skin? Is there any place, for example, where He describes Himself? The answer is yes. Does that description fit the common idea of human greatness? That answer is no.

I remember my surprise some years back when I received a slick, multicolored brochure in my morning mail announcing a series of lectures to be delivered in Los Angeles by a man who was a well-known Christian “superstar” of the day. He was a popular speaker who traveled all over the country, and his name is still familiar to most folks in the family of God. But I confess, I lifted my eyebrows in astonishment when I read the words used to describe him in that advertisement:

A phenomenal individual . . .

In great demand around the world . . .

Today’s most sought-after speaker!

That’s a far cry from the way Jesus Christ described Himself:

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. (Matthew 11:28–29)

Unlike most influential, celebrity types, Jesus’s description of Himself doesn’t sound like the popular hype we’ve grown accustomed to hearing.

Jesus was a servant, not a superstar. He didn’t consider Himself “a phenomenal individual,” but one who was “gentle” and “humble.” May we pastors follow His example.

—Chuck

Balance

My word to those of us engaged in ministry can be summed up in four words: keep a healthy balance.

If you teach, also remain a good student. Stay teachable. Read. Listen. Learn. Observe. Be ready to change. And then . . . change! Admit wrong when you are wrong. Stand firm where you know you are right. Since you are called to be leader, make sure you also follow well. You cannot do it all, so delegate and deliberately allow others to help you. And when they do it well, give them the credit. Our calling is serious, so cultivate a good sense of humor.

Laugh often, and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself! I do that at least once a week! And once a year, I sit down and laugh out loud. Here’s why. Recordings are made of my messages—which is sort of a frightening thought to begin with. At the end of the year those who do the work of putting the messages on the radio give me a CD of all the things they took out during that year. It’s sort of a “Christmas gift.” Some have even had the audacity to play this CD at an Insight for Living Christmas party for others to hear and enjoy. I cannot believe some of the dumb things I have said! It is enough to reduce one to the size of an ant. A very small ant.

I like to say to other pastors what I often tell myself: Take God seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously. That helps us stay balanced.

—Chuck

Go Ahead, Admit It

There it was. One of those posters. Some are funny. Some are clever. Others, beautiful. A few, thought-provoking. This one? Convicting.

It said something like this:

A prayer to be said when the world has gotten you down,
And you feel rotten,
And you’re too doggone tired,
And you’re in a big hurry,
And you’re mad at everybody . . .
“Help.”

I remember one week it seemed I saw the poster everywhere. God really wanted me to get the message. He nudged me when I first read it in a friend’s office. He slapped me hard in Newport Beach when I ran into it again. While moving faster than a speeding bullet in Portland, I came face-to-face with it again. It was silent as light but twice as bright . . . smashing me down and pinning me to the mat for the full count. How did I interpret God’s message through that poster?

“My son, slow down. Cool it. Admit your needs.”

Such good counsel. But tough to carry out. Why? Why in the world is it such a struggle for us pastors to cry out for assistance?

  • In my entire life, I’ve never seen a football game played without substitutions.
  • Even the finest surgeons receive help in delicate and extensive operations.
  • Highway patrolmen travel in pairs.
  • I was taught all the way through my days in the Marines to dig a hole before combat big enough for two people in battle . . . never for just one.

Asking for help is smart. It’s also the answer to fatigue . . . and the “I’m indispensable” image. You want to know what’s at the heart of much of our boundless ministerial drive? We can get pious and call it “passion.” But it’s something else.

Pride.

Plain old, stubborn unwillingness to admit need. You see, the greatest battle in the pastorate today is not inefficiency; it’s super-efficiency . . . that is, it’s being too proud to ask for help.

The result? Painful though it is to describe, you know it’s true: impatience. We become easily irritated. Often angry. Longer hours. Less and less time off. Little laughter. No vacation. Zero time with family. Inflexibility. Longer and longer gaps between meaningful (personal) times in God’s Word. Precious few (if any) moments in personal prayer and prolonged meditation.

Say, my friend, it’s time to declare it. You are not the Messiah of the 21st-twenty-first century! No way can you keep going at this pace and stay effective year after year.

Analyze yourself any way you please, and you are H-U-M-A-N . . . nothing more.

So?

So, slow down!

So, give yourself a break!

So, stop trying to cover all the bases!

So, relax!

—Chuck

Exalting Christ

We all own an invention that is almost essential.

It is very revealing, and it never tells a lie. It says it like it is, yet it never makes a sound. All of us stand before it prior to going out in public. And if we didn’t, we should have. It is a mirror—especially a full-length mirror!

God’s Word calls itself a mirror. It reflects the truth. I’ve observed over the years that churches rarely stand before full-length mirrors to examine themselves. We pastors are often the same.

I’ve discovered that it’s helpful to back off occasionally from our activities, important though they may be, and just look at ourselves a little closer in the mirror. Do that with me for a moment, will you?

Look at what Paul wrote to a church obsessed with image: “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1).

What we do is not about impressing others. The pastorate is not a place where an image is polished or where emphasis is placed on one’s self. Paul didn’t preach with overpowering oratory or philosophical arguments to wow his Greek audience in Corinth. He came as a simple man with a very basic, albeit, profound message regarding Christ.

In fact, what we say is all about exalting Christ. Paul continued: “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (2:2). Look at your reflection in that verse. Do you see the person of Christ and the work of Christ on the cross in your ministry? Those two thoughts deserve center stage.

Ministry is not about my agenda. It is not about my personality. It is not about my charisma. “I came to know nothing among you,” says the apostle, “except Jesus and His work on the cross.” As pastors, we must step aside and remind the flock that it is Christ who is the Head, and it is His cross that is important.

If our congregations leave a service more in love with Jesus, it was a successful time of worship. If they leave impressed with another dimension of the cross, you and I have done a good job.

So this Sunday, as we stand to deliver—with our hair combed, our teeth brushed, and our messages carefully prepared—let’s remember that our purpose is not about impressing others.

It is all about exalting Christ!

—Chuck

What Serving God Must Be

Matthew 10:42

Over the years, a few folks have told me they were reluctant to look too deeply into serving Jesus Christ because of the risks that are involved.

Some were afraid God would expect them to become missionaries or preachers and do something really risky! If they said yes to God, they reasoned, they’d have to undertake some dirty, demanding tasks, and that kind of extreme servanthood would be more than they had bargained for.

Is that your attitude as a pastor? Is that what the biblical portrait of servanthood means?

Sometimes.

  • Some of us may very well be called to follow Him to the ends of the earth.
  • Many have done that. He may ask others of us to serve in some bold and difficult act of personal sacrifice here at home or abroad.

But it’s not always that way. In fact, I would say it is rarely that way.

Most of the time, the Lord makes somewhat smaller demands on us . . . but they still require unselfishness.

The greater reality is that every act of service, however big or small it may be, demonstrates our love for Christ and our obedience to Him. That’s the meaning of faithful servanthood. Jesus said, “Whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42).

To cherish a little child, to care for an aging mother, to speak a gentle word to a hurting neighbor or a struggling friend . . . to carry an armload of groceries for that stranger down the street: these, too, are demonstrations of Christ’s love.

How valuable is genuine, selfless servanthood!

—Chuck

The Opportunities Are Endless

Matthew 25:40

Years ago, a group of boys and girls in Florida decided to lead their parents and other volunteers in a season of intercessory prayer for their town and for our troubled world.

The movement they started turned out to be so dynamic that more than fifteen thousand people showed up to march in support of the plan and to offer aid to the Russian refugees in their area. The young people also raised support for a Russian choir and started a prayer chain to intercede for the people of their “sister city” of Murmansk, Russia.

How many opportunities for selfless service can we find? Maybe I should ask that question another way: How many Christians are willing to improve their service toward God? Or how many acts of Christian love and kindness would it take to change the world?

The opportunities are endless.

  • In every town, every neighborhood, and on every block, lonely and sometimes unlovely men and women need to experience the love of Jesus.
  • In every city, children have never known a gentle touch or a loving smile.
  • In every state and region, God’s people can make a lasting difference.

There are random acts of love and mercy that God has already prepared for you, so that you might share in His joy—so that you might grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Go ahead . . . reach out.

You will never regret it.

—Chuck

An Anniversary America Will Never Forget

The date September 11, 2001, is forever etched in the national memory of the United States. That morning stands as the never-to-be-forgotten morning when time stood still. Wherever we were, we stared in horror and confusion. With calculated and unconscionable malice, beastly terrorists stabbed our nation repeatedly in the heart—at the World Trade Center in New York, at the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and along a quiet countryside in southwest Pennsylvania.

We remember and honor the almost three thousand dead—American citizens and foreign visitors. The anniversary of September 11 may be one we’d like to forget . . . but we won’t, because we can’t.

We dare not forget.

A Chronicle of Chaos

You only have to read a brief log of events to remember what transpired that frightening morning. The times I refer to are based on central standard time.

  • At 6:58 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 left Boston bound for Los Angeles with fifty-six passengers, two pilots, and seven flight attendants.
  • One minute later, at 6:59 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 departed Boston en route to Los Angeles with eighty-one passengers, two pilots, and nine flight attendants.
  • Two minutes later, at 7:01 a.m., United Airlines Flight 93 left Newark, New Jersey, headed to San Francisco with thirty-eight passengers, two pilots, and five flight attendants.
  • Nine minutes later, at 7:10 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 took off from Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C. bound for Los Angeles with fifty-eight passengers, two pilots, and four flight attendants.
  • Thirty-five minutes later, at 7:45 a.m., American Flight 11 plunged into the north tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan—a direct hit.
  • Eighteen minutes after the north tower was hit, at 8:03 a.m., United Flight 175 crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center.
  • Forty minutes after the south tower was hit, at 8:43 a.m., American Flight 77 crashed full throttle into the Pentagon, ripping open a hole at least two hundred feet wide on the west side. Flames exploded from the nerve center of our nation’s major military facility.
  • Seven minutes after the Pentagon was hit, at 8:50 a.m., the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.
  • Eight minutes later, at 8:58 a.m., an emergency dispatcher in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, received a cell phone call from a man who said he was a passenger locked in the bathroom of United Flight 93. The dispatcher quoted the man as saying, “We are being hijacked! We are being hijacked!” The man then said the plane was going down and reported some sort of explosion and white smoke coming from the plane. At that moment, the dispatcher lost contact.
  • Twelve minutes after that cell phone call, at 9:10 a.m., United Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco crashed near Somerset, Pennsylvania, eighty miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Representative James Moran of Virginia, after a Marine Corps briefing, said that hijackers evidently planned to crash the plane into the presidential retreat at Camp David or the United States Capitol building.
  • At the same moment, 9:10 a.m., a portion of the Pentagon collapsed.
  • Only nineteen minutes after the Pentagon’s west side collapsed, at 9:29 a.m., the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.

The whirlwind of repeated tragedies left us stunned, reeling in disbelief. I thought I had already lived through America’s worst disasters. How wrong I was.

Right on schedule, the horrible events, planned to the point of precision, ran their course. Thousands of unsuspecting civilians were brutally murdered. Our fellow Americans bled and died—some immediately, many slowly and painfully, all unexpectedly. Others bravely escaped with their lives bruised, broken, and burned. Whether whispered, shouted, or pondered in silence, the question most people were asking was: “Why, God?”

I Don’t Know Why, But I Do Know Who

In my many years on this earth, I thought I had seen it all . . . until September 11, 2001. On that day, I got a new understanding of the total depravity of humanity. And as a byproduct, I have a new appreciation for the gifts of liberty and life itself—for the love of my wife, my family, and my friends—and for the power of the human spirit to press on and to recover from tragedy, no matter the sacrifice or cost.

Today, the men and women who made it through the hellish anguish of September 11—who were in the towers and the Pentagon or who lost loved ones on the planes and in the buildings and in that Pennsylvania field—live with deep physical, emotional, and spiritual scars. Each anniversary, no doubt, reopens those scars and causes many to question anew, “Why, God?” And if we’re honest, as we contemplate recent world events, some of us wonder the same thing.

I don’t know the answer. But I do know this: our God is still sovereign; He is still in control. He is our refuge; He is our solid foundation. We can hold on to that truth. We must hold on to that truth! How can we be so sure? Read on.

How Firm a Foundation

At 7:30 p.m. on September 11, 2001, as millions of Americans met in places of worship to pray, the president addressed the nation in a speech we all watched and recorded for later viewing. One statement he made stood out in my mind and still lingers today: “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.”1George W. Bush, “Statement by the President in His Address to the Nation,” White House, Washington, D.C., September 11, 2001, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010911-16.html (accessed July 18, 2011).

As I listened to President George W. Bush that somber night, I remembered a psalm I had studied years ago. David wrote Psalm 11 probably while being hunted by King Saul. With borderline insane paranoia, Saul had begun seeking David’s life, believing the young man was out to get him and take his position as king. David was on the run. As he wrote in the first part of this psalm, he had fled as a bird to the mountain. And in that hiding place, momentarily removed from danger, he asked this question:

“If the foundations are destroyed, What can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3)

Great question! Webster tells us a foundation is the “basis . . . upon which something stands or is supported.”2Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 2008), “foundation.” Every house, every significant structure, every building has a foundation. The taller the building, the deeper and more important the foundation. Destroy the building’s foundation, and you topple the building.

This was precisely David’s point. He wasn’t referring to structures. No house or building was in his mind, and there’s no reference to such in this psalm. Instead, this psalm is about life. David was saying that if the foundation of a life is destroyed, that life crumbles. But if the foundation remains secure, no amount of stress—in David’s case, no attack by Saul—can cause a life to fracture or crumble. Psalm 11 reveals that David could feel this truth being put to the test.

You see, one of the most effective weapons in those days was a sharp, slender arrow slipped from the bow and guided to the target by a marksman’s eye. David viewed the treacherous, threatening words of Saul as arrows coming from a warrior. Look at his vivid word picture:

Behold, the wicked bend the bow, They make ready their arrow upon the string. (11:2)

David’s point was that the wicked bend their bows; they make ready deadly arrows on the string. I don’t think he had literal bows and arrows in mind. Rather, he was thinking of words shot at him and statements made against him, as part of the plot to bring him down. But he wasn’t brought down . . . because the foundations of his life were strong.

If those foundations hadn’t been secure, his life would’ve collapsed, dropped like a sack of salt. How do I know his foundations were secure? Look again at the first verse. Occasionally in the psalms, the gist of the whole message is in the first sentence, and everything that follows is an amplification. This psalm is like that:

In the Lord I take refuge; How can you say to my soul, “Flee as a bird to your mountain”? (11:1)

David essentially said, “My soul is not on the run. My spirit has not capsized, because in the Lord I take refuge.” A refuge is a place of hiding, a place of protection. The ancient Hebrew term—chasah—means a protective place that provides safety from that which would hit and hurt. It’s a protective shield from danger and distress. David made it clear that Yahweh was his chasah. Because that was true, David could know, and we can know, his foundations were sure.

An old country preacher once said, “I may tremble on the rock, but the Rock don’t tremble under me.” He was right. The Rock is our solid foundation. It stands firm no matter what. It is our place of refuge.

God Is Our Refuge

That word refuge reminds me of another psalm—the forty-sixth. Who wouldn’t find comfort in the hope of this ancient promise? This is the very psalm in which Martin Luther found refuge more than five hundred years ago. Hiding in its truths he found strength. Psalm 46 gave him fresh courage to press on, even though he was misunderstood, maligned, and mistreated. How comforting to him were those words, “God is our refuge” (chasah, same word).

God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble. (46:1)

The opening lines of this forty-sixth psalm later inspired Luther to write, “Ein’ Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott”—“A high tower is the Lord our God.” We sing those words today:

A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing.3Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration (Waco, Tex.: Word Music, 1986), 26.

Why is such a foundation sure? Because it is God Himself! Our foundation is the God of creation. The God who made us is the God who shelters us.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. [El Shaddai] I will say to the Lord, “My refuge [my chasah] and my fortress, My God, in whom I trust!” (Psalm 91:1–2)

No matter how insecure and chaotic our times may be! No matter if terrorists topple our buildings or kill our fellow citizens! No matter if God doesn’t fully answer our question, Why? On that solid foundation of our Sovereign God—and only there—we are secure.

—Chuck

 A Prayer of Remembrance

Lord, we bow before our great God, who offers His peace when so many panic. You are our refuge, our one and only chasah. Rivet that into our minds. Prompt us to pause, and let that sink in. Remind us of Your power and presence when evening song changes into the fearful tears of the night. Remind us of that when the shrill ring of the phone awakens us. Remind us of that when we sit down and read the morning headlines. Remind us of that on this day of remembrance—this eleventh anniversary of that infamous day, September 11, 2001. Remind us, even when we don’t understand the why of what’s happening, that we have no reason to fear, that we need not be moved, and that our future is never uncertain with You.

In the strong name of Christ, our Shield, our Refuge, our almighty Lord, Amen.

Excerpted from Charles R. Swindoll, Why, God? Calming Words for Chaotic Times (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2001). Copyright © 2001 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide.

Notes   [ + ]

1. George W. Bush, “Statement by the President in His Address to the Nation,” White House, Washington, D.C., September 11, 2001, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010911-16.html (accessed July 18, 2011).
2. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 2008), “foundation.”
3. Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration (Waco, Tex.: Word Music, 1986), 26.

Moving Beyond Theory and Wishful Thinking

Let me guess. You are tired of the superficial.

You want to be a force for good in a world of evil—a person of authenticity in a world of hypocrisy. You are weary of witnessing what you see happening around you. You want to be part of the answer, not part of the problem.

There is no question that Jesus expected each of us to shine the light of God’s love among this dark, lost world. We are to spread it abroad and to share the truth that we have been granted. In our homes, schools, workplaces, recreations, and in every other area of our lives, there are ways we can serve others.

That means moving beyond theory and wishful thinking. That means reaching out, taking risks, and doing what Scripture commands.