I see it every night on the news. The politics of backslapping and handshaking and making sure “so-and-so” isn’t turned off—it’s maddening! (We call it “smoke-blowing” here in Texas.) It’s become a political race where the objective is favorable public opinion. Period.
If we’re not careful, we can let politics work its way into our churches. And even worse, into our pulpits. In fact, the pastorate is a breeding ground for this sort of thing—maybe more than most professions.
I love the way the apostle Paul keeps our motives clean and our focus sharp:
Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know. (1 Thessalonians 2:4–5)
People-pleasing is a very tempting allurement, especially for people in ministry, because most of what we do gets done through people. When needing volunteer positions filled—whether in the nursery, for a Sunday school class, among the ushers, or even in our music ministry—it’s easy to massage our words and say more than we mean . . . or say something other than what we mean. (That’s called a lie.) The pastor must resist the temptation to flatter. We must refuse to play both sides against the middle. Don’t go there. Why? Because once you start, it’s hard to stop.
When a pastor is a people-pleaser, he sits on the fence so as not to offend anyone. He remains neutral when he should NOT be playing it safe. He tells people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. That’s not pastoring . . . that’s politics.
Look at the apostle’s words one more time. I find myself both challenged and refreshed by Paul’s transparency: “We speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts.”
Have you ever felt God wasn’t using your ministry? Ever felt forgotten in the shadows? I want to dispense a fresh supply of hope. To help accomplish that, let me suggest four principles.
Are you an aspiring Superman?
I’m not talking about pulling on a pair of blue tights and a red cape and putting a fancy “S” on your chest. I’m talking about an attitude: “I am self-sufficient,” “I need no one else,” or “I will show no weakness or admit any inadequacy.” These betray the presence of the Superman Syndrome—that particular peril for pastors who go it alone.
Funny thing is, I’ve rarely seen anyone lose ground by admitting inadequacy or weakness. The best professors I ever had said, “I don’t know, Chuck, but when we come back together I’ll try to have that answer for you.” I deeply respect that attitude in a person. Kids acknowledge weakness all the time and never feel as if they’ve lost face.
As pastors, we set ourselves up for letting people down when we pose as Superman. I remember a young believer in our church who gushed, “I don’t know of anybody I admire as much as I do you.”
“Stop right there,” I interrupted. “I appreciate your admiration, but always remember: When it comes to one another on this earth, never put anyone on a pedestal.”
“I never thought about that before,” she replied.
“Only one person deserves to be on a pedestal, and He’ll never fall off. That’s Jesus. You can respect me,” I continued, “but please don’t put me in that place where I’m sure to let you down.”
By the way . . . have you heard what the mother ape said to her baby ape? “Watch out about climbing on those high poles. The higher you get, the more they’re gonna see your rump.” Remember, when you’re up high, you’re a big target. You’re on display. So it’s essential to say, “I can’t handle this myself.” Or, “I need you guys right now.” Didn’t Jesus do this at Gethsemane?
As 2 Corinthians 2:16 asks, “Who is adequate for these things?” Obviously, the appropriate attitude is to embrace this fact: We are not self-sufficient. We need other people. It’s wise for us to ask for help. We should never leave the impression that we don a cape and tights.
Let’s get practical. Ask for help! Hardly a day passes that I don’t ask someone to assist me in doing something. Also, make sure that when someone helps with a project, that person gets the credit. If a guy comes up with a great idea, and the whole church applauds it, let the people know it was his idea. Why leave any other impression?
Admit weaknesses and failures. Acknowledge your own fallibility. Don’t buy in to the Superman Syndrome. You can’t carry the weight of the whole world on your shoulders. Someone else already has that distinction.
In my 80 plus years on earth—more than 50 of them in ministry—I have made a trade. It’s been a wonderful trade. I’ve traded youth for truth. And I wouldn’t be years younger if I could make it happen.
I think more than anything else, it is the hardship, it is the difficulty, it is the dead-end street that shapes us. It is the trial that occurs that makes us into the individuals God wants us to be (if the attitude is right and the learning is still on a willing curve). It’s how we react, how we respond to the pains and the struggles.
For some, it’s the bankruptcies, the injustice committed against us, the disappointments, the criticisms, and sometimes even the divorce that just rocked us back on our heels, turns us around, gets our attention . . . and puts us into an orbit we would never have otherwise entered.
My short thought this week: God didn’t always use the things I planned or the things I had hoped for in life, but He used the serendipities—the results of those surprises that leveled me—to turn my life in the direction He wanted it to go.
I wouldn’t trade how old I am or the experiences I’ve gone through or the heartaches and disappointments I’ve endured. Nor should you. Because all of it has worked together in God’s plan.
I had the privilege of being mentored by a man who is now gone. I became one of the first interns on the staff with Ray Stedman at Peninsula Bible Church. And I saw in Ray something I had not seen modeled in many pastors . . . an authentic life.
Ray was just who he was. I saw it work.
- I saw a man who was not defensive, who could laugh at himself, who had fun in life and yet was as good a thinker on his feet in question/answer sessions as I’d ever seen.
- I saw a man who could love the homosexual and at the same time do an excellent biblical presentation on the sin of homosexuality.
- I saw a man who had a room in his life for a wayward child.
- I saw a man who hardly traveled alone, no matter where he went, and always had someone younger with him.
One of the secrets of building character in the lives of others is taking time for those younger than you. Those who are longing for the qualities and the character that have made you who you are. Ray did this for me.
No matter how significant you may become, no matter how well known your name, no matter how important your work, no matter your salary, no matter what your reputation may be, you must allow yourself to become who you are.
I’m not a formula guy, but this simple little formula has worked for me throughout my adult life: Know who you are, accept who you are, be who you are.
The greatest gift you can give to your congregation, to your family, to whomever—as the Lord continues to work in your life—is who you are. I have a good friend who says it this way, “We are not who we are, we are not even who we think we are. We are who we think other people think we are.” (Read that again.) And if you’re in that world no wonder you have such struggles with character!
Character will not emerge from a phony life, which is all the more reason to go back to that word that so characterized Ray’s life: authentic.
Know who you are, accept who you are, be who you are. That’s really it in a nutshell.
When is the last time you thought about the character quality of sensibility? As pastors, we’re charged with the task, remember? “The overseer must be . . . sensible” (Titus 1:7-8).
Sophron is the term. It has in mind “thinking appropriately.” It means you’re not given to extremes. You’re able to see between the lines and apply some common sense.
We have some funny ducks in the Christian ranks . . . some real nutty people. Howard Hendricks said, “Where there’s light, there’s bugs.” It’s really true! They’re usually people who have big, thick Bibles and notebooks full of notes on everybody from Allen to Zuck. I mean, they’ve got all of this information, yet haven’t won a person to Christ in 50 years. They’re out of balance. And there’s another group that believes “a miracle a day keeps the devil away.” They drive up and see a parking place at Nordstrom’s and they think it’s a MIRACLE! And they tell their friends about it. It’s not a miracle . . . it’s just that a car wasn’t there. Pull in, park. Get a life!
We can fall into that kind of extremism when there’s not somebody near us jerking on our coattails telling us we’re getting kind of nutty. Some people even see faces of Jesus in an enchilada! That’s a lack of sensibility.
I want to share with you a terrific piece Rick Reilly wrote for a graduation class. He offers some very sensible advice to athletes that are going to jump into the pro ranks and make a lot of dough. You’re gonna love this. (Go ahead, read it here.)
I want to say stuff like that to every one of the CEOs I meet. Every one of the hot shots who made it by the grace of God. And every one of us senior pastors.
Don’t forget to tingle every once in a while. Don’t forget to cry over the joy of good health, and the freedom of living in your country, and the thrill of studying the Word, and the privilege of anybody sitting and listening when you talk.
Let’s stay sensible.
I like to remind us pastors that we have no special powers in ourselves. That’s a major misconception. Our adequacy comes from God . . . and God alone.
Another misconception is that those in the ministry don’t struggle with everyday problems. To set that straight, let’s consider 2 Corinthians 4:8–9:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Corinthians 4:8–9)
Afflicted. Perplexed. Persecuted. Struck down. These terms reflect the struggles common to all of us in ministry. Under stress, confused, pursued, rejected—Paul (and every servant of God since his day) understands what it means to endure the constant blast of problems in those and other categories. In fact, it is in the crucible that the servant learns to release his or her way for God’s way. Servants do indeed struggle with daily difficulties . . . and we pastors are no exception.
A final misconception goes like this: Christian leaders are protected against subtle dangers. To correct this error, we need to read verses 10–11:
[We are] always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:10–11)
How true! Those of us who serve God and others “carry about in the body” signs of death—dangers and perils that are undeniable. Subtle and silent, these dangers lurk in the most unexpected places, pleading for satisfaction. The true servant is vulnerable. When the servant stumbles into these traps, it isn’t long before he or she is completely ensnared. And have you noticed? It seldom happens fast or boldly. Usually, it comes on the scene in another garb entirely, appearing to be anything but dangerous.
So let’s not be misled, fellow servants of God, no matter how useful, godly, unselfish, and admirable you think you are. We are every bit as human and subject to the perils of life as any other person on earth.
This week I’m posting my thoughts to you via video.
In 2013, I delivered a message during the Dallas Seminary chapel during which I shared some seminal insights on “The Rewards of a Life of Integrity.”
Those of us engaged in ministry cannot afford to sidestep this Christlike quality. And we certainly don’t want to miss the rewards of cultivating it.
Despite the pessimistic headlines announcing that the family is an endangered species, I refuse to sigh and give up hope. Who says “endangered” means doomed? If we’re ingenious enough to preserve the bison, the whooping crane, and the humpbacked whale, I’m convinced we can preserve the family. The “want to” is certainly there with a lot of us—especially us preachers.
Professor Nick Stinnett launched a fascinating study some years ago. All sorts of questions were asked to families from many backgrounds, cultures, and countries. His research represented a wide swath of the families of humanity. The goal? Very simply, to discover what makes families strong.
Dr. Stinnett writes of his findings:
All together, we studied 3,000 families and collected a lot of information. But when we analyzed it all, we found six main qualities in strong families. Strong families:
- are committed to the family,
- spend time together,
- have good family communication,
- express appreciation to each other,
- share a spiritual commitment,
- are able to solve problems in a crisis.
Look back over that list. There is enough there to fill out your preaching calendar for the rest of the year! When I first came across this information, I used it not only as the basis for a miniseries of pulpit messages on the family, but I also posted that list in my home. It became the topic of numerous conversations among the Swindoll tribe! I would suggest you try the same experiment with your family.
Then preach it.
I want to ask you four questions that only you can answer:
- Do you give the people in your congregation the freedom to be who they are?
- Do you let others go, or do you smother them and control them?
- Are you cultivating spontaneous, creative, celebrants—or fearful captives?
- Do you encourage, build up, and affirm those to whom you minister?
These four questions really boil down to one:
Are you one who models and ministers grace?
It’s time to take off the gloves, rip off the masks, knock off the rationalizations, and face the truth head-on.
Is the ministry you’re leading the result of your own flesh, energized by your own gifts and strengths? Are you relying on your charisma to pull it off? Do you often have a hidden agenda?
How about your motive? With a captive audience hanging on to your words and following your ministry (and your Tweets) with unquestioned loyalty, do you exploit them . . . do you use your power for your own purposes? Is the enhancement of your image of major importance to you, or can you honestly say that your work is directed and empowered by the Spirit of God?
Again, I ask you:
Are you one who models and ministers grace?