Rather than racing into the limelight, we need to accept our roles in the shadows. I’m serious here. Don’t promote yourself. Don’t push yourself to the front. Don’t drop hints. Let someone else do that. Better yet, let God do that.
Today would be a good time to resist going through life and ministry trying to live according to your own understanding—thinking if you can just climb one or two more rungs, you’ll be there. Then you’ll have what you need. Your family will be (what’s that word we like to use?) . . . comfortable. You know what your family needs most? They need you to be right with the Lord. That takes humility . . . especially as pastors.
If God is pleased to expand your ministry, trust me, the word will get out. You’ll be found . . . in God’s time. If you’re necessary for His plan, God will put you in the right place at just the right time. God’s work is not about us. It’s His production, start to finish. So back off. Let Him pull the curtains and turn on the stage lights.
Or He may choose you to be one of the nameless, lesser-known individuals who make the difference for someone else. View either path as a privilege . . . because it is.
Your part, pure and simple: humble yourself. Go there, my friend, and stay there.
I’ll never forget a principle I first heard from Francis Schaeffer while attending one of his lectures. There he stood in knickers and a turtleneck sweater, delivering a message to a group of young, idealistic listeners—many of us struggling to find our way. I heard him say this again and again: “The Lord’s work must be done the Lord’s way. The Lord’s work must be done the Lord’s way. The Lord’s work must be done the Lord’s way.”
If you’re in a hurry, you can make it work your way. It may have a pure motive and all the marks of spirituality, but it won’t be the Lord’s way. Stop and realize that.
Stepping out in faith always brings clarification of God’s plan. When Ananias went to see Paul (then Saul), he received additional information (read Acts 9:10–21). As Saul submitted himself to the ministry of Ananias, he found out more about God’s plan for his life. You’re “a chosen instrument of Mine.” I’m going to use you “to bear My name” (9:15). Saul hadn’t known that before. (He had never read the book of Acts!) He knew nothing of what was in store for him until Ananias took that initial step of faith. Both men discovered that God Himself chose Saul to be His instrument and that intense suffering would mark his ministry. That’s the way God operates.
When Cynthia and I first sensed God’s direction to leave California and relocate our Insight for Living ministry, we could hardly believe it. We had planned to stay in the same place for the rest of our lives. Neither space nor time allow me to describe the things God has shown us since we made the decision to move. Initially, very few people could grasp God’s plan for us. In fact, some firmly rejected it. But now as God continues to put the finishing touches on His magnificent portrait, what we see is absolutely beautiful. Until we took that initial step of obedience, all we had was, “It’s time to go.” It’s amazing to me, even as I write these words! Surprises always bring about clarification of God’s plan.
Good leaders have affection for people. Paul writes, “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God . . .” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Is that great, or what? Paul didn’t shrink from sharing his emotions with his flock. That strong man, an apostle of Christ, looking back on the Thessalonians said, in effect, “Oh, what an affection I had for you. How dear you were to me!” Those are affectionate words of intimacy.
To keep this simple and easy to remember, I want to suggest that affection for people can be demonstrated in two ways: small yet frequent acts of kindness and stated and written words of appreciation.
You have to love Paul’s humility. Here was a man in his sixties who has been preaching for years asking for prayers for a clearer delivery. Read his words carefully:
Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving; praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak. (Colossians 4:2–4)
There was no pretense with Paul. No degree of success or number of years in the ministry gave him a false sense of ultimate accomplishment. He knew he had not yet arrived. He remained dependent on the Spirit of God. He was convinced his preaching could be improved. And so with a genuinely thankful heart, he entreated his fellow believers for their prayers. Can you see the power of that kind of attitude? Very refreshing in the first century. And very rare in the twenty-first.
No wonder the man made such a lasting impact for Christ.
Your congregation represents people from all walks of life—all ages and stages of maturity. All flawed, yet all drawn together because they love Christ, and they love to be a part of the ministry.
(Photo: By Justin. A. Wilcox, Own work. CC BY-SA 4.0
, via Wikimedia Commons)
What a unique creation from God!
Some of these people who come to your church need time to heal. Some have experienced what I call “toxic religion.” They have had former pastors who dominated and domineered them, who took advantage of them spiritually, and who told them it was a sin to attend another church. How tragic.
All Fearful, Welcome Here
These wounded people will often stumble into your church afraid.
- They’re fearful, first of all, that they will be found out by their friends from their old church—most of whom are now shunning them because they left.
- Second, they’re afraid of not knowing the “right” thing to do in their new church.
- Third, they may even be afraid of you.
So please, have a heart. Be extremely patient with them. These individuals don’t come in and hit the floor running, ready to serve. Let your church be a place of refuge where they can find sufficient grace to heal. Be faithful to pray for them.
Feeding and Leading
Some of your sheep long to be affirmed, and all of them desire to be nourished.
- So feed them well. I have discovered that frequent chiding and rebuking of the flock is not helpful. Help them stay balanced.
- Lead the sheep. In my New England pastorate I drove the sheep. That was a mistake. I learned that a pastor can’t really lead the sheep if he doesn’t love them. So learn from my mistakes.
When you need to do some kind of reproving—and that’s part of our job—do it privately and confidentially.
- Never embarrass a church member.
- I suggest you have your difficult meeting off-site, so that not even the staff will know the individual showed up to talk to you alone.
Faithfulness and Tenderness
All will appreciate your faithfulness and your tenderness. They like to know that when you’re touched by something, tears will come. Never apologize for your tears. The older I get, the more tears seem to be on the surface. Jesus wept . . . remember?
Model for them the role of a shepherd. You’re working with sheep; it’s a great analogy. And remember that you’re a sheep too. (It’s easy to forget that.) You’re not even the Chief Shepherd—that’s Jesus. He’s the Head of the church.
Let’s keep Him as Head.
As a pastor, you not only look after the needs of your family and your flock, but you also need to care for your staff.
- Do you pray for them?
- Do you treat them fairly?
- Do you play favorites?
Only you can answer these questions. When you do annual reviews for your staff, do you take your time with them, look them in the eye, and tell them what they need to hear?
Make a Sandwich
When I do a review, I apply what I call the “sandwich approach.”
- I start by genuinely telling them what they’re doing well.
- Then I let them know areas where they could improve.
- Finally, I conclude by reminding them of their value—both to the ministry and to me personally.
By “sandwiching” the review, they can hear anything in the middle. But they must know that your affirmations up front are authentic and not just a primer for the bad news—or for their getting fired! They must know they are important to you. I’ve communicated some of my strongest words to staff people—some very firm words—maybe even stronger than I’ve said to my kids. But not one of them thought I didn’t love them.
Keep the Pool Clean
Your staff needs your loyalty. Church members will come to you to talk about the staff. Watch it.
- Be confident and be careful . . . just as you would want your staff to be careful when church members come to talk about you! Never undercut a staff member because a church member is influential or gives a lot of money. That’s dirty pool.
- If you have a problem with your staff member, you have a mouth and they have ears. Make the time, and get alone with them. Be willing to listen to their problems with you without being defensive. Again, just like you would want them to respond to you.
- Do you pay them a fair salary? Do you compensate them the going rate they could make if they worked in the industry in your city? Take a look at that and do what’s fair.
Stay in the Right Corner
Let me mention one more item in relation to staff. Do you check up and make sure they’re taking their day off? I had a staff member one time in a former church who rarely took his day off. I remember driving by the church on a Monday evening and I saw his light on. When I got there Tuesday morning the light was still on! I marched into his office and asked, “When’s the last time you took a day off?”
He seemed proud of his answer, “It’s been about three weeks.”
So I said, “That’s unacceptable. You keep that up, and I’ll let you go.”
You know what? Amazingly, he started taking his day off! There is no value in not taking a day off.
- My mentor, Howard Hendricks, had one wag tell him, “The devil never takes a holiday, so why should I?” Hendricks didn’t miss a beat and replied: “Oh really, I didn’t know he was your model.” I love it!
- There’s an old line that goes, “I’d rather burn out than rust out.” What kind of choice is that? Either way you’re out!
As a pastor you know more than most how important it is to have an advocate in your corner. Most likely, you are that sole advocate for those who labor alongside you.
Please, take good care of your staff.
My older son has taught me a lesson from his experience as a businessman: Our most important customers are our own team members. I have discovered that is also true in ministry.
Many of you serve in churches where at least one other staff member works alongside you. Listen to me: Some of the people easiest to overlook are fellow staff members. I work hard not to do that.
Let me urge you to do the same. Here’s how.
Tell Them Publicly
Some of the most resourceful and insightful people I have known have been my staff people. One year we did a series of concerts at our church in California. Our music minister, Howie Stevenson, his wife, Marilyn, and their team of music makers put it together. People from around the community came to hear folk songs, pop songs, and fun songs. It was a smashing success! Every time we did it I had Howie stand up the following Sunday, and I told the congregation, “That’s the man who came up with this idea. That’s the man who gets the credit.” The place exploded with applause! Why did I do that? Because it was true.
We pastors often get the credit when we need to be passing it on to the one deserving it. We give enormous encouragement to our gifted staff when we publicly acknowledge them—and that affirmation motivates them to use their gifts in even greater ways.
Tell Them Privately
Sometimes we’ll recognize or reward a church member more frequently or lavishly than we do a fellow staff member. A paycheck is not acknowledgment. It takes words of appreciation. Trust me, they mean most when they come from you, the pastor.
In addition to recognizing them in public, do it also in private. Write them notes of encouragement. I mean handwritten notes. E-mail is quick and cheap; there’s little personalized in email . . . not even a signature! Write personal notes. Even if it’s as simple as saying,
This morning I felt that your presentation was spot on. Remarkable job!
Tell Them Often
I’m telling you, they’ll never forget it. They may even frame it! Once I was in the home of one of our church members. While walking up the stairs, I saw a simple note of thanks I had written framed on their wall. Framed! My first thought was to check, Did I spell everything right?
Do you appreciate your staff? Tell them publicly. Tell them privately. Tell them often. Our most important customers are our own team members.
Let’s let them know that.
At a recent pastors conference hosted by Insight for Living, one pastor’s wife asked me an insightful question. I’ll share her question with you, as well as my thoughts on it, so that you might pass it along to your wife, if appropriate. This woman asked, “What is the greatest contribution a wife can make to a man in ministry?”
Wonderful question. Let me respond directly . . . to your wife.
Be Secure in Who You Are
One of the greatest contributions you can make to your husband is that you be very secure in who you are. Pastors’ wives often feel they need to be something everyone else wants them to be. Some of that responsibility falls on us, as pastors, and I understand that. But it’s so important that you know who you are . . . and then be who you are.
Be a Person of Objective Support
From that place of security, it’s important that you be for your husband a person of objective support.
Notice how I said that. Objective support. You’re neither a shadow nor a doormat. Furthermore, you’re not there to agree with everything. Some of the things you don’t agree with will be very helpful to him. But how you go about expressing your disagreement is very important.
Remember, the goal is objective support. Both terms are essential.
Cynthia has learned how and when to question something I said in a sermon. But she has cultivated the ability to do it in a way that I feel supported by her. Younger wives tend to talk about it on the way home from church . . . not a good time! We pastors feel pretty fragile, even defensive, on Sunday afternoons. So it’s important that you learn how to say what you have to say.
Remember the wives of leaders in the Bible? They had great influence . . . for good or evil. If you can remind your husband that you support him (even when you may disagree with him), he can face any challenge the ministry hurls his way. But if he doesn’t have your support—if he doubts that you believe in him—he may eventually quit the ministry in a pit of depression.
I’ve seen it happen.
Be a Trusted Confidant
Finally, it’s important to keep his confidences. There are some issues I deal with that Cynthia does not know about—but they are very few. If I say to an individual, “No one will ever know this,” then I really mean no one will ever know it. But I’m careful when I say that. I usually add the caveat: “I may tell my wife about this, but she’ll make a burial of the information in her mind.”
It is helpful for me to confide in my wife. Your husband needs that too. Assure him of your confidentiality.
Be very secure in who you are. Be a person of objective support. And be a trusted confidant.
He has so very few.
I don’t want to intensify your guilt—not at all. But let me go ahead and say that it’s probably true that some of you are neglecting the home, and the ministry has become your mistress. Believe me; I understand how that can happen. I confess that there were periods in my own life when that occurred, which I have shared with you before.
Having been there, I’m telling you: it isn’t worth it.
My word to you is to learn the difference between being engaged in ministry and being controlled by it.
May I Say the Obvious?
You still have a family!
- They still long to have lunch with you.
- They still love to get a phone call.
- They want to know wisdom from you outside the pulpit.
- They still yearn to have an arm around their shoulders.
- They still want you to make time to sit on the back porch and kick back and listen.
- They want you to attend their ball games and go to their performance and see you relax . . . really relax!
- They still want to know that you can do more in your spare time than study.
- And they really want to hear you laugh!
They are the ones you will leave in your legacy—the only ones who have your blood and your name. They need you. They want you.
After all, they’re the ones who could write the unauthorized biography. Oh, what a thought! I won’t go there.
Words Worth Pondering
Let me end this entry by quoting from a book you should get if you don’t have it. Ken Gire, in his little volume A Father’s Gift: The Legacy of Memories, closes with these reflective words.
What pictures will my son remember
when he comes to the plain granite marker
over his father’s grave?
What will my daughters remember?
Or my wife? . . .
. . . I’ve resolved to give fewer lectures,
to send fewer platitudes rolling their way,
to give less criticism,
to offer fewer opinions. . . .
. . . From now on, I will give them pictures they can live by,
pictures that can comfort them,
and keep them warm
in my absence.
Because when I’m gone, there will only be silence.
And memories. . . .
. . . Of all
I could give
to make their lives a little fuller,
a little richer,
a little more prepared
for the journey ahead of them,
nothing compares to the gift of remembrance—
pictures that show they are special
and that they are loved.
Pictures that will be there
when I am not.
Pictures that have within them
a redemption all their own.