What will it take to convince us that the last will be first and the first will be last? For some it will take a lifetime. For others only a few semesters in seminary.
Each May, at the end of the spring term at Dallas Theological Seminary, we have the joy of listening to the school’s top preachers. They’re nominated and selected by pastoral-ministry professors. One year a talented young man preached on that pivotal passage in John 13 where Jesus washes His disciples’ feet. After a compelling exposition of that simple text, the young senior class preacher leaned low into the microphone, looked across the faces in Chafer Chapel, and asked his fellow students, “Do you want to have a great ministry . . . or do you just want to be great?”
The packed chapel went silent. Nobody blinked. I’ll never forget his question. None of us will. I hope he never does either.
Our calling as pastors includes fighting. I don’t mean we strap on the gloves and go toe-to-toe with our elders and congregational members. I mean, as pastors, we’re called to defend the faith.
As time passes, we will see our orthodox faith in Jesus Christ attacked more and more. We will find that the things of God are increasingly viewed with suspicion . . . addressed with cynicism . . . and, eventually, banned completely.
When we entered ministry, whether we knew it or not at the time, we entered a war zone. The pastorate is a battleground, not a playground.
This is why Paul included in his first letter to Timothy these sober commands:
Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (1 Timothy 6:12–13)
Our calling as pastors includes running. Lots of it. I’m thinking in particular of Paul’s words in his first letter to Timothy: “You, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from . . .” (1 Timothy 6:11 NLT).
The word run comes from the Greek term pheugo. We get our word fugitive from it. It may sound strange at first, but we who are called to minister are like a fugitive.
We should be constantly fleeing from evil.
I don’t mind being called a preacher. One of my lifetime goals has been to be a good preacher. That takes hard work. You know that. Good communication is never automatic. Sometimes you may think you’re coming through clearly only to be surprised when a member of the congregation, or even your wife, without your asking, shares with you that your message didn’t come through. We’ve all been there!
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.
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.
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.