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.
From the beginning, the idea of true servanthood has been a bit of a paradox.
Jesus phrased it well:
“For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves?” (Luke 22:27).
Naturally, His disciples would say, the lesser should serve the greater. All of life proves that. Those with no clout should do the dirty work for those who have the power. Right?
But Jesus, their Lord and Master, turned the tables on them, by saying: “But I am among you as the one who serves” (22:27). How can this be? Does the master serve the servants? Does the leader serve the one being led?
Ours is a day of superficiality. That’s true . . . even for pastors. If we can fake it, we’re often admired as being clever and creative, not criticized for being shallow and phony.
Mediocrity can mark many of those in ministry just as overtly as it marks many of those who work for the government and are employed in the corporate world. I’ve also noticed that staying longer in the same place often perpetuates the problem. People tend to let seniority excuse the absence of excellence.
The ministry, unfortunately, is no exception. People trust us to be diligent, to stay spiritually sensitive; to do our homework; to think deeply; to remain fresh, innovative, and excited about our calling; and to be pure in motive.
But the painful truth is that we ministers can be lazy, indifferent, perfunctory, controlling, and mean-spirited. We are not above predictability or plagiarism, especially if we’ve not managed our time well. I know of few professions where envy can be more prominent and where pride can be more manipulative.
It’s easy to learn how to hide those ugly faces behind pious masks. The “flesh” of the clergy is no better than the “flesh” of the criminal. We’re all depraved. The difference is that we’re better at cover-up.
There are five promises I believe every pastor should make. I’ve worded them in first person, because they are promises I have made as well.
- I promise to maintain a heart for God. That means I will pray frequently and fervently. I will stay devoted to Christ and to my calling. I won’t talk about doing those things . . . I’ll simply do them.
- I promise to stay faithful to my family. My wife deserves my time, affection, and occasionally my undivided attention. Our children and grandchildren, the same. I won’t forget this fact, no matter what.
- I promise to keep doing original and hard work in my study. No hectic schedule will rob my congregation of a strong pulpit. The flock deserves the best of my efforts.
- I promise to remain accountable. Living the life of a religious Lone Ranger is not only unbiblical, it’s dangerous. If my flock needs to ask me a hard question, they needn’t hold back.
- I promise to be who I am. Just me. No amount of public exposure will turn my head. If I start acting sophisticated, I hope someone reminds me how disgusting it looks, how ridiculous shepherds appear when they start using a lot of polysyllabic words, trying to strut their stuff. I plan to keep laughing, hanging out with people who aren’t impressed with me, and remaining authentic.
If you haven’t already, I urge you to make these promises . . . today.
My love affair with Thanksgiving takes me all the way back to my boyhood days. I had just turned 10 years of age and was in fifth grade at Southmayd Elementary School in East Houston.
(Image from Unsplash)
As I recall, I was still going barefoot to school—and I combed my hair, maybe three times a week. Girls didn’t matter a lot to me when I was 10! It was on a Wednesday, the day before our Thanksgiving holidays began.
The year was 1944. Our nation was at war across the Atlantic into Europe as well as in the Pacific and far beyond.
Times were simple back then but they were also rugged. Everything was rationed. Framed stars hung proudly in neighborhood windows—and sometimes they were quietly changed to crosses.
Everyone I knew was patriotic to the core. Without television, we relied on “newsreels” that were shown at the movies, bold newspaper headlines, and LIFE magazine, which carried photos and moving stories of courage in battle and deaths at sea. Signs were posted inside most stores and on street corners, all of them with the same four words:
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.