During the months ahead you can expect that your courage will be tested. It is a constant battle for us as pastors. You’ll face a wall you don’t think you can get over, a battle you don’t think you can win, or an obstacle you don’t think you can get beyond.
You’ve probably thought about that battle today. It may have robbed you of sleep last night or preoccupied your thoughts in random moments. Your “opponent” may be someone in your community, in your congregation, or among your elders or deacons. It may be a battle with pride, or anger, or some habit, or perhaps a secret addiction. Whatever the challenge, the battle you face right now looks impossible to overcome.
You may be right. You may not ever be able to win this battle because you’re fighting the wrong way, using the wrong strategy.
You and I were raised to match strength for strength. If the opponent is strong, we must be stronger. If he is smart, we must be smarter. The only way to win is through intimidation. You must crush or control your opponent and the situation.
All of this is true, of course, unless you’re going to fight God’s way. God’s strategy is altogether different. God specializes in impossible situations. (See Matthew 19:26 and Luke 1:37.) When you are overwhelmed, outnumbered, outmanned, outmuscled, or outsmarted, God steps in, because only He is qualified to be the specialist who can lead you to victory. Only He does it His way.
The courageous Joshua faced a battle that he knew he couldn’t win. God’s charge to him was to go and take the land. “I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.” God said, “Be strong and courageous” (Joshua 1:5–6). I wonder if (in a weak moment, all alone) Joshua thought, Conquer the mighty city of Jericho? No way! Can’t be done. Not by power, not by intimidation. Not by cunning strategy. This is a wall we cannot bring down. You have read about his impossible situation in Joshua 6. You may have even preached it.
All our lives, we’ve been singing, “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho.” But the song is wrong. Joshua didn’t fight the battle. He marched and shouted just as God told him to, and the walls fell down. But there was no fight to get over the walls! Joshua listened for the trumpet blast, like the other people in the army, and simply stood back and watched God’s miraculous intervention. The odds were against them, and they couldn’t possibly do battle against their fierce enemy all alone. Their only hope of victory was obeying God . . . and the walls around the city fell flat.
From where did such a strategy come? I’ll share that with you next time . . . as well as a few lessons we pastors can learn. But this week is a good time for us to consider: Am I trying to fight this battle in my own strength or in God’s?
Years ago a church I pastored had a “Statement of Commitment” that explained in concise terms the seriousness of our responsibilities—and the holiness of our roles—as Christian leaders. I’ll share it with you.
As you read the words, take the opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to the Lord and to His work.
Let me urge you to read it aloud, if you’re able to do that right now.
The title of this post represents a list I received that I will never forget. A seasoned pastor passed it on to a group of us many years ago. In the room sat about two dozen pastors, all of us engaged in various roles of responsibility at different local churches. We had invited this wise servant of God to address the perils facing our church leaders. He didn’t beat around the bush. Throwing diplomacy to the wind, he looked us squarely in the eyes and warned us against those four “occupational hazards” that can easily bring down people who serve the public as God’s representatives.
(Photo Courtesy of Freeimages.com)
Go back and read the list again. See if you don’t agree. Those are the four most common battlegrounds of those in ministry. Trace the reasons great men and women have fallen . . . search for the common threads in the tapestry of tragedies. You will find most often a breakdown in the realm of personal morality.
How refreshing it is to come across individuals who realize they have their parents to thank for so much of what they have in life. Marian Anderson was one of those individuals.
(Image from Unsplash)
She had a magnificent contralto voice that gave her worldwide acclaim.
On one occasion, a reporter asked her to name the greatest moment in her life. Those in the room hearing the question wondered what she would say.
There were so many great moments, like the night Arturo Toscanini said publicly,
For as long as I have been in the ministry I have asked the Lord for a balance between a tender heart and a tough hide. It isn’t an easy balance. In fact, the latter is more difficult to cultivate than the former.
In order to be fully engaged in ministry, job number one is to have a tender heart. The challenge is developing a tough hide.
Wanted: A Tough Hide
Those of us in ministry are big targets. We make great lightning rods! Know what I mean? We are dead ringers for criticism. Every passionate pastor, every Christian leader, and every Christian author I know can list a litany of things that have been said and done against them—many of them unfairly.
Few handle criticism well. But we’d all have to agree, there was one man who handled it with grace and grit.
Two Ways to Balance Being Tender and Tough
In Acts 24, Paul is on the witness stand before Governor Felix while a shady lawyer named Tertullus pontificates through some trumped-up charges. As you read along in this chapter, you will notice Paul waits for the smoke to clear and then calmly steps up to offer a defense. Paul’s words illustrate seven ways to maintain a tender heart and a tough hide while enduring criticism. I’ll mention the first two now and devote next week’s post to the remaining five.
1. Paul refused to get caught up in the emotion of the charges. That’s the first mistake we usually make, isn’t it? Everything in us prefers to lash out, to protest, to defend ourselves, to cry, or simply walk out. Paul refused to overreact. His opening line is disarmingly pleasant, “I cheerfully make my defense.”
Cheerfully? By now the man ought to be royally ticked off! Even though labeled as “a real pest” and a ringleader of a cult (see Acts 24:5), Paul graciously acknowledged the opportunity to make a defense. Refusing to let his emotions take the lead, he stayed controlled and courteous.
When we lower ourselves to the overcharged emotions of accusers, our anger is triggered. When that occurs, straight thinking caves in to irrational responses and impulsive words. Paul didn’t go there. Neither should we.
2. He stayed with the facts. He said, in effect, “You can check my record. Twelve days ago I went up to worship. You can ask those who were there.” He reported, “Neither in the temple, nor in the synagogues, nor in the city itself did they find me carrying on a discussion with anyone or causing a riot. Nor can they prove to you the charges of which they now accuse me” (Acts 24:12–13).
The apostle never blinked. He calmly stood his ground with stubborn facts. That strategy not only kept him on target, it enhanced his credibility in the eyes of Governor Felix.
And Then There’s You—and Me
What about you? How do you deal with judgmental remarks, those unkind put-downs made to your face or, worse, behind your back? When a congregant mocks your teaching on biblical parenting, when that couple in a small group questions every decision you make, when you find out a fellow Christian (or pastor) you thought was your friend has been spreading rumors about you, how do you respond?
Are you tough and tender or do you become brittle and bitter?
A few sentences in the diary of James Gilmore, pioneer missionary to Mongolia, have stayed with me since the day I first read them. After years of laboring long and hard for the cause of Christ in that desperate land, he wrote, “In the shape of converts I have seen no result. I have not, as far as I am aware, seen anyone who even wanted to be a Christian.”
Let me add some further reality to that statement by taking you back to an entry in Gilmore’s journal made in the early days of his ministry. It expressed his dreams and burdens for the people of Mongolia. Handwritten in his journal are these dreams: “Several huts in sight. When shall I be able to speak to the people? O Lord, suggest by the Spirit how I should come among them, and in preparing myself to teach the life and love of Christ Jesus.” That was his hope. He longed to reach the lost of Mongolia with the gospel of Jesus Christ. How different from his entry many years later, “I have not, as far as I am aware, seen anyone who even wanted to be a Christian.” What happened in between? He encountered the jagged edge of an authentic ministry.
When I write about succeeding in the work of the Lord, I’m not promising success as we define it in human terms. I’m not saying because you are faithful to proclaim the Word of God your church will be packed or continue to grow larger. Some of God’s most faithful servants are preaching their hearts out in places where the church is not growing. A great temptation for pastors in those difficult settings is to turn to some of the other stuff that holds the promise of more visible results. Don’t go there. Stand tall. God is at work.
If you know the Lord has called you into His work, and you would not be fulfilled doing anything else, then press on and never look back. Even if the results often seem disappointing. Like James Gilmore, stay at it.
In every ministry, there are at least three essentials that produce an atmosphere of joyous cooperation. They are objectives, people, and places.
First, whatever God plans, He pursues. That has to do with the ministry essential of objectives. There’s nothing wrong with having a clearly defined mission statement that gives direction and purpose to the vision of a ministry. In fact, there’s everything right about it as long as it is the Lord who provides the direction. God’s plan unfolds in ways that confound human wisdom and sometimes defy common sense. But it is His plan. Objectives are essential when they are His objectives, not ours.
Second, whomever God chooses, He uses. That has to do with the ministry essential of people. And, I must quickly add, the people God chooses are never perfect. That includes me. That includes you. In fact, we prove more useful to the Lord as pastors when we accept that reality . . . and trust Him with our imperfections.
Third, wherever God selects, He sends. That has to do with the ministry essential of places. I wish He would send all of the great people to Stonebriar Community Church. And I wish He would never let any of them leave! That’s a desire based on my limited human perspective. I never prayed this prayer, but I’ve been tempted to pray, “Lord, send us only the great ones and keep them here forever. Don’t ever take them anywhere else.” (Being imperfect, I’m not above a few selfish prayers!)
God’s plan, however, includes removing some very gifted people from among us and sending them elsewhere. Out of those who ministered in Antioch, God chose to send Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:1–2).
His ways are not our ways. His places are not the places we would choose to go on our own. None of that matters. What matters is this: God sends people of His choosing to places of His choosing. The sooner we accept and embrace that truth, the more contented we will be.
We who love to fish know that the better the lure, the more deceptive it is. We try to appeal to the appetite of the fish by hiding the hook in a worm. We use a certain kind of lure that’s attractive, with eyes that sparkle or a body that glitters. The fish gets caught because it thinks it will get something soft and delicious, but it gets something sharp and painful. That’s deception.
The pastor is not to be deceptive. I love Paul’s simple declaration: “Our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit” (1 Thessalonians 2:3).
Paul was who he was . . . wherever he was. He made no empty promises. He didn’t pilfer from the ministry’s money. He didn’t say one thing in one place but something else in another. There was no “deceit”—a term that means in the Greek: “to lure by bait.” Just like a fish.
I’m sure you have experienced, as I have on occasion, those you thought you could trust . . . but you couldn’t. When you got close to that particular person, you found there were hooks. He or she said one thing—which looked and sounded attractive—but behind the veneer there was a hook. There were private maneuverings and hidden agendas. There was a twisting of motives with error and deceit.
Paul says in effect, “Pastors are not to be deceptive.” If we take a positive slant on Paul’s declaration, we can say: “Our exhortation comes from truth, purity, and by way of honesty.”
In other words: no hooks.
When I was a little boy, we used to have our family reunions and vacations down at my grandfather’s cottage beside Carancahua Bay, near Palacios, Texas. It was a sleepy, little spot that smelled like shrimp 24/7. We would seine for shrimp early in the morning, fish for speckled trout and redfish during the day, and go floundering at night. Wonderful memories, all!
My maternal granddad was the most influential adult in my life as I grew up. One day he said to me, “I want to explain something to you.” And he used a big word I had never heard before: erosion. The bank that dropped off into the bay was continually being eaten away by the pounding waves and rainy weather. We walked over near the edge, and he measured a certain distance from that point to where the bank dropped off down to the water. He drove a stake into the ground. “You’re going to be here next summer,” he told me, “and we’ll measure this again then.”
When I came back the next summer there had been two hurricanes, several super-high tides, and rough waters. Eight inches were gone from the bank. I would never have noticed if we hadn’t measured it. I think the next year he wrote me and said, “Twelve inches dropped off this year.”
No one I’ve worked with in ministry who has fallen morally sat on the side of his bed one morning and thought, Let’s see, now, how can I ruin my life? How can I implode my reputation? Erosion doesn’t happen like that. It is always silent; it is always slow; it is always subtle. But its final blow is always severe.
Paul’s words to the Corinthians haunt me, as well as challenge me: “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). He goes on to write, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man” (10:13). Even the apostle Paul back in the first century lived with the horrible possibility that after even he had preached to others, he might disqualify himself (9:27). All of us who preach must remember his solemn warning.
Every day is a day I could begin the fall. Every day is a day I could choose to compromise . . . secretly, subtly, and silently. And the public would never know it . . . not then. But I would know it. Those close to me would someday begin to sense it, but the world at large wouldn’t know it until the final implosion.
I regularly evaluate my life. I measure the depth of my devotion to Jesus to discern if any commitment has eroded. My daily time with God is good for that. Driving around town in my pickup is also an excellent opportunity for self-appraisal. And of course, the Lord’s Table was designed for such self-examination. Whenever I find that erosion has occurred, I refuse to justify it or ignore it. I begin the hard work of repentance and renewal.
Slowly and steadily, I want to be moving closer to Jesus in my life and ministry . . . and not eroding away from Him. I want the same for you.
You’re not keeping any secrets are you?
There are all kinds of sermons: topical sermons, biographical sermons, expository sermons . . . and longhorn sermons—a point here, and a point there, and a lot of bull in between! It’s easy to preach those kinds of sermons, isn’t it?
A mentor of mine told me about the time he worked for an older pastor who used to come to the pulpit unprepared. So he would try to prepare during the song service. “Lord, give me something to say,” he’d pray. “Give me Your message.” After another song he’d ask again, “Lord, give me Your message.” Every Sunday it happened.
“One day,” the pastor said, “the Lord finally gave me His message. God told me, ‘Ralph, you’re lazy. That’s my message.'”
To be blunt, the issue of pastoral sloth is one of the major battles we must fight as pastors. It breeds longhorns.
When I’m sitting there some Sunday morning during hymn number 275 and I’m trying to remember point number two of my message, there’s a quiet sweating that goes on. Because—to be honest—I feel unfaithful. I think, These people have come wanting to be fed, and I feel as if the Holy Spirit is saying, “You have not sufficiently prepared for this moment.”
So here’s what I’ve found that helps me to present myself “approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
- First of all, tell yourself the truth. If you’re faking it, you’re faking it. (Most people know it whether we admit it or not.)
- Next, sit down with your calendar and schedule dedicated time for study. Except for life-or-death situations, have your assistant cover for you. Or have your wife cover for you at home. But guard that time in the study.
- Then, when you have time alone, stay there! It’s amazing how you can fritter away your hours—wiping dust off your books, getting a drink of water, going to the bathroom, catching an article or two online. Don’t let yourself do that! Put your tail in that chair, turn that light on, get that pencil moving (or keyboard clicking), and start putting something on the page. Force the beginning of it. I force it at times. Tell the Lord you have to get this down. Ask Him to give you the thoughts. When He does, you’ll be thrilled with how it begins to fall together. I am always amazed with how God multiplies the fish and loaves I pray over.
- Finally, after having formed the habit, explain to the board and others the value you place on those times of study. It’s not that you don’t want to be with them, but that when you are with them on Sundays, you must have a prepared mind and heart. Very few times will the board say, “We don’t believe in that.” Rather, they’ll say, “Thank you for caring enough.”
Falling into Saturday night panic is a habit. I’ve done it just enough to know I don’t want to go there another time.
Discipline is also a habit, I’ve discovered.
It kills those longhorns.