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.
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.
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.