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.
My word to those of us engaged in ministry can be summed up in four words: keep a healthy balance.
If you teach, also remain a good student. Stay teachable. Read. Listen. Learn. Observe. Be ready to change. And then . . . change! Admit wrong when you are wrong. Stand firm where you know you are right. Since you are called to be leader, make sure you also follow well. You cannot do it all, so delegate and deliberately allow others to help you. And when they do it well, give them the credit. Our calling is serious, so cultivate a good sense of humor.
Laugh often, and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself! I do that at least once a week! And once a year, I sit down and laugh out loud. Here’s why. Recordings are made of my messages—which is sort of a frightening thought to begin with. At the end of the year those who do the work of putting the messages on the radio give me a CD of all the things they took out during that year. It’s sort of a “Christmas gift.” Some have even had the audacity to play this CD at an Insight for Living Christmas party for others to hear and enjoy. I cannot believe some of the dumb things I have said! It is enough to reduce one to the size of an ant. A very small ant.
I like to say to other pastors what I often tell myself: Take God seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously. That helps us stay balanced.
There it was. One of those posters. Some are funny. Some are clever. Others, beautiful. A few, thought-provoking. This one? Convicting.
It said something like this:
A prayer to be said when the world has gotten you down,
And you feel rotten,
And you’re too doggone tired,
And you’re in a big hurry,
And you’re mad at everybody . . .
I remember one week it seemed I saw the poster everywhere. God really wanted me to get the message. He nudged me when I first read it in a friend’s office. He slapped me hard in Newport Beach when I ran into it again. While moving faster than a speeding bullet in Portland, I came face-to-face with it again. It was silent as light but twice as bright . . . smashing me down and pinning me to the mat for the full count. How did I interpret God’s message through that poster?
“My son, slow down. Cool it. Admit your needs.”
Such good counsel. But tough to carry out. Why? Why in the world is it such a struggle for us pastors to cry out for assistance?
- In my entire life, I’ve never seen a football game played without substitutions.
- Even the finest surgeons receive help in delicate and extensive operations.
- Highway patrolmen travel in pairs.
- I was taught all the way through my days in the Marines to dig a hole before combat big enough for two people in battle . . . never for just one.
Asking for help is smart. It’s also the answer to fatigue . . . and the “I’m indispensable” image. You want to know what’s at the heart of much of our boundless ministerial drive? We can get pious and call it “passion.” But it’s something else.
Plain old, stubborn unwillingness to admit need. You see, the greatest battle in the pastorate today is not inefficiency; it’s super-efficiency . . . that is, it’s being too proud to ask for help.
The result? Painful though it is to describe, you know it’s true: impatience. We become easily irritated. Often angry. Longer hours. Less and less time off. Little laughter. No vacation. Zero time with family. Inflexibility. Longer and longer gaps between meaningful (personal) times in God’s Word. Precious few (if any) moments in personal prayer and prolonged meditation.
Say, my friend, it’s time to declare it. You are not the Messiah of the 21st-twenty-first century! No way can you keep going at this pace and stay effective year after year.
Analyze yourself any way you please, and you are H-U-M-A-N . . . nothing more.
So, slow down!
So, give yourself a break!
So, stop trying to cover all the bases!
Let me guess. You are tired of the superficial.
You want to be a force for good in a world of evil—a person of authenticity in a world of hypocrisy. You are weary of witnessing what you see happening around you. You want to be part of the answer, not part of the problem.
There is no question that Jesus expected each of us to shine the light of God’s love among this dark, lost world. We are to spread it abroad and to share the truth that we have been granted. In our homes, schools, workplaces, recreations, and in every other area of our lives, there are ways we can serve others.
That means moving beyond theory and wishful thinking. That means reaching out, taking risks, and doing what Scripture commands.
For God is not unjust. He will not forget how hard you have worked for him and how you have shown your love to him by caring for other believers, as you still do. (Hebrews 6:10, NLT)
Because Jesus Christ, the Son of God, took upon Himself the role of a servant while He was on earth, so must we.
The one who could have been or done anything, consciously and voluntarily chose to be one who served, one who gave.
So then, if we are to become increasingly more like Christ (that is still our goal, isn’t it?) then we, too, are to give and to serve. Not just stand and preach.
To those who serve, to those who stand and preach—as Jesus Christ once stood and preached many, many years ago—He promises a reward. And we can be sure He will keep His promise.
Four truths will help put all of this in proper perspective.
During my days in seminary, I formed a habit that has helped me immensely throughout almost 50 years of pastoral ministry. I had my artistic sister, Luci, print a simple, three-word question on a small rectangular card I placed on the wall above the desk where I spent so much of my time.
Just black letters on a white card, with a bold question mark at the end:
WHAT’S YOUR MOTIVE?
I no longer have the card, but the question is now indelibly etched on my mind. I ask it almost every day of my life. It has proven to be an essential checkpoint I now apply on a regular basis:
- Why are you planning this?
- What’s the reason behind your doing that?
- Why did you say yes (or no)?
- What is the motive for writing that letter?
- Why are you excited over this opportunity?
- What causes you to bring up that subject?
- Why did you mention his or her name?
- What’s your motive, Swindoll?
Searching, probing, penetrating questions.
Because the path of servanthood is so perilous, we need to cultivate a sensitive walk with God marked by obedience.
If we think we can’t win the fight against the incessant temptations of the flesh, then Scripture is mocking us. We’re being dangled by a hope that will never be realized. To put it even more bluntly, Paul was a liar.
But fortunately, we’re in a winnable war. Paul wasn’t lying. I offer four truths that can arm us for the conflict.
First, appreciating the nature of the battle is essential. It’s a universal war that began all the way back in the garden of Eden and includes every one of us. Our flesh craves satisfaction in the very things that God hates. And until we stand with the Savior in heaven, the age-old civil war rages on! Yes, we will experience the attack of Satan from the outside, but we have an enemy within that we must never forget or ignore. The flesh never takes a holiday.
Second, we are powerless to win the war against the flesh without the Spirit of God. By conscious submission, we engage the Holy Spirit in the first moments of crucial decisions. Our ability to do that will grow as we practice the spiritual disciplines. All of them prepare us for battle. All of them give us greater intimacy with the Almighty, who lives within us. The result is predictable: when faced with temptation, the Lord fights the battle on our behalf.
Third, developing this discipline is a personal matter. We can depend upon no one else to develop our own discipline of self-control. Paul wrote, “I discipline my body” (1 Corinthians 9:27, emphasis added). This is something each of us must do in the Lord’s strength. If someone else has to restrain us, it’s not self-control! As a pastor, I’ve seen a lot of people marry with the hope that a partner’s strength will prop up his or her own weakness. (I’m sure you’ve seen it too.) The opposite is more often the case. There’s no magic in marriage. A godly marriage can be the instrument of God’s working to make us more like Christ, but marriage by itself makes nobody strong. Developing the discipline of self-control cannot be the responsibility of a husband or wife.
Finally, ignoring the consequences invites disaster. Lack of self-control will invariably lead to embarrassment for us, for our ministries, and for those we love. With issues of self-control, we’re usually dealing with things that we know are wrong and will have negative fallout. And they usually involve something habitual, which means that the people we hurt are probably growing weary. What’s worse, it adversely impacts our spiritual life.
In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul uses a word that most translations render “disqualified.” It’s in keeping with his word picture of the athletic competition, but “disqualified” can lead us to wrong conclusions about the spiritual consequences. Salvation and the assurance of heaven are not the issues in Paul’s mind here. Obviously, you will not lose your salvation if you fail to control yourself.
However, you quite possibly can be put out of the race by God’s disciplinary action. I have seen, on more than one occasion, a pastor sidelined by God for the good of the family, the ministry, and, of course, the individual.
I repeat: I urge you to appreciate the nature of the battle. Remember that you need the Spirit of God for victory. Take personal responsibility to develop self-control . . . and refuse to ignore the consequences.
They are disastrous.
Many years ago I was on an annual retreat with our church leaders.
After a busy afternoon of work, most of us men decided to relax and watch a championship playoff game between the Lakers and the Pistons. The Lakers weren’t playing very well, so the network kept switching back and forth from the game to coach Phil Jackson. As the gap in the score widened, he was getting more and more perturbed.
Just over Phil Jackson’s shoulder sat a woman wearing a low-cut blouse. Whenever the cameraman showed the coach, he made sure to frame the shot to include the woman. Not her face, mind you. Just what he and most red-blooded men in America would find most interesting. Not surprisingly, the network showed the coach a lot during the latter half of the game. With each shot of Jackson, we saw less of the coach and more of the seductive woman behind him—though never her face.
I noticed that the pastors grew more and more silent, and after a little while it was as quiet as a room full of nuns. Finally I blurted out, “Kinda hard to keep looking at Phil Jackson, isn’t it?” The guys burst into laughter as every ounce of tension fled away. I don’t think anyone there was guilty of lust, though that’s exactly how it can start.
In an unguarded, unexpected moment, something grabs our attention, and without appropriate boundaries and an honest acknowledgment of the temptation, we silently and secretly yield. We can dwell on the image, nurture it into a fantasy, and—even in the middle of a room full of fellow pastors—allow the impulse to drag us into lust.
But remember: simply noticing an enticing image doesn’t qualify as a lack of self-control. However, what happens in the five seconds after that may or may not qualify, depending on what we choose to do.
The apostle Paul obviously had the same penchant for lack of self-control as the rest of us. He wrote, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
I wish that full-time ministry made the battle against the flesh easier, but you and I know it doesn’t.
Even when Paul was writing God-breathed words, he still had to suit up and face the enemy in a civil war that never skips a day.
Not many years ago our church had the privilege of ordaining several men to the gospel ministry. These occasions always remind me of my own ordination—both the privileges and the challenges that accompany the pastoral ministry. This particular service was extra-special because one of my mentors, Dr. Howard Hendricks, offered the prayer of dedication I felt should be in print. If you are able, please read it out loud.
Father in heaven, we rejoice in what You have done in the lives of those ordained today. The Savior called them, He taught them, and He greatly used them. And today they stand on the threshold of a lifetime of ministry. Our passionate concern, Lord, is that You will use them way beyond their highest expectation. We know that You are “able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us.” And today we thank You for their parents and grandparents, their spouses, their children, their loved ones, their friends, their teachers, their mentors—godly men and women who have built into the lives of these young men, preparing them uniquely for the occasion to which You are calling them.
And we pray that You will keep them, each one, clean from the midst of a corrupt generation. May they shine their lights in the midst of a darkened world. We pray that God will use them with increasing effectiveness for His greater glory. Your Word tells us that when You call us to do anything, You will always provide the resources needed. And may they draw deeply from the rich well of grace. We are excited to think of how desperately they are needed—men who are committed to the gospel of the grace of God, the exposition of the Word of God, and the faithful and loving service in the will of God. Keep them on their knees, learning the power of prayer and always asking the question, “Is it really worth doing anything if I can do it without prayer?” Give them the passion of our Savior who at the end of His life commanded His disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19).
Father, as a good Shepherd, go before them, lead them in a plain path to do Your will and to do it courageously. Keep them from sin and, in their success, prevent them from believing their own press reports and humble them under the mighty hand of God. Multiply their giftedness to extend and enrich the body of Christ. Reproduce in each individual the body of Christ, the heart of Christ, and the life of Christ. And now, men, we exhort you. Acts 20:32 states: “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” And we ask it expectantly and believingly in the wonderful name of our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Now brothers, let me challenge you to remember your own calling and ordination by personalizing this prayer. Change every “them” and “their” to “me” and “my.” Go ahead, please—take time to do that.
I encourage you to read and pray this often—and also to those you may serve alongside in vocational ministry. What a marvelous challenge. What a magnificent privilege.
It’s hard for me to read Paul’s words without wincing:
Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep.
(2 Corinthians 11:24–25)
Can you imagine being beaten and stoned? I cannot. Here is the awful reality of physical abuse. Few people will ever know such extreme pain. But if you think the man was pretty much alone in it all, get hold of a copy of Fox’s Book of Martyrs or read it online. There is no way to get around it; God’s servants often become scapegoats. Too frequently, this is what we pastors experience . . . even today.
This is true emotionally more frequently than physically. Humanity’s twisted depravity, for some reason, likes to express itself in this way. Take the prophet Daniel, for example. Faithful, efficient, honest, and absolutely dedicated, the man served others with a pure heart. But it backfired on him. According to the sixth chapter of the book that bears his name, the very people he worked with turned on him. They set out to prove he lacked integrity. They went on an extensive “witch hunt.” They left no stone unturned.
Can you imagine how that hurt? You are the object of suspicion that leads to an investigation. You hear whisperings about your character. Stories swirl around, calling into question your words, your actions. Every move you make is being watched by frowning critics. And yet there is not a shred of truth to it. You have been a model of authenticity. You have devoted yourself to the dual role of helping others and honoring the Lord. You’ve served Him faithfully . . . and this is the thanks you get.
It takes the grace of almighty God for us to press on under those circumstances and to accept His plan over our own. Press on!