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!
Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. (Philippians 2:4)
The art of unselfish living is practiced by few and mastered by even less.
In today’s me-first world, we shouldn’t be surprised. It is difficult to cultivate a servant’s heart when trying to survive in a chaotic society dominated by selfish pursuits and narcissistic leaders. The greatest tragedy of such an existence is what it spawns: an independent, self-sufficient, survival-of-the-fittest mentality.
On top of everything else, the culture around us is determined to shut itself off from the benefits of faith.
- Christian values are ignored.
- Christian principles are shunned.
- Christian absolutes are mocked.
- Christian charity is viewed with suspicion.
Nevertheless, the church’s message of hope and transcendence, which is its greatest source of compassion, must continue, even if it is often rejected with scorn and disparagement. Our acts of kindness are received reluctantly, with the result that too many Christians find it easier simply to give in or give up.
As I look toward the future, I see nothing on the horizon that offers any hope for a change. Nothing external, that is. Grim as it may sound, we are on a collision course, and more and more travelers are lonely and confused.
Some are downright angry.
They offer cynical advice: “Look, you can’t change the world. Just look out for number one, press on, and keep your mouth shut.” Those who embrace this philosophy surround us. I admit there are times in my more hurried and hassled moments when I tend to listen to that erroneous counsel.
But this philosophy doesn’t satisfy. Human beings were not designed to live and treat others like that. There has to be a better way to enter eternity than being cold-hearted, empty-handed, and out of breath!
The art of unselfish living must be implemented from within before it can be expressed without. It is unlike anything you’ll hear from self-made superstars and celebrities whose lifestyles are not compatible with being a servant of others. That’s to be expected.
We see it modeled best in Christ. The world sees it modeled in Christians.
May I remind you of four of the most powerful perils that can level even the mightiest? They are fortune, fame, power, and pleasure. Each works overtime to win a hearing, to gain a foothold, to woo us in. Not even pastors are immune to these temptations.
Whether subliminal, subtle, strong, or supreme, these messages search for chinks in our armor as they appeal to our natural appetites. “Get rich!” (fortune). “Become known!” (fame). “Gain control!” (power). “Be satisfied!” (pleasure). Each of these attractive snares invites our attention, holds out a juicy carrot, makes beautiful promises; yet, each is an enemy always crouching and ready to plunge.
Being masters of deceit, these messages employ one favorite method throughout our lives—temptation.
Let me mention a very practical thing about temptation. I have found that if I can stop the process fairly early, I’m safe. But if I leave my hiding place and venture toward the bait, there is a point of no return. I cannot turn around. If I go that far, I’m sunk.
So how can we have victory over temptation? First, our natural focus must be counteracted. Openly confess your weakness to a trusted friend. Hide nothing. Use Scripture memory to replace sensual thoughts with spiritual thoughts.
Second, our leisure time must be guarded. Cultivate a plan, perhaps an exercise program, an intensive reading program, a hobby, a series of practical projects to occupy your time. (You might even brush up on your Hebrew or Greek.) Watch out for those movies! If necessary, keep the television off. And stay away from any activity on the internet that has no accountability.
Third, our close companions must be screened. Take a good look at your circle of friends. Do an honest evaluation of those with whom you spend personal time. I can offer you a principle you can bank on: until you clean up your companionships, you’ll never clean up your life.
Fourth, our vow to God must be upheld. Just as jealously as we would guard the marriage vows, we’re to guard our promises to God and our commitment to purity.
Excellence—moral, ethical, and personal excellence—is worth whatever it costs. Pay the price. Start today!
Nothing less will ever satisfy you or glorify God.
I am the product of mentoring.
There have been men in my life, some of whom you would not know if I mentioned their names, who have made a major difference in my life. They saw potential where I did not. They encouraged me to become something more than I was. They reproved and corrected me. They modeled what I longed to become.
Hands down, one of the most significant men in my life has been Dr. Howard Hendricks. “Prof”—as his students affectionately called him. He retired after completing sixty fruitful years of teaching in the seminary classroom.
That’s not a typo . . . sixty years! Prof has since gone home to be with the Lord.
Near his retirement, I had the privilege of participating in an interview with Prof that I’d like to share with you. The video’s dialogue lasts just a few minutes . . . but its lessons continue to linger in my mind. In fact, they are life-long.
That’s where you come in as a pastor. I urge you not to underestimate the impact your ministry is having on those who hear your words and—more importantly—on those who observe your life (see 1 Timothy 4:16). Week after week . . . month after month . . . year after year—you are making an eternal impact on the lives of countless individuals. Never forget that.
I will always esteem Prof Hendricks as a personal hero because he committed his entire life to building into the lives of others.
That, my friend, is what the ministry is all about.
Can’t watch the video? You can download the audio file instead.
John Donne is one of the least-known saints in history. The 17th century poet and preacher endured a life of persecution, pain, unfair imprisonment, and lengthy suffering.
It was during his term as Dean of the great St. Paul’s Cathedral – London’s largest church – that three waves of the Great Plague swept through the city. The last epidemic alone killed 40,000 people. In all, a third of London’s population perished, while a third more fled to the countryside, turning entire residential districts into ghost towns.
Donne’s life had been no picnic. Released from prison and now blackballed, he couldn’t find work. He and his wife Anne lived in grinding poverty, and Anne nearly died from childbirth more than once. Donne himself suffered intense headaches, intestinal cramps, and gout. His longest literary work during this excruciating period of his life was an extended essay on the advantages of suicide.
He decided at the late age of forty-two to seek ordination as an Anglican priest. The year after Donne took his first Anglican church, his beloved Anne died, after having borne him twelve children in all (five of whom died in infancy).
Amazingly, this was the man appointed to St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1621. With all his trials, he hardly seemed a likely candidate to lift his nation’s spirits during that era of the plague. He stayed near his beleaguered parishioners—arising every morning at 4 a.m. and studying until ten at night. He delivered sermons of such power, the vast cathedral remained crowded with worshipers despite London’s declining population.
It was then—at the zenith of his public ministry—his dread disease was diagnosed along with his death sentence. What is noteworthy is that he never “retired” from his calling—and he refused to become a passive recluse. While surviving those dark months, he stayed engaged with people. His life modeled the priceless value of enduring companionships.
Among his best-known writings are lines from his work, Devotions, written only a few years before his death. You may remember some of them:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent … if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
The importance of our staying engaged in the lives of others cannot be overestimated. Isolation is not only unbiblical and unwise, it is, in fact, unhealthy. You get weird.
Finding and nurturing a few very close companions throughout your years in ministry is a key ingredient to surviving. If you are one of those in that category—you are miles ahead of those who think they can survive on their own.
I must add — you are also rare.
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 the time. 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 in Time magazine. 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.
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.
Ministers of excellence are those who see through the lies of the clutching greed of our times. They are pastors who have declared their undivided allegiance to Christ’s message, those who have humbled themselves to Christ’s sovereign authority . . . and to His control. That’s a mighty tough assignment!
If you are greatly gifted, you may be able to do marvelous things that would cause the public to be swept up by your skills and because of your abilities. In the process of your ministry, you will find great temptation to make a name for yourself, to make a big splash, to gain attention, to get the glory, to strut around, to increase your fees, to demand your rights, and to expect kid-glove treatment. You’re in authority now! People are talking about you! Please.
Let me remind you that if you’re in ministry only for yourself, you’ll have no endurance. On that precarious top of the ladder, you’ll always have to maintain your balance by maneuvering and manipulating, lying, deceiving, and scheming. But if you’re committed to kingdom-related excellence, when you go through times of testing, you can count on kingdom endurance to get you through.
If you’re the kind of pastor who really wants the whole purpose of God, then you dare not leave out kingdom commitment. That means your motives must be investigated. For example, every time you make plans to accept a speaking engagement with a handsome honorarium, or to write a book, or to build a new sanctuary—and such things as these—you must deal with it before God. Specifically ask: Is this Your will? Would this honor Christ? Does this represent a kingdom commitment?
Very often the actions we perform do not need to change . . . but our reasons for doing them definitely do!