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.
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.