Okay, let’s be honest. How’s it going with you and the kids? Maybe that question doesn’t even apply to you. You may have already raised your brood and had them leave the nest. But I have a hunch that many of you pastors are still in the process of training and rearing.
So—how’s it going?
Eli was a great preacher, a seasoned priest. As the high priest, he was responsible, once each year, for entering the Most Holy Place and offering an atoning sacrifice on behalf of the nation. No one else had that privilege. He judged, he instructed the people in matters of worship, he gave counsel, and he devoted his entire life to serving in the tabernacle of God, ministering to the needs of His people. But he was also a passive, inactive father who indulged his sons (1 Samuel 3:1–18). Those boys of his were reprobates!
According to the law of Moses, priests were to burn the fat as an offering and take whatever didn’t burn from the altar. In this way, they were to receive only what the Lord provided. But Eli’s worthless sons defied God’s instructions and reserved the choicest cuts of meat for their dinner table.
Along with their audacious disrespect for the sacrifices of God, they were perverse men who took sexual advantage of the women who came to worship. And they did so without shame, within the sacred spaces of the house of God. And Eli knew it!
You would think that a genuine man of God like Eli would be outraged. Remember, he also served as Israel’s judge, meaning that his responsibility was to carry out justice on behalf of God. These rebellious sons of shameless lust should have been carried to the edge of town and stoned to death. Instead, they receive a mild scolding. How pathetic is that?
God has preserved these stories to leave us with enduring lessons. Fathers, listen up! Take heed! It has been my observation that Eli’s paralysis of parenthood is not uncommon . . . even among those in ministry. As a father whose vocation is service to the Lord, I have intentionally sought to avoid the failure of Eli. I’ve often reminded myself: passivity is an enemy. I urge you to do the same.
Each one of us today must recognize that our family could very easily end up like Eli’s. Let’s face it: any family can come unraveled—an elder’s family, a pastor’s family, an evangelist’s family, a missionary’s family—even one whose father walks with God and faithfully pours his heart into a congregation. And that includes your family.
Please, my friend, do not be passive. It is an enemy.
Want a wonderful paradigm for ministry?
Paul’s message emphasizes the gospel to the lost and grace to the saved. As I’ve studied the life of Paul, particularly in his later years, I find two prominent themes woven like threads through the tapestry of his ministry.
First, his message offers the gospel to the lost. “Let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses” (Acts 13:38–39). Imagine the impact our churches would have on our communities if each Christian committed to sharing the gospel once a week with someone who expresses a need.
Second, his message includes large doses of grace for the saved. Just as the lost don’t understand the gospel, the saved rarely understand grace. There are few activities more exhausting and less rewarding than Christians attempting to please the people around them by maintaining impossible legalistic demands. What a tragic trap, and thousands are caught in it. When will we ever learn? Grace has set us free! That message streams often through the sermons and personal testimonies of the apostle Paul.
The lost need to hear how they can cross the bridge from a life filled with emptiness and guilt to a life flowing with mercy and grace, peace and forgiveness. We help build this bridge when we lovingly and patiently communicate the gospel. You don’t need a seminary degree. You don’t have to know a lot of the religious vocabulary. In your own authentic, honest, and unguarded manner, share with people what Christ has done for you. Who knows? It may not be long before you will know the joy of leading a lost sinner from the darkness of death’s dungeon across the bridge to the liberating hope of new life in Christ.
Once they’ve arrived, please release them. Release them into the magnificent freedom that grace provides. Don’t smother them with a bunch of rules and regulations that put them on probation and keep them in that holding tank until they “get their lives straightened out.” Making us holy is the Spirit’s work, not ours. You be faithful to dispense the gospel to the lost and grace to the saved. Then leave the results in the Lord’s hands.
That was Paul’s paradigm.
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.
Good leaders are enthusiastically affirming. Paul writes,
You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children. (1 Thessalonians 2:10–11)
Ever spent a Friday night on hard bleachers, in front of the father of the high school quarterback? He’s his own cheering section. Why? He’s a dad! The kid on the field is thinking, “Dad, come on, knock it off.” But his old man is standing up there, yelling at top volume, loving every minute of it. There’s no question who he’s pulling for.
Perhaps you’ve longed for more affirmation from your father. Let’s face it; encouragement goes a long way in preparing a child for life. No one should be getting more encouragement from us than our own children.
Pretty convicting stuff, isn’t it?
Good leadership balances the tender nurturing of a mother with the loving affirmation of a father. Encouragement is like an oasis in a hot, barren desert. It brings needed refreshment to weary individuals whose souls are parched from time spent in the desert of self-doubt. There’s the desert of failure when we’ve tried so hard to succeed. There’s also the desert of no progress when we so want something to happen but it doesn’t. And there’s the desert of family rejection, abuse, and a thousand other arid, monotonous landscapes of life.
In those desert experiences, we all long for an oasis where we’re able to get a cool drink of water. Though it may not have come from your father, determine it will come from you. Give the affirming words of a father, who, in speaking, dips his ladle deep in ice water, and as he pours them out, they cool the spirit and refresh the soul.
Affirming leaders create loyal followers . . . in the church and in the home.
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.
Strengthening God’s church is one of my lifelong passions. I know you share that passion. All of us as pastors do. It’s who we are.
To that end, I’m pleased to introduce you to Insight for Living Ministries’ new Church Resource Web page. From this page you can access excellent materials for you as a pastor, for small groups, and for your church. You’re already aware of my Pastor’s Blog. Some of the other resources include:
- Video Insights to use in your worship services
- Group study tools
- Product discounts
With all our church resources in one convenient place, it’s easy to find tools that will help you encourage, educate, and lead your church more effectively.
Check out the Church Resource Web page today!
Some pastors live so carefully they absolutely refuse to take risks.
(Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com)
Everything has to be carefully regulated and kept under control . . . their control. Borders defined, guidelines spelled out, every penny accounted for, and absolutely no surprises. After having expended so much time and effort trying to stay safe, they usually end up never having accomplished much of eternal value. They have built nothing, tried nothing new, and invested in no one or nothing . . . except their own security.
Not Abraham! By the time Genesis 22 rolled around, his faith had matured to the point that his absolute confidence in God’s character gave him the freedom to throw caution to the wind and risk everything to obey. Remember? If you don’t, you need to read that chapter!
This would be an excellent moment for you to do some self-analysis.