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.
Here is the apostle Paul’s version of the Christmas story:
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4–5)
Without realizing it, mighty Augustus was only an errand boy for the commencement of “the fullness of time.” He was a pawn in the hand of God . . . a mere piece of lint on the pages of prophecy. While Rome was busy making history, God arrived. He pitched His fleshly tent in silence on straw . . . in a stable . . . under a star. The world didn’t even notice. Reeling from the wake of Alexander the Great . . . Herod the Great . . . and Augustus the Great, the world overlooked Jesus the baby.
It still does.
As they were in Jesus’s day, so our times are desperate. Moreover, they often are a distraction from the bigger picture. Just as the political, economical, and spiritual crises of the first century set the stage for the “fullness of time” to occur . . . so today, in our own savage times, our God is weaving His sovereign tapestry to accomplish His divine will. Times are hard, indeed—but they never surprise God. He is still sovereign. He is still on the throne. As the psalmist reminds us: “Our God is in the heavens; / He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
In my 50 years of ministry, I have never been more committed than I am today to pointing our generation to the Word of God. It remains the single most accurate source of strength and divine direction during these difficult days. I urge you as pastors and leaders in ministry to recommit yourselves to consistent exposition combined with practical teaching from the Scriptures. With the same urgency, I exhort you—wherever God has placed you—to live out the truth of God’s Word before your family and neighbors through evangelism, Bible study, and memorization of God’s Word.
Feeling anxious about these difficult days? I understand, and Jesus does too. Times were no different when Jesus was born. Because so many lives have been turned upside down this year for one reason or another, I encourage you to do more than preach it again this year. I also urge you to reflect—just as Mary did—on what God is doing in your life. Christmas is a good time to ask ourselves this question: Will I focus on Jesus as the center of my life and cling to Him regardless of the circumstances I face? That’s not for you to preach. That’s for you to ponder.
Political corruption . . . religious compromise . . . economic crises—these will always be front-page news. But we must remember that our God is on the throne. He promises to use our desperate times to accomplish His bigger and better purposes in our world . . . and in our lives.
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.
In our vastly populated, impersonal world, it is easy to underestimate the significance of one. With so many people, most of whom seem so much more capable, more gifted, more prosperous, more important than we, who are we to think our part amounts to much? I’m just one person, who cannot make much difference.
That’s the way most folks think. They really do!
Aren’t you glad Patrick Henry didn’t? And Henry Ford? And Martin Luther King, Jr.? And Walt Disney? And Martin Luther? And Winston Churchill? And Jackie Robinson? And Irving Berlin? And Abraham Lincoln? And Charles Wesley? And Dwight L. Moody? And Corrie ten Boom?
“But it’s a different world today,” you say. Back then, there was room for an individual to emerge and stand out in a crowd, but now, there’s no way!”
Wrong. God has always underscored individual involvement . . . still does.
- How many did it take to help the victim who got mugged on the Jericho Road? One Good Samaritan.
- How many were chosen by God to confront Pharaoh and lead the Exodus? One.
- How many sheep got lost and became the object of concern to the shepherd? One.
- How many were needed to confront adulterous David and bring him to his knees in full repentance? One.
- How many prophets were called to stand before wicked King Ahab and predict a drought? One.
- How many did the Lord use to get the attention of the land of Israel and prepare the way for Messiah? One.
Never underestimate the power of one! And that one just may be you.
A familiar essay anonymously written many years ago says this about Jesus Christ:
Nineteen long centuries have come and gone and today he is the centerpiece of the human race and the leader of the column of progress. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever were built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.
Impressive words regarding the most phenomenal Person who ever cast a shadow across earth’s landscape. Without question, He is unique. He is awesome in the fullest sense of the term.
But what was He like personally . . . down inside His skin? Is there any place, for example, where He describes Himself? The answer is yes. Does that description fit the common idea of human greatness? That answer is no.
I remember my surprise some years back when I received a slick, multicolored brochure in my morning mail announcing a series of lectures to be delivered in Los Angeles by a man who was a well-known Christian “superstar” of the day. He was a popular speaker who traveled all over the country, and his name is still familiar to most folks in the family of God. But I confess, I lifted my eyebrows in astonishment when I read the words used to describe him in that advertisement:
A phenomenal individual . . .
In great demand around the world . . .
Today’s most sought-after speaker!
That’s a far cry from the way Jesus Christ described Himself:
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. (Matthew 11:28–29)
Unlike most influential, celebrity types, Jesus’s description of Himself doesn’t sound like the popular hype we’ve grown accustomed to hearing.
Jesus was a servant, not a superstar. He didn’t consider Himself “a phenomenal individual,” but one who was “gentle” and “humble.” May we pastors follow His example.
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!
We all own an invention that is almost essential.
It is very revealing, and it never tells a lie. It says it like it is, yet it never makes a sound. All of us stand before it prior to going out in public. And if we didn’t, we should have. It is a mirror—especially a full-length mirror!
God’s Word calls itself a mirror. It reflects the truth. I’ve observed over the years that churches rarely stand before full-length mirrors to examine themselves. We pastors are often the same.
I’ve discovered that it’s helpful to back off occasionally from our activities, important though they may be, and just look at ourselves a little closer in the mirror. Do that with me for a moment, will you?
Look at what Paul wrote to a church obsessed with image: “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1).
What we do is not about impressing others. The pastorate is not a place where an image is polished or where emphasis is placed on one’s self. Paul didn’t preach with overpowering oratory or philosophical arguments to wow his Greek audience in Corinth. He came as a simple man with a very basic, albeit, profound message regarding Christ.
In fact, what we say is all about exalting Christ. Paul continued: “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (2:2). Look at your reflection in that verse. Do you see the person of Christ and the work of Christ on the cross in your ministry? Those two thoughts deserve center stage.
Ministry is not about my agenda. It is not about my personality. It is not about my charisma. “I came to know nothing among you,” says the apostle, “except Jesus and His work on the cross.” As pastors, we must step aside and remind the flock that it is Christ who is the Head, and it is His cross that is important.
If our congregations leave a service more in love with Jesus, it was a successful time of worship. If they leave impressed with another dimension of the cross, you and I have done a good job.
So this Sunday, as we stand to deliver—with our hair combed, our teeth brushed, and our messages carefully prepared—let’s remember that our purpose is not about impressing others.
It is all about exalting Christ!