My son in the Faith, I want to ask you to step aside from the fast-paced track that you are on. I know that it has been a whirlwind of activity since you finally said “yes” to God’s call on your life to preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ. You left your home and your family. You and your wife, and now your three-month-old little girl, are bound together by what I pray will be a life-long journey of service to the Lord Jesus Christ and his people, the Church.
Did you know that I have been watching you? I used to watch myself more than anyone else. Now, I like to watch others. And you have been fun to watch. You have been diligent in your studies. You demonstrated a remarkable capacity for getting things done. I have noticed that you are turning into quite the scholar. Good for you.
But you need to carefully walk forward as if you are walking with enemies waiting to seize a moment of weakness. I must not get ahead of myself.
I want to talk with you for just a bit about the road ahead, the inevitable twists and turns in that road. Ninety-degree hard turns and long stretches of straight highway both are potential places of a threat to your ministry and your mission. The landscape is the stage, if you will, where the drama plays out. The stakes are always high for you and me because we are in a match for human souls. So, challenges will arise from within and from without. I want to offer you my counsel as well as my blessing so that you are able to fulfill God’s mission in the world. I desire neither to be paternalistic or nosy. But there comes a place in the pastor’s life where he moves from the long “green” season of productive ministry to a new place, the place where I now live, that may be properly called old pastor as “the keeper of meaning.” This is a mentoring stage. So, I am happy to speak out of that “keeper of meaning” identity and hopefully help you today. By the way, for your own good, let me mention that I passed from one pastoral stage to another with great resistance and misunderstanding. While I have contented myself in the role and the stage where the Lord has me, I believe I might have gained new insights from the fiery re-entry of vocational atmosphere that could help you at this early stage of your pastoral career. Transitions are hard. Transitions are where ministry usefulness is cultivated. They can also be the “wasted years” if we fail to “redeem the time.” I have both failed and succeeded. Succeeding is better.
So, if you don’t mind, let’s just sit here on the front porch and talk. It’s going to sound like a monologue with the old pastor having a good share of the speaking. But I want you to respond as well. I want you to speak with silence. Silence must become more than a commodity to you.
Silence can become a treasured and hard-earned currency in our sacred vocation. Silence is the legal tender that will buy the necessary implements for your greatest pastoral assignments: the salvation of others and the salvation and sanctification of yourself. I don’t mean to say that proclamation is secondary. It is not. Preaching is the use of words to declare the intent of God in the world. Silence is the way we best discover the words. Or, I should say, silence gives us the voice to speak and the capacity to understand what we mean. Silence may seem to be not only tenuous, inutile, but also a foolishly indistinct coinage of little value. Should you have that view now it will change later; that is if you are to be used of the Lord. In your silence today, and I define silence as both a stillness of mind as well as tongue, a teachable posture of receiving, I want you to listen for the voice of God speaking to you through the sound of an old man. Hearing with the ears of your spirit will take more time to process. Spiritual listening is slower. But “slower” is something that you must acquire. In that process of hearing with your spirit, you will also discern what is the voice of the old man and what is the voice of God. The former can be used to fertilize your ministry or to be recognized as “spent” nutrients, with little proleptic power remaining. The latter is to be obeyed.
So, as I say, pull up that chair over there. Let’s get a little closer. And don’t mind me if I look out to try and locate something before I speak. I am looking for mental scenes from ministry and life, for faces, for places—empty sanctuaries, early morning walks with God, late nights at the emergency room, quiet times of presence with grieving families, and hurtful moments in the fulcrum of leadership development, standing on wobbly knees in the pit of contention. I am looking for answers. I am looking for God. Stay with me. If I can see, even if I cannot see through, I can locate the lessons to pass along to you.
Let’s both be quiet as we begin.
Now. Let me see.
When I graduated from seminary, I had the opportunity to become minister of evangelism under Dr. D James Kennedy. I wanted to preach the Word of God immediately and without any space between the seminary and my first call. So, I accepted an invitation to plant a church in Kansas. Planting a church is not a mistake. It was certainly a blessing to me, my family, and the Christian community that is there today. Yet a decision may be made that is ethically correct and vocationally defective. My decision to forgo a unique opportunity to continue my preparation for a life of ministry cost me a great deal. You see, the minister, very much like a physician, must go through a period of “residency.” That is, upon finishing “medical school” — the place where you learn the anatomy of the subject — and before launching into “vocational practice,” the young professional will have to go through a period of residential, supervised practical training in the core competencies of her profession. In the case of a gospel minister, “medical school” is theological higher education, or “seminary.” Seminary is the place where you study the anatomy of your vocation.
Systematic theology, historical theology, the ancient biblical languages, and even those courses called “pastoral theology” or “practical theology” are treated within the curriculum as distinctive anatomical parts of the whole: theology, history, and pastoral practice. A seminarian, therefore, studies the anatomy of the subject of (that quaint and useful word) divinity. Seminaries are to be credited with attempting to provide “practice,” however, the seminary is not the local church or parish ministry. The medical school, for instance, teaches about the ethics and the vocational life of a medical doctor. The medical school can never (be expected to) provide what a teaching hospital can: a genuine, real-life environment that best prepares a medical doctor for a life of diagnosing and treating patients. Similarly, a pastor needs to move from studying the anatomy of the subject to learning the core competencies of the sacred vocation. There is only one environment where those core competencies: the parish. The place where human beings live, move and have their being—parish life— is the irreducible setting for best learning to shepherd the flock of Christ. The parish ministry setting is the right place, the most organic place, where you learn to diagnose and treat the metaphysical pathologies of the human soul. The question is whether you will conduct that residency with intentionality, with patience, with a humble and teachable spirit, or not.
I know that you are also eager to get going in the ministry. Now, if I remember correctly, you want to go to the college campus. Is that right? You plan to be a campus minister. That is a worthy and honorable pursuit of your larger pastoral call. I want to say to you, though, that whether you are going into a local parish ministry as the senior minister or associate minister or whether you are going to become a campus chaplain at Big State University (BSU), or into another branch of ministerial work, you must have pastoral preparation in the core competencies of your vocation. The truth is you will go through a period of residency in the pastoral ministry. Residency is unavoidable. Pastoral residency can be “12 months” of studying core competencies under the supervision of a mentoring pastor, in the place where you are called, or it could be “12 years” of trial and error, unsupervised ministry lacking theological reflection or senior practitioner guidance, and a trail of tears left in the awful wake of your decision to “just get on with it.” Your family will weep most of those tears. Some of the cryings will come from parishioners who were harmed by unwise, youthful pastoral indiscretions, often innocent but deadly nevertheless. The rest of the tears will be your own.
I don’t want you to go down that unnecessarily hard road. Ministry is difficult enough without injecting our own sinful propensities into it. The unprepared pastoral life is a familiar road our ilk follow, but ‘tis a fateful thoroughfare littered with the fallen rocks-broken dreams of the unprepared. I don’t want that pain for you, and I don’t want the pain of pastoral mistakes for your family or for the local church. So, what if you were to take one year in your first call as campus minister to Big State University and prepare yourself through a planned residency? I have thought about this a great deal. As I watch you, I see so many reflections of myself at your stage in ministry. I guess I could be telling you a whole lot of things in the pastoral ministry that I did well. But I believe the Lord is wanting me to speak out of my own brokenness, my own failures, many of which are universal temptations and mistakes. And in that context, I want to urge you to consider the ministry of preparation. I want you to see it is something beyond seminary. I want you to see it is something that is not replacing theological higher education but is supplementing it, complementing it. I would no more want to go to a physician who skipped medical school if that were possible than to go to a highly educated physician who jumped residency.
So, that is the first thing that I think I want to say to you as we’re sitting here on the front porch: “Prepare my son, for a life of ministry. Your investment in preparation will likely save you from much pain and save your family from disruption and save the local church from yet another unnecessary wound.” She suffers enough from the persecution of antagonists. Let her not suffer the avoidable wounds of a zealous but untrained clergyman.
Now, do you want me to stop for just a while and let’s have a Coca-Cola? No? All right then. I can wait. But I’m getting a bit dry.
I’ll give you another piece of advice to chew on. And by the way, as you are chewing on “this cud,” you are going to have to keep chewing long after you’ve gone from this front porch. You need to take what I am giving you and bring it to the Lord. You need to see what will stick, that wisdom which is of God, or what will need to be discarded because it is of Man. Well, with that little disclaimer, let me give you something else I’ve been thinking about as I have been watching you.
Son, I know you have heard Solomon’s warning:
“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).
That truth is one of those recurring Biblical truths that “crops up” throughout the Word of God. For instance, we are warned in Isaiah,
“The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the LORD alone will be exalted in that day” (Isaiah 2:11).
Our Lord Jesus Christ said,
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14 ESV).
I’m not trying to throw a snowball of Scriptures at you. I’m not seeking to demonstrate that I have seen the sin of pride in you. To the contrary, I’ve seen no evidence of it. I like what I see. What I am saying, my dear boy is that pride is an ever-present occupational hazard for preachers and other ministers of the gospel. Such a statement should not be surprising to us. We are, as Paul, forever wrestling with “the old man” who persists in sitting on the throne of our lives reserved for Jesus our King. Of course, “the old man” is “the old nature,” the fallen nature, the residual poison of Adam’s rebellion surging through our physical and spiritual veins. The challenge for us is facing this inarguable reality.
My boy, for the preacher, pride comes in a variety of (nasty and potentially poison) flavors. And every one of them are wrong. Now, I told you that I want to talk with you out of my own failures and so I have to admit that I have struggled against this fleshly disease. Take an orphan boy, reared in poverty, from a backwoods home, and give him some education and a few opportunities and pretty soon the devil can back away just a little bit. Why? Well, I think you know the answer. Pride. If you were a devil on a mission to upend God’s plans, why get in the way of a prideful preacher who can do all the work for you? The young man that I just described to you, myself, is presenting all of the susceptible signs of reception to the highly aggressive germs of pride. For this reason, I began to see that whenever God chastened me or withheld an answer to prayer or replied with an answer that I did not like, I was exceedingly blessed. God knows us better than we know ourselves. How did the Psalmist put it?
“For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14 ESV).
So, this is what I would say to you:
Beware of existential scratches or bruises in the day-to-day course of ministry. Beware, also, of every perilous praise or lavish laud that comes to you. If the injury or the recognition appears publicly, then it only magnifies your spiritual system’s susceptibility to the hungry germ of pride. If you are hurt by someone in the church—usually lay leaders or colleagues—then you will “naturally” seek your own remedy to heal the pain. If you are granted a garland of flowers in achievement, then you will “naturally” want to claim that achievement as your own. “Natural” responses, reactions stemming from a fallen “nature” is the problem.
What does this look like? Pride can often come to a minister by way of a call to a new church. You have no doubt heard the old joke about the pastor at Second Presbyterian Church. He received an inquiry from a search committee at First Presbyterian Church, the larger congregation in his town. He went to his wife, and with unprejudiced and solemn seriousness, he advised, “Now, my Dear, we’re going to need to pray about this together.” The wife bowed her head. She waited for his familiar voice to begin, but she heard no prayer. She squinted one eye open, just wide enough, to see her husband scampering up the stairs. She looked confused. In astonishment, the pastor’s wife spoke, “What are you doing?” The impassioned pastor replied without pause, but with clerical confidence, “Honey, you go ‘head and pray about it while I start packing.”
Oh, my. Just re-telling that story hurts! It hurts because the moral of the story hits “too close to home!” How many times have I acted in pride, only to add, “Lord, bless this.” Son, thinking about that makes me want to rush to Jesus.
“Lord, forgive me” I pray. “Lord, keep this fine, newly ordained shepherd from such sin. Amen.”
Pride can also come whenever we feel that we are under attack. It is undoubtedly true that the Old Testament prophets would actually see and claim evidence of faithfulness in their call whenever they were persecuted. But that is a dangerous framework for you to employ. You are not a prophet like Jeremiah was a prophet. The truth is that sometimes we are “attacked” because we have made a mistake that hurt another. We might even have injured someone’s spirit by our insensitive words or our thoughtless actions. The truth may be, however, that the “attack” we so piously endure is merely the spontaneous reaction of a frightened, hurting person defending herself against one she perceives as the “mean, old pastor.” If this sounds confusing, it is. Pride is very infectious. In the little scenario, I just made up for you both sides fuel their defensiveness with pride. Whenever pride moves into a staff or a session (vestry, counsel, board, or name your governance-of-choice) the consequences can look like a B-grade science fiction movie. The unknown and unseen virus from outer space enters Earth creating unimaginable mutations. Cute little kittens metastasize into overgrown primeval tigers as big as Sherman tanks prowling through London. Tiny green grass snakes in the backyard garden can become serpentine monsters menacing Manhattan. I have seen both of these creatures often bragging about the size, influence, power, sophistication, theological prowess, and super-cool-humility as they do inter-galactic battle in the convention-center halls just outside of General Assembly. His pride often lures even the mild-mannered minister of a rural church into the battle of the behemoths. Raising his hand with an outstretched index finger to the heavens that witness his “wisdom,” the small-church pastor boasts, “’Do not despise the day of small things,’ gentlemen. We are small. This only proves our humility. Therefore, we are actually holier than thou.” And on it goes.
Now, Son, don’t think that I am painting a picture of what I see in you. I am not. I say, once more with loving urgency: guard the gospel in your own life.
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6 ESV).
The time of exaltation may not be in this life. That may be because it is better for you and the Kingdom. You could never take the praise here and deflect it appropriately to the Almighty. Oh, my son in Christ, be careful of this disease-carrying monstrosity. Kill pride with the power of the cross.
Now just saying “the cross” leads me to the last thing I want to tell you.
Every pastor, every preacher, every missionary, and every gospel worker must conduct the duties of their calling in the paradoxical power of the cross of Jesus Christ.
You will be tempted to rely on things like strategic mission conferences, surefire-no-fault-money-back-guaranteed guidelines to “get ‘em in the door.” You will come to think that a good sermon is altogether judged by its homiletical form. This will lead you to the purchase of innumerable volumes on homiletics ranging from new insights on how to exegete a passage to powerful, persuasive techniques used in the conclusion. Of course, it is all vanity. You can never keep up with the “cool factors.” They come and go like gnats in Savannah. Now, let me be clear: as a seminary professor who teaches subjects like missions, homiletics, and other classes in pastoral theology, I am not against good form. Indeed, I am very concerned about Order and form. I am not against strategic thinking. I am a student of strategic studies in matters of military science. It is useful. What I am concerned about, firstly, in my own life and ministry, is that I will begin to rely on these as sufficient to fulfill the ministry and the mission of God in the world. They are not. They are insufficient even though they may be helpful. The paradox of the gospel — the upside down, human syllogistic – destroying power that fuels and fires Gospel ministry is the application of the ruling motif of the cross of Jesus Christ. And what is that? It is exactly this: that the things which seek to destroy you become in the hands of a sovereign and loving God the very things that save you. The cross was an instrument of destruction that has become a sign of salvation. The cross was an emblem of shameful defeat that has become the symbol of glorious victory. That means that while we seek education, best practices, and the wisdom and insight of both quantitative and qualitative research, we recognize, as faithful ministers of the gospel, that these things alone cannot accomplish the mission of God in the world today. Physical implements will rust and decay before the presence of spiritual challenges. The devil will no more flee from your well-researched sermon illustration than a Grizzly will flee from a fly-swatter. To the contrary, a fly-swatter may just make the old bear madder, and it may just make old “Slew-foot,” Satan, laugh. I am not against fly-swatters nor good sermon illustrations. But the power that drives the devil away is the Lord Jesus: His name, His Gospel, and His life in ours.
Be careful, my Son. Be careful lest you preach the glory of the Cross but fail to trust in the power of the Cross.
Well, this may be just the time to say “enough.” When I told you that I wanted to speak to you based upon lessons that I have learned from my own mistakes I did not mean to imply that I only made three mistakes! Wow. No way. I made many others; some I don’t even know that I made. But one of the things that I have learned about God and myself is that my failures are also under the ruling motif of the cross. God’s mission in the world is not thwarted by my pride, my lack of preparation, or my failure to see the power of gospel paradox. In other words, I am not that important to getting God’s work completed. The promise of Jesus that he will build his Church and the gates of hell will not prevail does not swing or stop on the hinge of my faithfulness. On the other hand, my devotion does have an impact on my family and the parish ministry that I serve. God will accomplish his purposes. But will he do it with or without us?
I think if I could say one last thing to you it would be this: let patience be the divine bonding-agent that fuses together these other warnings. Be patient with others. Be patient with yourself. Be patient with God. Stillness can either be a sign of lethargy and unwillingness, or silence can be the evidence of peace and trust.
Above all, love God, love others, and trust that He will accomplish His will through the simple means He has left us—Word, Sacrament, and Prayer. Serenely trust in our sovereign Heavenly Father, our risen Lord Jesus Christ, and the paradoxical power of the Gospel supported by the gracious Holy Spirit as if your very life and ministry depended upon it.
Because, you know, it does. It does.
Okay. Do you still want that Coke? If you don’t mind, Son, bring me one, too. I like ‘em in those little ol’ green-glass bottles. I’ll be here on the porch.