A few years ago I read a few books on the life of President Richard Nixon. I have always been interested in American history, especially Presidential history. I’m fascinated by the inside look at leadership at the top levels.
But the one enduring lesson I gleaned from Nixon’s life was his inability to forgive. It ruined his entire leadership. Since he lost to John Kennedy in 1960 in an election that was possibly stolen from him, he vowed to never let anyone steal anything from him again. So even as he won two Presidential elections convincingly, that wasn’t enough. He was convinced all kinds of people were trying to sabotage him. He couldn’t enjoy his success, because he led from bitterness. It’s something that has sort of haunted me since. And now that I have been a leader of a church, am a husband, and a father, bitterness is something I must keep a check on.
The truth is all of us get hurt and hurt deeply, often by people close to us. Often it’s out of nowhere and we are completely blindsided. What do we do with this? Well as Christians we’re commanded to forgive as Christ forgave (Matthew 7:12; Ephesians 4:32). I’ve learned that it’s not so easy. You don’t just hit the Staples Easy button and forgive. It’s a process that God does in you as you draw close to Him. It’s a work the Spirit does in you. It can’t be faked.
Personally I have found it important to be in the Word of God consistently and in tune with good Bible preaching. It’s vital to have God’s Word speak into your soul. It’s also important to surround yourself with other people who won’t let you grow bitter.
Often your friends who stick up for you will want you to sort of fight back and will give you all kinds of excuses to be nasty. These friends don’t help you much. It’s the friends who will listen patiently to you, who will hear your concerns, will be defend you if necessary, but will gently and sometimes forcefully remind you of the duty of a Christian to forgive.
The bottom line is that when we gaze at the cross, we see the effect of our own sin. We see what we’ve done to Jesus Christ. It’s infinitely worse than any abuse I’ve suffered. And yet God through Christ forgave me.
Leaders must model this. We must set the tone, not just in our preaching, but in our conversations. Do we try to continually recruit folks to our side? Do we carry a chip on our shoulder around with us?
As leaders, we are responsible for the cultures we create. And when we lead from bitterness, we create fear, enemies lists, and an overall sense of negativity.
Which is why we must constantly remind ourselves that bitterness destroys. It destroys our own souls and it creates unhealthy spiritual climates for those God has called us to serve.
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It would be hard to find a more boring word in ministry circles than “balance.” There is a lot of talk about being “radical”, “edgy”, “relevant”, etc. But balance sounds rather unhip. But I’m finding this word may be the key to lifelong, steady, sustained ministry success.
There is a part of all of us in ministry that desperately wants to be noticed. And our American culture seems to celebrate such unbridled ambition. We want to be thought of as being successful, even if we cover it with a nice Jesus gloss and call it impact. And so pastors are on Twitter crafting statements they hope will be retweeted. Or we are coming up with more outrageous ways to have our message rise above the cultural noise. I’m guessing most of the time this comes from a pure heart: we want to see a lost world embrace Jesus and we’ll do anything to get them to notice.
But there is a cost to a sort of pragmatic, no-hold-barred, entertainment-is-the-answer approach. There’s a cost to pastors being outlandish, carnival barkers, a bit crazy. Sure, you’ll be seen as a different kind of pastor and you’ll likely get written up in the latest ministry magazines. You might get a lot of traffic to your website or land that coveted speaking engagement. But the cost is something valuable: credibility. Maturity. Pastors, as God’s representatives to His people, should, at the very least, be the adults in the room. We should be sober-minded, steady, strong. This is the kind of leadership every generation needs.
Now, to be balanced isn’t necessarily the same as being “safe.” To be “safe” is to shy away from the hard call of the gospel, it’s to seek our own comfort, it’s to bend our ear more frequently to the applause of the culture. To be safe is to do the same things, over and over again, without new results. To be safe is to preach only of the culturally acceptable parts of the Bible (love, forgiveness, justice, unity) and ignore those that sound like fingernails on a cultural backboard (Hell, sin, repentance, God’s wrath, morality, forgiveness, grace). In its own way, being the most obnoxious, radical, attention-seeking preacher is, in a way, safe. It’s safe because you create a lot of easy heat without much light. It’s safe because building a ministry by scheme and flash is a shortcut through a lot of hard, faithful, tireless ministry work.
There is something inside all of us who do public ministry that has to die. It’s the desire to be someone, something. I must fight this regularly with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in me. We must make Jesus Christ the story of our ministries. We must work hard to create cultures where the gospel, not the leader, is celebrated. We must ask ourselves, with every new, creative idea we have: is this to make me more famous, or is this to get other Christians talking about me? Or, does this have the intent of edifying the body of Christ and bringing those who don’t know Jesus to Him?
This is why balance matters. One of my best friends, a ministry mentor, Dr. Rich McCarrell of Byron Center Bible Church, says, “Balance is the elixir of ministry.” He has always cautioned me not to make one issue, one controversial position, one methodology the main thing. Keep Christ the main thing, he says, and that will give you wisdom in leadership.
As I look around the Church, I see that God has granted some of His servants favor and prominence. But mostly the Church is built by ordinary men and women, serving faithfully, day in and day out.
I know balance and maturity and boring old faithfulness are not the hot stuff of the Christian conference and publishing circuit. But they are vital, I think, for lifelong gospel ministry.
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One of the greatest joys I have every day is waking up knowing that the work the Lord has given me is unending. I will never for the rest of my life run out of work to do. That is a joy knowing that but it is also overwhelming. The other day a friend of mine and I were chatting about how ministry is overwhelming. While I’m not a Pastor, I am in training to become one, and minister in a wide variety of ministries inside and outside the local church, and often feel overwhelmed by all the ministry work I have to do. During the course of our conversation, we rightly noted that feeling overwhelmed isn’t a bad thing in fact it’s for our good that we do feel overwhelmed since it causes us to lean more upon Christ.
Ministry is a tough and light burden. Tough because ministering to people like ourselves who experience the effects of the Fall is hard work. Light because Christ carries our burdens but doesn’t remove the weight or heaviness of them. The weight is part of sanctification. God uses our ordinary circumstances as a hammer/anvil to conform His people into the image of Christ.
Jesus Himself experienced this heaviness in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Apostle Paul experienced this in the course of his ministry. Every faithful servant of God ought to feel every day that they are completely inadequate for the ministry. Such an attitude is not against the gospel but accurately reflects the heart of God in the work of the gospel ministry. Such an attitude also runs counter to current trends in ministry. In seminary, they focus in pastoral ministry classes on teaching you all about church administration and other relates topics to pastoral ministry. While this is great and needed, what’s even better is hands on training. Now I’m not against seminary here. This post is not a rant against seminaries. I am for going to seminary. I spent five years there and learned a ton. Yet, seminary should always be in the service not of academic accomplishments but in advancing the Kingdom of God and the work of the local church.
As my readers know, I read a lot. I believe reading is central to being in ministry. Reading godly books isn’t to take us away from regular Bible reading. Instead, regular Bible reading should lead us to want to read godly books. This is why Paul in his pastoral letters told his colaborers to bring his books and his cloak. Paul knew that part of being in ministry is regularly digesting godly material. Self-feeding is one of the best ways to be sustained in ministry. Ministry is hard work. Dealing with people’s issues on a regular basis is a privilege but it is also very taxing. It’s taxing on one’s emotions and on one’s spiritual life. It’s also taxing on one’s body. This is why ministry is a heavy burden. This is also why we need to understand that ministry is a light burden because of Christ who carries our burdens.
Each one of us is replaceable. This is good news that you’re replaceable. Yes as a pastor and a ministry leader you have a significant ministry in the local church and in the Body of Christ. But remember God spoke through a donkey. Remember God took King David out of the shepherd’s fields and made him King of Israel. Your ministry is significant, but Christ is preeminent and supreme. The supremacy of Christ ought to fill your thoughts each and every day; especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed by the work of the Lord. And as it does, you are beginning to understand what it means to truly serve the Lord not in your own strength but in the Lord’s strength.
In seminary, we’re taught a great deal about doctrine and theology. All of this is great. What is missing from seminary in my view is an emphasis on being okay with and embracing your weakness. We need to hear is that it is okay to be broken. It’s okay to admit our limitations. For many of us this is freeing. We need to hear that we’re only human, not superhumans going around ministering to people in our own strength. For some of us, we need to come to an end of ourselves. We need to hear that we’re replaceable. If we don’t then we run the risk of ministering in our own power, or worse, we run the risk of becoming burned out.
Part of the problem with the present training of future pastors is the emphasis on knowledge. You go to seminary because you want to gain more information and knowledge about the Bible. Now all of that biblical and theological knowledge is great. I have three degrees in theology including two Masters degrees. I greatly enjoyed my time in seminary and learned a ton. Through it I’ve had a lot of opportunities open up. With that said if I had to do it all over again, I would have done it very differently. I would have not gone via distance education to seminary. I would have gone to a seminary campus. There I could ask questions and learn from godly seasoned men. I was plugged into a church, but I believe men need to be on campus to be able to glean from their teachers and to be active in a local church preferably a small one while going to seminary.
Seminary students need to learn that the information dump they are getting in a seminary is so they can minister to real people who have real struggles. The struggle of seminary is the information dump. We gain so much information in such a short time that it can short circuit our spiritual growth. In fact, it can make us think we’re so “intellectual” that we don’t need help. Such a view is short-sighted. I can say with full authority that this is the case because I am describing myself and many others who have gone through seminary. In my experience, it took me almost three years to get out of this mindset. And when I say three years I’m talking about the last three years of my life post-seminary. I was so focused on academic knowledge in seminary; while at the same time writing and speaking that I missed the point. Also, I didn’t realize this until fairly recently but I’ve seen this mindset in the lives of others who have gone to seminary.
What does all of this have to do with ministry being tough and a light burden? Everything. At all times, Christ is present with us. He is drawing near to us at all times. After all, He walks alongside us and also goes before us. He bids us to come to His throne to find mercy and help in time of need. He invites us to come to Him who was tempted in every way and did not sin when we are tempted to despair and fall into sin. To admit that ministry is tough is to acknowledge that Christ is sufficient to meet your need. To admit that Christ is enough is to be satisfied in Him.
Christ is enough for us who are serving in His vineyard. The laborers are few and the work is hard. It’s hard because of the Fall. It takes hard gospel work to see fruit in people’s lives. In fact in order to see fruit, God has to do the work. Even then we may not see it as God sees it. We also may not even see it at all. Yet in the midst of all of this is Christ. His invitation still stands to come to Him, all you who are heavy laden and find rest in Christ. Not only rest but also holiness. Christ is our rest and our holiness. So go to Him who bids you come. There you’ll grow in Him who’s called you, and from there you’ll be able to rest in Him, and strive for holiness in Christ alone without which no one will see the Lord.
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the calling of a Christian communicator. This could be your duties as a writer, whether blogs or books or articles. Or it could be your task as a preacher or teacher, whether in small group, pulpit ministry, or classroom.
To communicate the truth of the good news of the gospel, in any form, is a high privilege and a sober calling. I’m always mindful of James 3, which outlines the seriousness of the calling and the negative and positive effect of the words we craft.
So I came up with five resolutions that we might consider:
1) I will communicate well to serve others, even if I never become famous. To seek a wider audience is not wrong. Ambition, properly exercised under the Lordship of Christ, is not evil, and is good. But it may be God’s will that my books never reach the NYT bestseller list. It may not be God’s will that I become a popular conference speaker and pastor a church in the Outreach top 200 list. God may be more glorified in my obscurity and I need to be okay with that, if after my best efforts, I achieve only a small modicum of what we call success. Regardless of the size of my audience, I’m called to fully exercise my gifts. I’m called to serve well those God has called me to serve.
2) If I do achieve fame, I won’t become an entitled jerk. If the Lord does grant me “success” or “fame”, will I leverage that to fulfill my own desires or will I use that to better serve others? God does indeed grant fame and fortune to some. The test is, “What will you do with that fame?” Will I become a diva, a star, a demanding selfish man who sees himself as above the rules? Or will I stay humble, soft, sensitive, serving? I must resolve now to refuse the entrapments of fame that sink so many men and women. I must not view others as means to my own satisfaction and pleasure. I must value relationships above advancement. I must not overly personalize criticism and own my ministry to an extent that I see people God loves as enemies instead of friends. I must forgive easily and repent quickly.
3) I’ll carefully weigh every word I speak or write, all to the glory of God. Will I leave a body of work I can be proud of? Will I never forget the exalted position I hold? Will I do one more tiresome edit to ensure that I’m communicating clearly? Will the words I write and the sermons I preach have lasting value? Will others be able to read them, years hence, and still find nuggets of gospel gold? I must approach sermons and books and articles and blogs less as a job to be done and more as brushstrokes on a canvas. I must endure that one more edit to ensure I’ve said what the Spirit has led me to say. I must avoid being flippant in the pulpit, lazy at the keyboard, overly casual in conversation. I must pray, as Paul did, for increasing clarity (Colossians 4:3-4).
4) I’ll never stop learning. Whatever success I gain, I must not regard that as confirmation of my own brilliance, as the end of the road of wisdom. I must stay humble. I must stay teachable. I must realize that the more knowledge I gain about God and His world, the more there is to know. I must not allow my mind to grow soft and unchallenged. Will I consider myself the expert at everything and thereby shut off the flow of wisdom? Or will I consider myself, always, to the end, a student, a learner, a pupil at the feet of Jesus? Will I continue to read and grow and learn and stretch? Or will I allow my own flawed opinions to grow hardened and calloused over time?
5) I’ll never lose the awe and wonder of communicating for God. To write or speak or teach or even whisper in the dark about the unsearchable riches of God’s grace is a high and lofty privilege. Nobody owes me a platform. Nobody owes me a book contract or pulpit or teaching position. Every new opportunity to minister is a privilege. The gift I’ve been given is not one of my own choosing or making, it’s been granted by God and can, at any time, be taken away. Any work of art I create should point, not to me, the simple intermediary, but to the Creator who designs the artist and commissions the art. May I never think that my life was my own idea, that my work was my own genius. May I always bow in humble gratitude to the One who formed me.
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In the section on ‘The Manner of This Oversight’ in the Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter makes the profound statement, “Study hard, for the well is deep, and our brains are shallow.” The pursuit of sound biblical knowledge ought to be the goal of every Christian, especially the pastor. Among the many weekly responsibilities, the task of studying – I’m convinced – is one of the most important in pastoral work. As one called by God to proclaim His Word he must be devoted to the study of the Word. At the heart of studying is the discipline of reading. Every minister knows that sitting in their study among their books brings a deep sense of joy plowing the depths of truth. There is also a startling realization that in his finite mind he doesn’t know nor can he comprehend all there is about the particular subject he is studying. Whether it is exegesis, theology, or history the quest for truth begins with humility as one seeks to explore what ancient and contemporary authors have to say concerning a subject.
So Much to Read and So Little Time
Ecclesiastes 12:11-12, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”
As I began my undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies I soon found out that I had to cultivate a discipline for reading. This was intensified in graduate work. I remember that According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy was the first academic work I read for a hermeneutics class my freshman year. It was at this point that Biblical Theology seized my attention. I jumped straight into the deep end, swimming in the waters of authors and arguments forgetting to catch my breath at times. As a result I began to neglect the most important book – The Holy Bible. The axiom that the Preacher wrote several centuries ago, “much study wearies the body” is true if one completely replaces their reading of Scripture with books teaching us how to read Scripture. Studying must begin with the daily discipline of reading Scripture.
Cultivating a Healthy Reading Discipline
Here are a few suggestions that might help in cultivating a healthy reading discipline:
First, make Scripture the Priority. When Scripture speaks, God speaks. At the heart of every sermon, every ministerial visit, every devotional time must be Scripture. This is the first principle for cultivating a healthy pastoral reading discipline. All the books in your library are subordinate to Scripture. Indeed the commentaries may give you insight into the text but Calvin’s commentary on Ephesians is not the biblical text written by the Apostle Paul. It does not carry the same weight. Being called to pastor solidified this conviction in my own life. I am called by God’s grace to feed God’s people with His Word, therefore I must be fed myself from that Word. Academic, Christian living, and other genres of books can only go so far in edifying your Christian growth in the truth. Give yourself to Scripture. Soak in it. Follow the example of the blessed man in Psalm 1:1-2 who delights and meditates on the Law of God.
Second, make time to read. There are some books that are a must for a pastor to read. There are many books that simply take up time that could be used for something more productive. Time management is important for a pastor, especially those of us who are serving bi-vocationally. For me personally with family, church, work, and graduate school my time is very limited. That is why I must make time to read. If you are “trying to find time” you probably won’t find it. Set aside time in the morning to read a few pages. Use your lunch break at work to skim the material. When your kids go to bed take that time to make your way through a chapter. Planning to read requires a disciplined use of time to read.
Third, read good material. Read books that contain good material that will edify your spiritual growth. This was the issue I faced during my early Christian walk. I didn’t realize it at first but the first few books I read as a Christian were in error theologically. This caused me to realize that not all books are created equal. Be disciplined a make a list of good books to read. Ask other ministers about their favorite books. If you don’t know what to read check out these recommendations.
Fourth, read different genres of good material. Regarding the previous suggestion I’m not advocating we dismiss the works of Charles Dickens for John Owen because The Death of Death is more spiritual than Tale of Two Cities. The “secular and sacred” divide are simply false dichotomies. On the contrary, I’m convinced that there is an intrinsic beauty in good literature that reflects the glory of God (see Echoes of Eden by Barr). To be honest I’ve read so-called “Christian books” that left me spiritually dry due to the poor material, while I’ve read T.S. Eliot poems that have greatly encouraged me. Choosing good books will edify you, whether it is a work of fiction or non-fiction. The best thing for pastors might be to put down the latest theological publication and pick up a biography or a work by Hawthorne.
Finally, whatever you do – just read. Spurgeon once said,
“Give yourself unto reading. The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. You need to read.”
We live in a culture where biblical and literary ignorance is rampant. Unfortunately many pastors pride themselves on their lack of education due to their lack of reading as a model to be followed. As a result the Church is producing people who know very little about biblical truth and who lack the desire to grow in that truth. Therefore, pastor, set the example for your people by your reading. Don’t wave the flag of “I’m more spiritual than you because I read more than you.” Instead humbly speak about what you are reading. Recommend books. Give your people books. Dare I say let your people borrow books from your own library! Whatever you do pastor, read, and encourage others to do the same.
An Appeal to Read for the Glory of God
God created the heavens and earth with His Word, Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh, and the Holy Spirit inspired men to write the Word. It follows then that we must be people who read and obey this Written Word as it bears witness to the Living Word. God by His grace has provided His Church with teachers, pastors, and scholars who have devoted their lives to explore the depths of Scripture and produce God honoring material. Those of us in the ministry would be wise to humble ourselves by acknowledging “our brains are shallow” and explore truth by reading for the glory of God. In the words of Alistair Begg, “Read yourself full!”
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Many of us have a tendency to view God a bit too much like Monty Hall…or Wayne Brady if you prefer.
What I mean is that we see God as one who gives us a few tantalizing options. If we pick the right door then we’ll live in His “blessings”. But if we pick the wrong door we’ll end up zonked with a diarrhetic goat.
The younger we are in our faith the more likely we are to view God like Monty Hall. I’ve especially noticed this in working with teenagers. They stress out (and in someway rightly so) about big decisions like where to go to college, who to marry, how to get rid of zits, and what career to strive for.
For this stage in life having a godly mentor is invaluable. At 22, John Ryland Jr. found himself stressed out about who to marry. He thought he had figured it out but was sorely rejected by the young lady. In the midst of his discouragement he turned to his mentor—John Newton (See pp.88-97 in Wise Counsel for free here as Letter 7).
Newton’s response teaches us a good deal about mentoring. I want to highlight four things.
1. A good mentor will help you see God’s hand.
Ryland was undoubtedly taken aback by his rejection. When you feel like you know the direction God is leading you and then the way is suddenly closed up it can be quite disorienting. We need wise people in our lives to help us see God’s hand.
Here is how Newton counseled Ryland:
Worldly people expect their schemes to run upon all fours, as we say, and the objects of their wishes to drop into their mouths without difficulty and if they succeed they of course burn incense to their own drag and say “This was my doing”. But believers meet with rubs and disappointments which convince them that if they obtain any thing it is the Lord must do it for them.
For this reason I observe that he usually brings a death upon our prospects even when it is his purpose to give us success in the issue. Thus we become more assured that we did not act in our own spirits and have a more satisfactory view that his providence has been concerned in filling up the rivers and removing the mountains that were in our way. Then when he has given us our desire how pleasant is it to look at it and say “This I got not by my own sword and my own bow but I wrestled for it in prayer I waited for it in faith. I put it into the Lord’s hand and from his hand I received it.”
2. A good mentor will accentuate the positive.
Ryland was in a good deal of pain about this rejection and likely felt a bit like a failure. And so Newton found words of encouragement for him. He reminded Ryland that God had enabled him “to commit and resign your all to his disposal”. In response to this Newton said, “You did well”.
Without a good mentor we’ll be tempted to see things in black and white. Our failures will be complete and our successes will be without blemish. A good mentor speaks reality into our successes and failures.
3. A good mentor will shine a light on your future steps.
If a blind man leads a blind man they’ll both fall into a pit. This is why its silly for a teenager to counsel a fellow teenager about the future. Neither of them have lived it. We need people who have lived what we are going through now to help us see what the future looks like. Newton does this for Ryland when he says this:
If I judge right you will find your way providentially opened more and more; and yet it is possible that when you begin to think yourself sure something may happen to put you in a panic again. But a believer, like a sailor, is not to be surprised if the wind changes, but to learn the art of suiting himself to all winds for the time; and though a poor sailor is shipwrecked, the poor believer shall gain his port. O it is good with an infallible Pilot at the helm, who has the wind and weather at his command!
Newton had walked the path that Ryland was now on. And as a good mentor he helped him see what might be coming his way next.
4. A good mentor will consistently reassure you of their love.
I love the way Newton ends his letter to Ryland on this topic. After sharing how busy he has been he says,
“If I did not love you well, I could not have spared so much of the only day I have had to myself…But I was willing you should know that I think of you and feel for you, if I cannot help you.
If nothing else a good mentor will help you realize that you aren’t alone. He/she is going to walk with you no matter what direction you take. It’s good to know that someone loves you deeply and cares for you. Good mentors aren’t shy with sharing their devotion to you.
We need good mentors. And we need to be good mentors. There is a good chance that you are Ryland to someone and Newton to someone else. Be a mentor with these qualities. Likewise seek out mentors with these qualities.
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