You have heard the old adage, “I must catch up with the others for I am their leader.” Often preachers feel like this. I know that I do.

After I was called from the parish to the academy as President and Chancellor of a seminary, I sat at my new desk, the first morning after reporting, and thought, “Well I am the President. So, now what do I do?” This was not an especially new situation for me. I have asked the question as a seminarian, a church planter, pastor, professor, and Army chaplain. This is not pseudo-humility on parade. This is a confession of a sinner saved by grace and called to preach the gospel I once blasphemed. “Lord, how do I do this? How do I fulfill my ministry?”

You might ask, “Okay, now I am ordained. What to do next?” Or, perhaps, you have been selected to lead a Sunday School class or a small group. “Okay, Lord, I prayed for this. Now what?”

To answer that question I go to 1 Thessalonians 2.17-20. The solution within the Scripture contains the critical essence of leadership in the Body of Christ.

Let us read the inerrant and infallible Word of the Living God.

“But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2.17-20).

Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20 are interrogative pastoral theology that leads to contented pastoral practice.

The Reverend Dr. Miroslav Volf of Yale has written eloquently on the matter of “Remembering.”[1] In one of his books, Dr. Volf recalled the atrocities he witnessed in his childhood in the Bosnian-Serbian conflict. But in remembering the people and places and times, these ghostly images of the past became morsels of grace. The pain was transformed into prayer. His memories became a motif for gospel ministry. His demonstrated commitment to peace, to dialogue, and to healing through the gospel of Jesus Christ was born out of a personal experience of incalculable suffering.

God remembers. Think about what that means. He remembers.  The Psalmist gloried in God’s memory: “He has remembered His covenant forever, The word which He commanded to a thousand generations” (Psalm 105:8). Surely, the word for remember means what it says. But with God, it means something infinitely more than we can define. The entry in the Anchor Yale Bible opines about God and memory:

There may be no theory of memory, but there surely is remembering; indeed, the Scriptures are full of references to memory and remembrance. And it is clear that it will not do to define memory as “the preservation of perception” (Pl. Phlb. 34a) or “the permanence of an image regarded as the copy of the thing it images” (Arist. Mem. 451a). Such definitions do not do justice to the scriptural usage of Heb zākar, Gk mimnēiskomai, and their cognates by confining memory to things of the past. In Scripture, things in the present (e.g., Col 4:18)—and even in the future (e.g., Eccl 11:8; Heb 11:22)—can be “remembered.”[2]

God remembers the future.

Of course, in His mercy, God also remembers no more: “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12). That feat is equally as incomprehensible and even more inscrutably merciful. The Holy Scriptures instruct each of us to remember, to reflect rightly about God and His saving grace in our lives.

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth . . .” (Ecclesiastes 12:1);

“Remember the law of My servant Moses . . .” (Malachi 4:4);

“Remember what the Apostles of our Lord foretold . . .” (Jude v. 17).

Is such recapitulation necessary because the activity of remembering is so difficult? Yes.

We cannot remember as God remembers. But our minds can recapture a truth so well that it can the reconstructed scene, or words can create a physiological response. Just go to your local VA hospital for about an hour. You will see lots of remembering. But we also remember the good. I look at my son who is twenty-four, and I remember the first time I held him. I remember. And there is a response deep inside of me. I dare say that if one took my blood pressure or heart rate, it would reveal, like a polygraph, that my entire body is reacting to that memory. But researchers say that a chemical impression is made when we experience some things and not others. Events that scored a “chemical notation” on our brains are imminently more powerful than, say, recalling whether the bus driver wore a mustache or not on a bus ride in 1973.

I dare say that technology for all of its good has charged a high price for its convenient services. One of those many invoices is time. It will take it but it will not give it back. When we invest hours searching for information on Bing or Google—can we agree that it is not that important if we discover how many years Kevin Bacon has been married to Kyra Sedgwick (they were married in 1988; don’t look that up, I just did and lost my concentration; but, hey, now I know)— the effort leaves precious little time for remembering and reflecting. Volf would argue that a vacuum of memory is a recipe for mistakes, a dark roux of tragedy.

Remembering in itself has no inherent spiritual value. But memories that are sifted through the sieve of God’s grace become fine delicacies for the pantry of life. Such memories are powerful instruments for good.

Transitions and Remembering

Transitions are a time for theological reflection, critical thinking, and holy memories.  Of course, change—waiting, shifting, and moving from one season of life to another—is one of those unavoidable experiences that doesn’t bother asking, “Are you ready?” When transitions come into your life, you straddle two worlds: the familiar and the unknown. As I look back, each turning point in ministry was a time not only of change but of opportunity for deepening my relationship with the Lord. It was so when I was called to be a seminary president. My wife, young adolescent son, and I trod a treacherous ledge between parish life in a downtown church to nonprofit parachurch ministry as a seminary president. Transitions are milestones in life that can either deposit carefully arranged stones of remembrance or scattered, unrecoverable pieces of ourselves in a wasteland.

To pick up where we left off on remembering: transitions, for better or worse, are one way to get that “chemical burn” effect in your gray matter. Trauma and unbridled joy both seem to do it. And both of those emotional extremes are frequently present in transitions. Oh, let me use that other word: change. Yes. Change burns.

I know that some of you did not expect to be on the path you are on today. Walking in darkness, you seek some slither of sunlight. You are a frightened child lunged and lost in an unexpected forest, with ancient vines, and thorny bushes obscuring the well-worn trail of others before you to a place called widowhood. Or, it may be that your life is strewn between the prosaic patterns of work, often a source of frustration, and the unsettling sameness of retirement, formerly an object of daydreams. Like so many of you reading this, I have known the no-man’s land of waiting for a lab report.

There is no end to the possibilities and inevitabilities of transition.

But to play on John Piper’s phrase, we might encourage each other: “Don’t Waste your Transitions.”[3]  Easier said than done. However, we remember: “But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 KJV).

Recently, I have been thinking about a passage that has been a friend, a guide and a way to make sense of transitions. The Scripture in mind is 1 Thessalonians 2.17-20. Paul, “The Apostle of the Heart Set Free” as F.F. Bruce called him, reflected on the meaning of transitions, interruptions, and ministry.[4] Paul used an instance of a diabolical activity that interrupted his ministry plans to reflect on the people he wanted to minister to, as well as the meaning of his ministry with a congregation where he had planted a church after leaving Philippi in the capital of Macedonia. His reflections on ministry help us to sort through the changing seasons and maybe to even make sense of it all.

Paul’s reflections include an inevitable, difficult reality in both ministry and the Christian life.

There is a pain in the pastoral ministry.

For Paul said that he “longed” for the saints at Thessalonica. He wanted to be with them. He knew his place was with them, his calling was to them, and his heart was for them. Paul loved the Bride of Christ.

The pain that Paul speaks of is pain from pastoral love.

You can’t do ministry without being face-to-face. Paul longed to see the flock of Christ to whom he had been called. He had them in his heart. St. Paul prayed for the Thessalonian church without ceasing, and always giving thanks (1:2). He reflected on what ministry was like with them in chapter two. But he was not with them. And this hurt.

My beloved, one thing you need to know is that there is, in fact, a pain in ministry. And part of the pain is being torn apart.

I think that one of the hardest things I have ever done in ministry is to depart from the First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. I had been called to lead a seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary. The process of discernment had taken up to nine months. The night before the board’s final vote on my call, my wife and I broke down in tears at a Wednesday evening fellowship at church. No one knew why, at that time. One elder figured it out. I almost said “no” that night. A pastoral colleague told me that I had to do it.

Through the years, I have known extraordinary pain in my separation from my flock in Chattanooga. Chemical burn in the brain? You bet. This is the PTSD of ministry. Over the years, I have grieved my separation from churches I had planted in Kansas, in Georgia, and, now, in North Carolina, as I turn over the pastorate to a younger and healthier shepherd. I can also say that I loved my students. I miss my students (some, perhaps, who are reading this). I miss my colleagues in seminaries where I served.

But can it be any other way? “Yes,” you say. “Just don’t ever leave.” That is another thought for another essay. But when Christ calls us to a more apostolic ministry of founding, evangelizing, leading; then, even when we hear His voice through internal and external variables that may fail us, we do our best and go. And when we do, if we love, do we not hurt when we have been “torn asunder?” You know that phrase, don’t you? This is what Dr. John Fawcett (1739-1817) wrote in 1772 when he was called to another church. His small Baptist church at Wainsgate, England gathered around him and his wife as their carriage was packed to move and they all began to weep. And so the pastor could not take it. He told to unpack the wagon. And he stayed on there, sensing God’s will. And he wrote:

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above. And verse four is so poignant: When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.[5]

Of course, sometimes you don’t unpack. Paul didn’t. And neither did Spurgeon when he was called from the little congregation of Cambridgeshire to the great New Park Street Church, which became Metropolitan Tabernacle.[6] Sometimes you don’t unpack. You go forward. You meet new people. You accept new challenges. But you just never forget that you were called from somewhere and you will be called to somewhere else. For many, not all, the life of ministry is a life of servitude resulting in “leaving.” You don’t get used to it. You always feel the pain. Because love is like that. And the love of a pastor for his flock is nurtured in common life in Christ, in worship, in times of joy and sadness, in looking to God together for it all. If our people could see into the secret lives of our pastors and their families, they would find this pain. But if you are wondering “Why is he telling us about his pain in pastoral ministry?” Then I will tell you. It is this: love is all there is. “Love alone is credible.”[7]

Pastoral love will bring pain and passion. Pastors and People grow in our love of Jesus and our dependence upon Him and in our love for each other in Christ so that when we part, there is that pastoral pain that testifies to something—Someone—tethering our lives together.

There is also pain from diabolical opposition.

Paul was hindered because of Satan. The Evil One did not want the pastoral love of the pastor and parishioners to be realized. Because when that happens the kingdom of God comes, and the kingdom of Satan diminishes. Love destroys evil. Love exposes the pride of the devil and the diseases of the soul in our own lives. Satan seeks to deploy his legion of hellish agents to destroy, disfigure, or deny Christian love.

I remember one of my professors told me, “If you preach Christ and His gospel and there is no opposition, then you are probably not preaching the Gospel of Paul.”[8] And I have found that to be true. Spiritual warfare is a reality in the pastoral ministry and in the Christian life if you are taking a stand for Christ. I long to know that we are doing the Lord’s work and to be reminded and to remind you all that this is not just another graduate school of religion we have here. This is a School of the Prophets. This is the seedbed for the coming Kingdom of Jesus Christ. From these classrooms, you will feed on the Word from men who have been with God, whose lives are not their own, but who have been called to teach faithful men who will teach other faithful men to preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus to set human beings free.

As I sat at my desk one day as a seminary president, I thought about this. And I prayed these words (that I have found in my journal):

“O God deliver me from a heart that would be seduced into thinking that raising money is about raising money and raising up pastors for spiritual warfare. Deliver me from thinking that recruiting students is about padding our reputation rather than gathering soldiers for the fight. Deliver me from thinking that we are safe as long as we have financial support. Help me to see that our only covering comes from the anointing of Jesus Christ. And help me to pray down God’s anointing and blessing on this place. Help me to pray for our faculty and our students. Help me to pray for my colleagues, lest I think that I can do it alone.”

There is a pain in ministry: the pain of pastoral love and of course the pain of diabolical opposition. But a more significant pain would be to live a life free from love, and a life that is so spiritually dead that no resistance is really needed.

For Paul, pain led to prayer and prayer infused passion. Reflecting on pain leads to rejoicing in the opportunity to do those things that might bring us pain.

There must be a great passion for ministry.

There must be a passion for the purpose of our ministries. And Paul’s great desire, his great vision, was that the people he ministered to would one day be, to quote Fanny Crosby, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.”  God would be greatly glorified by His saints being brought home to him. In some way, through is faithfulness to the Gospel ministry; the Lord would bring this about.

Some years ago when Dr. James Dobson had a heart attack, he lay dying, he thought. And he brought his wife and his two children before him, and he said to them these two simple words: “Be there.”[9] And in those words, you could see the passion of that man’s life. He loved his family. But he had a goal: that they should be safe in the arms of Jesus. And that is the great goal of my ministry for the churches where I have pastored. And I have thought that it is my passion for this work: that you are there. Francis Schaeffer used to say to the incoming students, “If you do not love Jesus more when you leave here than when you came here then one of us has failed.” My beloved, I want you not only to love Jesus more, but I also pray that through this seminary, you will be sent forth to have that passion for Christ’s flock, wherever God sends you. “Be there.” That is what Paul wanted. But this was not just a passion for a goal but a passion for people.

There must be a passion for people in our ministries. Paul says, “For you are our glory and joy.”

I was orphaned as a child. I was adopted by my Aunt Eva and reared as “her boy.” Aunt Eva had no other children. And when she was a widow of 65, she received a package of a 9-month-old little fellow to bring up. I cannot imagine any greater parent than Aunt Eva. I will never forget at her funeral, someone came to me and said, “I used to watch Aunt Eva watch you. And when she looked at you, she smiled inside and out.” I was her glory and joy.[10]

And I think that is something like what was happening with Paul. He smiled inside and out at the thought of being with his flock. We too smile inside and out when we consider those who have come to Christ in our lives, our ministries. We smile as we recall those people who took the bread and cup from our hands. We smile as we think of those dear people who went under the covenant waters of baptism in our ministries.

And that is what I pray that God will do in our lives together. I pray that the Lord will send out missionaries from here that love the people of the nation where God has called them. I pray that teachers will love their students as they leave here to go and teach. And I pray that pastors will smile inside when they confirm a little child in the faith or hold a man heaving tears as he loses his wife to cancer.

I have held the trembling, Palsy-struck hands of an old woman of faith, trying to lift the New Passover cup to her lips, and spilling sticky salvation all over herself (as I believe that Craig Barnes once described that familiar scene in ministry). I think of those times, and I say to myself, “The tremoring woman of God is my glory and my joy. She is why I am here.”

And so Paul dreamt dreams that we sometimes have in our better moments: dreams of our lives together in Christ, through pain, and with passion.

Reverend John Fawcett ended his little song with words that really hit me hard as I sat thinking of my time in ministry:

This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives,
And longs to see the day.

That is the vision for ministry together: “to see the Day.” For on that Day that Paul looked forward to, that we, too, strive for, there will be a multitude of people safe in the arms of Jesus as a result, in some way, by the ministry God established through us.

We who have been appointed as ambassadors of Word, Sacrament, and Prayer minister through pain, with passion. It is inescapable. But we will see our reward when those for whom we labored, and their progeny in faith, are gathered to the arms of Jesus on that glorious Day. It is inevitable. It is closer that when I began writing this essay. And it is worth it all.

[1] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006).

[2] Allen Verhey, “Remember, Remembrance,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 667.

[3] John Piper Don’t Waste Your Cancer (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011).

[4] F. F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids; Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Eerdmans ; Paternoster Press, 2000).

[5] A. R. Wells, A Treasure of Hymns: Brief Biographies of One Hundred and Twenty Leading Hymn-Writers with Their Best Hymns (United Society of Christian Endeavor, 1914), https://books.google.com/books?id=9ZJGAQAAMAAJ.

[6] A. A. Dallimore, Spurgeon: A New Biography (Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), https://books.google.com/books?id=zdAJAAAACAAJ.

[7] H. U. von Balthasar Love Alone Is Credible (Ignatius Press, 2016), https://books.google.com/books?id=dPuaDgAAQBAJ.

[8] That was Dr. Robert L. Reymond, Sr.

[9] D. Buss, Family Man: The Biography of Dr. James Dobson (Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), 23. https://books.google.com/books?id=7c3oYAv4qNsC.

[10] M. A. Milton and R. Reymond, What God Starts, God Completes: Gospel Hope for Hurting People (Christian Focus Publications, 2007), https://books.google.com/books?id=ma4FHwAACAAJ.