It took God employing hardship for me to embrace the inescapable reality that everything I did in ministry was done in allegiance to, and in pursuit of, either the kingdom of self or the kingdom of God.
I didn't just give way to the temptation to let pastoral ministry become my identity. I fell into two other temptations as well. I let biblical literacy and theological knowledge define my maturity.
I was a pastor in the process of destroying his life and ministry, and I didn't know it. I wish I could say that my pastoral experience is unique, but I have come to learn in travels to hundreds of churches around the world that sadly, it is not. Sure, the details are unique, but I see in many pastors the same disconnect between the public persona and the private man.
I don't think you could say more dangerous words than those found in the Lord's Prayer. I don't think you could pray a more radical prayer. Probably most of us, even in ministry, would hesitate to say these words if we really understood what we were saying. We would at least pause before repeating this prayer if we clearly understood that we were actually inviting upheaval into our lives and ministries.
The longer you're in pastoral ministry, the more you move from being an astronaut to an archaeologist. When you're young, you're excitedly launching to worlds unknown. You have all of the major decisions of life and ministry before you, and you can spend your time assessing your potential and considering opportunities. It's a time of exploration and discovery. It's a time to go where you've never been before and do what you've never done. It's a time to begin to use your training and gain experience.
I want to begin this column with where the last one ended. We must be careful how we define ministry readiness and spiritual maturity. There is a danger in thinking that the well-educated and trained seminary graduate is ministry ready or to mistake knowledge, busyness, and skill with personal spiritual maturity.
I am convinced that many of the problems in pastoral culture result from an unbiblical definition of the essential ingredients of ministry success. Sure, most candidate profiles expect a "vibrant walk with the Lord," but these words are often weakened by a process that asks few questions in this area and makes grand assumptions. We're really interested in knowledge (right theology), skill (good preacher), ministry philosophy (will build the church), and experience (isn't cutting his pastoral teeth in this new place of ministry). I have heard church leaders, in moments of pastoral crisis, say many times, "We didn't know the man we hired."
Do you really know yourself as well as you think you do? I ended my last article asking you to consider the critical, progressive warning of Hebrews 3:12-13, paraphrased as, "See to it that none of you has an evil-unbelieving-falling away-hardened heart." It is a picture of what sin does if undetected, unexposed, and unforsaken. The process of heart hardening begins long before that hardness becomes obvious.
Pastor, have you ever asked the question, "Who am I, and what do I spiritually need?" Or have you ever thought about your pastor and asked, "Who's my pastor, and what does he need in order to remain spiritually healthy and to grow in grace?" Does it seem right and healthy to you that in many churches no one gets less of the ministry of the body of Christ than the pastor? Does it seem best to you that most pastors live outside of and above the body of Christ?
How does love of neighbor summarize all that God calls us to? The answer is both simple and profound. Those who love God above all else will love their neighbor as they love themselves.
For your ministry relationships to be healthy, you must have destructive and constructive zeal. I know that this sounds funny, but for these relationships to be what they were designed to be, there are things that need to be destroyed.
One thing you can know for sure pastor, is that in the course of your ministry you'll be sinned against. You'll be misunderstood, falsely accused, and unfairly judged. You can taste the sad harvest of relational détente that so many church staffs live in, or you can plant better seeds and celebrate a much better harvest. The harvest of forgiveness, rooted in God's forgiveness of you, is the kind of ministry relationship everyone wants.
This interpretive function is called hermeneutics. You and everyone you pastor carry around a personal life hermeneutic – that is, a particular way of making sense out of life. Our functional hermeneutic is what gives sense to our behavior.
Waiting for the Lord isn't about God forgetting you, forsaking you, abandoning the ministry he's called you to, or being unfaithful to his promises. It's actually God giving you time to consider his glory, grow stronger in faith, and grow in courage for ministry. Remember, waiting isn't just about what you're hoping for at the end of the wait, but also about what you'll become as you wait.
Desire is your biggest problem and one of God's sweetest graces. There's one thing for sure: your life and your ministry is always shaped by desire.
Now, this is where the problem lies: I'm convinced that many of us live and do ministry day after day without any awe whatsoever. We live days, maybe even weeks, without wonder and amazement even in gospel ministry. What should stun us doesn't stun us anymore. What should leave us in silent, amazed worship has become so familiar it barely gets our attention in the clutter of all the other things in ministry that command our attention.
The experts say that there are only three things to consider when buying a piece of property: location, location, location. The same could be said about life. When you understand location, you live and minister in a radically different way. Confused? Let me point you to four ways in which location matters.
The little moments of life are profoundly important because they are little. Little moments are the ones we live in every day. The character and course of a person's life isn't set in three or four grand, significant moments. No, the character of a person's life is shaped in 10,000 little moments. You carry the character formed in the mundane into those rare consequential moments of life.
Life in this fallen world is hard. It's easy, at the end of a long day of ministry, to try to numb or distract yourself by whatever temporary pleasure lies within reach. But it's important for you to remember that life and ministry in the fallen world are hard, not only for you, but also for everyone in your care.
Pastor, many things nip away at your attention and schedule. You know many people who love you and have a wonderful plan for your life. You know that many conflicting motivations, thoughts, and desires give shape to your life and ministry. Sometimes you lose sight of why you're doing what you're doing. So this question is vital: do you live with singleness of focus? Is your life and ministry shaped, structured, and directed by the pursuit of one glorious, fulfilling, heart-satisfying thing?
In order for sin to do its evil work, it must present itself as something that is anything but evil. Lust masquerades as a love for beauty. Gossip lives in the costume of concern and prayer. Craving for power and control wears the mask of biblical leadership. Fear of man gets dressed up as being a peacemaker or having a servant heart. Pride in always being right masquerades as a love for biblical wisdom.
Suffering must not, cannot be okay with us. Injustice must not, cannot be okay with us. The immorality of the culture around us must not, cannot be okay with us. The deceit of the atheistic worldview – the philosophical paradigm of many culture-shaping institutions – must not, cannot be okay with us. Righteous anger should yank us out of selfish passivity. Righteous anger should call us to join God's revolution of grace.
Called to represent God's work of grace in the lives of others, many of us in ministry need to reevaluate how we think about the anger of God. Sometimes we can treat God's anger like the embarrassing uncle in our extended family. It's as if we're working hard to keep this attribute of God away from public exposure.
In a world that has been terribly broken by sin, where nothing operates as was intended, and where evil often has more immediate influence than good, it would be wrong not to be angry.
Tom and Jim are two angry men whose lives are radically different, and whose angers produce radically different results. Tom is angry because he wants to be God, so he has reduced everything in his life down to the size of his little kingdom of one. His anger is leaving a legacy of fear, hurt, and separation. But Jim's anger honors God by putting God and his kingdom in their rightful place. Jim's anger is leaving a ministry legacy of love, compassion, provision, and healing.