Ministry in the life of the church is both a blessing and a heartache. There are surprising triumphs of grace and there are gut-wrenching rejections of it. We tend to want to focus on the one rather than the other. However, when we read the Apostle Paul we see that he actually focuses on both. In a letter aimed to encourage Timothy to be a faithful pastor who fans into flame his gifting (2 Tim. 1:6) and fulfills his ministry (2 Tim. 4:5) the intentional reference of the “good” and the “bad” must be seen as helpful tools for this aim.
Remember the Tragedies of the Gospel
In his second letter to Timothy the Apostle is trying to get the young, somewhat timid, and reluctant pastor to faithfully persevere. In each chapter however, he includes a monument of apostasy and / or disappointment (1:15, 2:17, 3:1-9, 4:10, 14). In the first chapter he references Phygelus and Hermogenes and their public apostasy. Along with them, all others in Asia turned away from him. This must have been tremendously discouraging for the Apostle. Yet, he points it out to Timothy.
In any case Paul saw the turning away of the Asian churches as more than a personal desertion; it was a disavowal of his apostolic authority. It must have seemed particularly tragic, because a few years previously, during Paul’s two and a half years’ residence in Ephesus, Luke says that ‘all the residents of Asia’ heard the word of the Lord and many believed (Acts 19:10). …
Years ago I was listening to a talk on church planting and the speaker was talking about discouragement in ministry. As he did he spoke of the high expectations from the church planter. He expects great things—fast! And what happens when the gap between reality and expectations only seems to grow wider? Discouragement, discontentment, despair, and even thoughts of quitting begin to grow like weeds in a neglected garden. It was a good word for me then and it remains so today.
Some weeks back I wrote about how the prosperity gospel has infiltrated our thinking. It is not just the chaos of Benny Hinn “slaying” people it is also the chaos of a heart that is fixed on getting physical things rather than spiritual, things of this life rather than the life to come. I believe there is a connection between expectations and prosperity thinking. More to the point, I believe that prosperity thinking has drifted into the pastoral ministry more than we care to realize it. And we see it with our expectations.
My Expectations Were Way Off
I’ll just go ahead and put myself out there and perhaps you will benefit. I’ve been in full-time ministry now for just over 10 years. I’ve had some bad days and some really bad days. But, overall it has been pretty positive. I don’t have anything worth complaining about. But guess what? I have complained. And do you know why? Among other things, my expectations for ministry were out of …
One of the longings of young pastors is to spend time with older, seasoned men who have run the race well, and then stand close to the finish line full of zeal and focus. If you are privileged to have this type of interaction you will be greatly refreshed and encouraged.
This is what William Still did for me. Though he is now in heaven and I have never met him, his book The Work of the Pastor is a great blessing to me.
Still was the pastor at Gilcomston South Church of Scotland, Aberdeen for over 50 years! His ministry impact shows today through men like Sinclair Ferguson. Still worked closely with Ferguson in his teenage years until Pastor Stills died in 1997.
We want results. And we want them fast. The trouble is we often have to wait. Whether in traffic, at the deli counter, at the pharmacy, at a restaurant, in a conversation, or for a website to load–we have to wait for things.
This is a problem for most of us. We tend to not like to wait. Conditioned by the technological improvements of our microwave society we have a reflex where we feel entitled expediency.
As a pastor I feel this pinch of impatience in a pronounced way. Pastors work all week-long putting their heart, mind and souls into their teachings for the week. Every time we open the Bible to preach God’s Word we feel as though it is the most important thing that we have ever said and will ever say. Preaching and teaching the Bible is an urgent and important matter. Like the Old Testament prophets we have a tremendous burden from the Lord that needs to be preached, heard, received and applied.
But here is the tension: we go to bed on Sunday night and wake up Monday morning and nothing has changed. We meet with the same people during the week and they seem like the same people. We see them again on the next Lord’s Day and they still seem the same. We want to microwave sanctification but we can’t. It takes time, oftentimes a lifetime.
This is why one of the most important decisions that the preacher will make each week will come on Sunday …
This is a question that I get regularly. It is so encouraging that people are hungry to read and to do so in a way that does not cripple their budget. Here are my thoughts in working through it.
When I first started reading books I wanted to buy everything that came out. A lot of times this included many of the ‘controversial’ books dealing with various trends within and without evangelicalism. After a short time I realized that it was best for me to stock my shelves with what is most helpful to me both today and for the years to come. In other words, I needed something with staying power.
In this assessment I realized quickly that my commentary section was severely understocked. It would make sense that the most helpful books are going to be those that help you to understand the text. In addition to enhancing your ministry, bulking up on good commentaries will equip you to deal with the various issues that we face as evangelicals.
All vocations have their share of land-mines. Experienced, successful, and honest tradesmen will admit to making a ton of mistakes on their trip from journeyman to craftsman. Whenever a peer has the opportunity to listen in to these types of professional flubs they should take the opportunity. This vocational intel is gold. After all, what’s better than learning from a mistake without having to suffer its consequences?
I’m thankful for Kyle McClellen, a loving pastor who wrote a book to share his mistakes with other pastors. His goal is to share some of his vocational missteps, learning experiences, and bruises of sanctification with us. Through this relatively short book (120 pages in paperback) Kyle flips through his ministry scrapbook and offers commentary on his pastoral scars, black eyes, and speeding tickets.
Kyle went into seminary and ministry with a fair amount of approval. This did not serve him very well. It stoked his pride. He did well at seminary and then got called to a church. Well, multiple churches. In a short period of time he managed to burn through 4 churches! He found himself pulling orders at an Amazon warehouse. He was in a bad spot. Through a series of events he ended up reading Wendell Berry, falling in love with the town he grew up in, planting a church there, getting over himself, and pursuing what Jesus would have him pursue. He figured out who he is and what he is supposed to do. But, this did not come …
It is a problem that all pastors doubtless face, “How can I make sure that I am feeding all of the people that God has given me?”
When I look out upon our congregation on Sunday morning I see a wide spectrum. I see faithful and mature folks who have been walking with the Lord for decades and then some who have been Christians for only a few months. I see people in their 60’s and then folks in their 20’s. In addition to that there are many little 5 year-olds staring up at me trying to understand. There are people from a completely biblically illiterate background and then there are those who have grown up in evangelical churches but never heard the gospel. Then there are many guys who are running hard theologically and wanting to be challenged and fed.
And so I push back from the table, exhale, put my hands behind my head, and wonder to myself about how to best deal with this good problem.
I was sharing this dilemma with a friend recently. He would be in the ‘running hard theologically’ category. He smiled and said, “Just make good fish and chips every week. If you make fish and chips well then we will all be happy and fed.”
His point was this, regardless of what you are used to, expecting, or really want, you always appreciate a well-made plate of fish and chips. It seems to have that unique ability to simply ‘hit the spot’ every time …
We like shortcuts assuming that they get us to where we are trying to go. If they do not then they are dangerous, unproductive detours. In his book The Priority of Preaching, Christopher Ash argues that there are no shortcuts for preaching with authority. He writes, “The authority is a wonderful authority, but it is an authority borrowed only at great cost. This is why there are no shortcuts that work.”
Ash then helpfully warns preachers of three common shortcuts that preachers are tempted to take. I’ll state his points and briefly summarize them.
1. Beware of the shortcut of individual interpretation. This is the notion that we can just beaver away at the passage like we were the first person to ever read it. Many, many Christians have gone before us and wrestled with these same passages. No matter how trendy it is today to have our own interpretation of things Christians preachers must know that they we are accountable to God and one another to hear what the passage really means. “We must not be lazily idiosyncratic.”
2. Beware of the shortcut of second-hand interpretation. When listening to others we must not just copy others. Ash tells the story of how early in his ministry he heard a famous preacher nail a sermon and figured that he and his hearers would be better served if he just copied the sermon and delivered it as his own. The result was a true failure. Why? First the context was completely different, so the style didn’t …
In addition to leading and teaching, pastors are called to protect or guard the flock (Titus 1.5, 9; 2.15; John 21.15-19). Therefore, it logically follows that it is important for pastors to know who is in attendance and membership within the congregation. There are obviously many practical reasons for this, but one is certainly to protect the flock from potential harm.
So I ask you, “Who is the most dangerous guy at your church?”
I don’t know that I have ever seen an experience that could rival it. There was crying so loud that people could hear it from a far distance away. The crying was strange though, it was mixed with happiness and lament. It was 2,500 or so years ago in the land of Israel. The exiles had returned and had laid the foundation for the new temple. The older folks were wailing with lament because they had seen the previous temple in all of its glory. The younger folks who had grown up in exile were excited and full of joy as they looked ahead to this new temple.
The strange chorus of weeping and wailing punctuates the epic scene in Ezra 3 as the foundation for the new temple is laid.
At the same time we can read of the prophet Zechariah dealing with the attitudes of lament here as well as the forthcoming fear of man in chapters 4-5 of Ezra. One of the big prophetic hammers that Zechariah brings to this party is a statement about what God is doing and the fact that people are not to despise the day of small things.
“This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts. Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’ ”…For whoever has despised the day of …