My ordination is this weekend. It’s Ordination Eve, you might say. Michelle (my wife) and I were talking about this momentous occasion recently. We’ve been dating, engaged and married for 14 years. I’ve been pursuing ordained pastoral ministry for some 13 years. It’s been, in effect, one of the long-term goals of our entire relationship. This call to ministry has determined how we’ve understood the Lord’s leading, our own growth and purpose, and a number of sacrifices along the way.
But on the eve of my ordination, this realization of 13 years of pursuit, I’m haunted by the question: Will I survive?
Several of the men who were a part of bringing me into ministry are now out of ministry. Some for good reasons, others, sadly, for disqualifications of one kind of another. I’ve watched men in my family of churches and outside fall to various kinds of moral failure. I’ve seen friends, well intentioned, go down heretical paths with gusto.
Having been in full-time ministry work for the last year and a half, I can hardly say I understand the full weight and temptations that lead men to disqualification (morally or doctrinally). But, I’ve been at this long enough to see the hints. Those hinting, quiet thoughts of reprieve from the isolating stress of vocational ministry. Those alluring doctrinal compromises that would seem to affirm more people, garner more influence, lay smoother tracks.
I’m haunted by the question of “Will I survive?” because all those alluring temptations need only the fertile soil of my own heart to grow. I know my own inclinations, I see the temptations. I see that, with John Bradford watching a man lead to execution, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
In light of this, I’ve made it a bit of my mission to interview older pastors about surviving and thriving in ministry. I may turn those questions and discussions into a series at some point, but I’ve garnered some categories to consider. These are six categories contrasted with a temptation that could lead to ministerial disqualification.
Sobriety over presumption
“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”
~1 Corinthians 10:12
Maybe this is the obvious one, but it’s foundational. I am no better than any man who’s disqualified from ministry. Yes, even the pastor who’s cheated on his wife and sent her out to the wolves. I’m no better. Maybe I have not done what he has, but if I believe “I’ll never do that” I’m an idiot.
Of the ten thousand things God is doing in the ministry failure of any pastor, he is certainly teaching us to be sober about our own propensity to the same failure. I am no better than any man. And given the same circumstances, I have no confidence in myself that I would not succumb in a similar way (1 Cor. 10:12-13).
So, dear soul, strive for humility. Cultivate it in active prayer. Strive to diligently keep the Law of the Lord – for he is your only preservation against the sin in your own heart (Ps. 119:4, 8).
No over Yes
This is largely catalogued and acknowledged in the sphere of ministry: Pastors do too much. They say Yes too often, and say No infrequently. I’m not going to belabor this point, but simply offer a thought: If the call of pastoral ministry is to “equip the saints for the work ministry” (Eph. 4:12), then maybe this is just me, but it seems that all the work of ministry must not be done by the pastors. I’m not a quantum physics major, and I wore punk suspenders in high school, but it seems to me that “equip” means pastors need to say No more often.
Along these lines, I simply offer Essentialism as a book for your consideration. It’s not a “Christian” book (can a physical book profess Christ?), nor to my knowledge written by a Christian. However, I’d say that this book has been the most helpful book on productivity and leadership that I read in 2015. At it’s core, it’s a book about the nature of being disciplined. What is your main purpose in life pastor? How do you cultivate that focus, and equip those around you to do those things which are not your main focus? I think this book serves pastors to do the very command of Ephesians 4:12. It equips the pastor, and thereby, equips the church to be productive for God.
Doctrinal Growth over Knowledge Maintenance
The demands of ministry are brutal. What’s the church mission statement? What are our core values? What is our ministry philosophy? What’s our budget? What is a budget? How do I set up a budget for an organization? How do we incorporate? What’s our policy manual going to cover? How do we relate to each other outside of worship? What are our worship services going to look like? What about our guest packets? How are we going to do fundraising? What’s the church’s name going to be? How do I keep up with all these people? Why did X leave the church? I need to visit X in the hospital. I need to prepare X sermon. I hate cats.
There are lots of things to be done in ministry. It’s easy to push simply reading a theological book on the back burner. It’s even more alluring to stop growing doctrinally if you’re a relatively well-read guy. (If you don’t read, I guess that’s a different temptation.)
I can already see in my own soul the inclination to stop growing doctrinally. I’ve got all these other things to handle – getting into the nuances of say, the Covenants, just seems overwhelming. But, my brother, if we do not strive to go “further up and higher in” to the glories of God in the teaching of Scripture, then we’re drifting away. You need to lead you people – which means leading them doctrinally. I wonder if the reason some pastors tenures at churches are so short – maybe 3-5 years – is because at the end of 150-250 sermons, they’ve said everything they know. May that never be brothers! Strive for doctrinal growth. Repent of doctrinal error or mishandling. You are called to feed the sheep of Christ. Get the food!
Soul Care Rhythms over the Taut Bow Syndrome
I get this phrase from our good friend, Charles Spurgeon:
The bow cannot be always bent without fear of breaking. Repose is as needed to the mind as sleep to the body. Our days of worship (which were, in the Old Testament, sabbaths) are our days of toil, and if we do not rest upon some other day, we shall break down. Even the earth must lie fallow and have her sabbaths; and so must we; hence the wisdom and compassion of our Lord, when He said to His disciples that they should go “apart into a desert place, and rest a while.”
You need to know yourself. I can easily see how I could do 80+ hours of work “for the sake of the Gospel” every week. It’d kill my soul, and probably destroy my family, but I could do it. Even still, I can maintain a heavy work load for a while, but it would break me, and be unbelief tot he core.
Part of this is knowing yourself, and knowing your culture. In New England, the summers are slow and low. Church attendance drops to nearly half. Apparently, in the old days, pastors in New England used to swap preaching at each others churches to enable each other to get some time off. They understood their culture.
I once had a conversation with Warren Boettcher, where he recommended a personal retreat every 3-4 months. Depending on your own makeup, it could vary. But doing a regular, three day personal retreat was recommended. I’ve started setting this up for my own schedule.
At it’s core, this expresses faith in the Lord. I’m not the Lord of the Church, just a slave. The church will do just fine without me for a few days. In fact, it’s likely to improve! But the burdens of ministry are such that taking time away to care for your soul should be regular, and should be supported (relationally and financially) by the church.
Robust Polity over Independence
I wonder if part of ministry burnout – morally or emotionally – is due to not having a healthy church polity. If a pastor is taking all the hits of a church on his own chin without a plurality of local elders and a region of elders confessing the same doctrine and mission, I can understand how bitterness, lusts, etc. would have fertile soil.
At the same time, I don’t think it’s easy. I’m not going to lie, church planting with Sovereign Grace over the last year and a half has not been a walk in the park. I don’t imagine life together in the years to come is going to be sipping coffee. But I know that other men need my help, and more importantly, I need theirs. I need a regional leader to keep my eyes on the mission. I need other men in our region to pick up the slack of my own failures in ministry. I think our church and my own ministry longevity are healthy due to a robust partnership that means something. We’re not just friends, we’re brothers. And I think brothers help cary the load of ministry better when there are more shoulders to the task.
Faith over Fear
At the heart of this is the call to faith. Will I fail in ministry? I put my trust in the Lord, who cares for me. To fearfully wring my hands over disqualification will certainly lead to failure of one kind or another. When you’re driving, you don’t get to your goal by watching the guard-rails, you keep your eyes ahead. You get to the goal by watching for it – and in this spiritual case, trusting in Him.
Maybe that’s why Paul encourages the young pastor Timothy with a reminder about faith in contrast to fear from his own ordination:
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
~2 Timothy 1:6-7
What’s my ultimate hope against these haunting fears of disqualification? God himself, in the Gospel. The Gospel that has saved me – Christ’s death on my behalf, his righteousness counted as my own in Him – this is my hope. The inward evaluation will kill me. It’s the eye of faith, that looks to God, and knows that he has given me a spirit of power (that makes real change) and love (for who he is and his work) and self-control (to put to death the sin within), that he might be glorified in my life.
In the end, it is God himself that preserves a man for a life-time of faithful ministry. On my Ordination Eve, would you pray that I would know this more deeply? That I’d trust this God for the calling? And if you’re provoked by these categories, I guess you can pray for yourself. But pray for me first. I need it.