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Category: Pastoral Ministry

On my Ordination Eve: Will I survive?

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.

4 Lessons in Tone from R.C. Sproul

In preparation for sermons, counseling, small group meetings we often prepare what we will say. That’s good. But how we say it requires just as much thought.

At least, that’s what I learned from Dr. Sproul during two weeks of illness.

Recently I was laid up after a minor surgery and secondary infection and I listened to a lot of R.C. Sproul. (A lot.) I love the foundational role he played in my theology as a teenager but it had been a while since I sat down and, say, listened through a whole series. I was struck, but not by the arguments (solid) the exposition (illuminating) or even the intellect (formidable). After pastoring for several years I noticed something about Sproul I never understood as a teenager.

I was struck, perhaps more than anything, by Sproul’s tone.

He was teaching on several difficult doctrines of the Christian faith, thorny doctrines that often get preached with a thunderous and condemning and self-righteous tone. Now, note, that he did not go soft on anything. He wasn’t pulling punches. He wasn’t watering down his doctrine.

And yet, even on the most controversial topic his tone was warm and inviting. He made me want to keep listening, even if I disagreed with this point or that point.

I’ve started to wonder whether we as young evangelicals would do well to pay attention as much to Dr. Sproul’s tone as his theology. Perhaps this feels too touchy feely to you, but in the pages of the New Testament letters as we see pastors communicate directly to churches the tone seems warmer than colder. The tone seems blood-earnest, hard-hitting, and… full of love. Paul even uses the analogy of the gentleness of a nursing mother to describe his tone and affection for a church (1 Thess 2:7).

The Apostle Peter, as brash and bold as he is in the pages of Scripture, charges this readers this way:

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:15-16 ESV)

To Peter it wasn’t enough to make a good defense, how you make the defense matters immensely. And even further, Peter is addressing their interaction with opponents who would likely be belligerent, angry, and reviling. How much more should we take our tone into account when we speak to other Christians?

Here are four things I noticed in Dr. Sproul’s tone that I want to emulate:

An Invitation to come near, not just pushing away

Even when addressing Roman Catholic doctrine, for example, Dr. Sproul invites the listener in. He does not give up his ground but he invites them to pull up a chair and debate. Surely there is no embrace of false doctrine but Dr. Sproul seems to beckon the listener in rather than slapping them across the face. Seekers of truth (even wrongheaded ones) would want to get closer, not turn away.

An explanation, not just a SOUND BYTE

It would be easy for a theologian like Dr. Sproul to simply say, “Trust me here’s what you should believe.” It would be easy to reduce opponents to the worst version of themselves and dismiss them outright. Instead he took the time to walk them down a path, to build out his explanation, before delivering his conclusion on the subject. It takes longer, but it helps the listener see things for themselves.

A respect of opponents, not a mockery

I was struck that Dr. Sproul consistently refrained from taking cheap shots, from settling for a mocking opponents in a way that would be red meat to this audience. Dr. Sproul’s tone toward opponents is one of respect. Certainly he doesn’t refrain from pointing out their faults (even humorously at times) but the tone is not “You’re an idiot” but “I’m afraid you’re wrong here friend.”

A humility before God, not a self-righteousness

When Dr. Sproul teaches you can sense that he himself is in awe of the God he’s teaching about. This is not a tone of “Look here silly people at how I’ve worked this out” but a tone of “Can you believe God is this good? Can you believe he’s been this good to us?”

Certainly there are times to stand for truth, plant your flag, and call for war. Sproul has done this. Paul did this. But I think the default tone should be much closer to this–as we pastor, counsel, and preach.
After all, doesn’t this sound like the tone Christ uses most often with us?

Friday Variety: The Best Bible Journal You Can Buy

I’m not exaggerating: this is the best Bible reading and prayer journal I’ve found.

I was first introduced to The Good News Dudes by my friend Ian McConnell. I checked out their website, was intrigued, and ordered one of their prayer journals. Then I ordered one for my wife. Then I ordered one for all the guys on our leadership team at our church. Then I considered ordering one for my 3 year old’s birthday, but figured I should wait until he can read.

When I’m reading my Bible in the morning I’ve found that journaling helps in a number of key ways.

  • Journaling keeps me disciplined. I don’t like journaling very much. Yet, when I have a journal, a record of my devotional life, I’m more consistent. I need that.
  • Journaling focuses my reading. If I know I need to crystallize what I’ve read into something I can write down, it helps me focus.
  • Journaling helps me think “out loud.” Sometimes when I’m stuck I’ll summarize verses, or ideas, in the text. I’ll see patterns. I’ll better understand the text.
  • Journaling keeps a record for reflection. I can look back and see what I’ve been learning over the last week, or last month. Reflection can help me see “Hey God is really emphasizing this theme in my reading this month.”

Now, the only problem has been that no journal has quite been what I need. I’ve tried journaling my daily reflections on Scripture on a trusty Moleskine, on cool recycled notebooks I’ve discovered in independent bookstores, on less fancy notebooks, even on my phone. All of them worked to some degree. But none of them felt quite perfect.

This one does.

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“Grace Alone” is not a bad reminder as you open the pages of Scripture every morning

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What’s on the page: Date / Scripture / Reflect / Pray for / #GraceAlone

a few things I love about this journal

  • Just the Right Amount of Space: I’m not great at journaling and I always feel guilty I don’t journal more. An open ended journal can feel intimidating. But that roughly half page looks inviting. “I can fill at least half that,” I think in the morning.
  • Simple, Undistracting Layout: I’ve seen prayer journals that try to do too much. This is just enough to get going and get out of the way.
  • Helpful Progression: The journal leads you through writing your Scripture, reflecting on it, praying according to it, and then ends with a gospel reminder (#gracealone). I love that it won’t let me leave my Scripture reading time without praying. And I love that it won’t let me leave my devotional time without seeing grace on the pages of Scripture as I head into my day.
  • Size & Quality: The journal has a nice weight and feel in your hands and pages are good quality. This makes me want to open it and use it. The bookmark is a nice touch. The size is just right–not too thin to lose, but not too big to throw into your backpack. There’s also a bit of room to toss in a couple sheets of paper, like a Bible reading plan.

 

In addition to the Scripture Journal the Good News Dudes also make other cool stuff like T-Shirts and old-school pennants (yes, pennants). I especially love the Pub Glass I got in my last order.

After a thoroughly unscientific analysis I’ve concluded that these journals could be beneficial for:

  • Spouses
  • Christian friends (especially as a not-so-subtle hint that they should be reading the Bible more)
  • Pastors (especially during Pastor Appreciation Month, or as a not-so-subtle hint that their last sermon was weird and that they should study the Bible more)
  • Literate children (illiterate toddlers will enjoy them as well for their size, weight, and ease with which they can be thrown across the room)
  • Students (they can double as your literature class notebook in a pinch)
  • Mean people (especially if you underline the word “grace” on each page before you give it to them)

The Giveaway

So here’s the thing. The guys at The Good News Dudes are graciously and eagerly providing a giveaway for one of these journals. Here’s how to enter:

  1. Leave a comment on our Facebook Page, Twitter or the blog about your journalling experience. Pro/con/hate/love/whatever.
  2. Put the hashtag #PlantReplant in the comment because we want to spread the word!
  3. One entry per person! Entries limited to U.S. addresses.

We’ll pick a winner this next Monday at 7am, Central Standard Time. We’ll then announce it that day and the Good News Dudes will take it from there.

Discount offer

While we’re at it, let’s throw in something else. The Good News Dudes are providing you gentle people with a 20% off discount for any purchase you make through their store just for making good reading decisions… ahem, I mean, for reading Plant/Replant. To get the discount, stroll over to their store, kick the tires and poke about, and enter the code PLANTREPLANT at checkout.

Have fun! And don’t shoot your eye out!

The Epitaph Over Pastors & Kings

This is the reality: when you’re planting or replanting a church the biggest battle you’ll face is not wrestling a new structure into place, laying out clear values, or prepping sermons. It’s not even leading your family, loving your wife, and making sure you have good friendships where you can be real. I was prepared for some of these things.

But the biggest battle I’ve faced in the last four years as a pastor has been in my own heart. I’m talking about my relationship to the Lord–whether it’s tentative, or hurried, whether it’s inclined quickly to the Lord or must be bent back to him by circumstance, whether it’s warm or cold.

This one thing changes how I respond to conflict or uncertainty in the church.
This one thing changes how I respond to temptation.
This one thing changes my mindset as I step into the pulpit.

This. The state of my heart in relationship to the Lord.

David charges his son Solomon this way: “Know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought.” (1 Chron 28:9).

In the books of Chronicles the Chronicler applies one judgment over and over to the kings of Israel & Judah. In these chaotic reigns where kingship is quickly gained and quickly lost, where foreign powers bat the kingdoms around, where apostasy is rampant, there is still one standard of judgment: the heart of the king toward the Lord.

Solomon knows the importance of his heart but it’s stolen away by foreign women and gods. For some kings, even among other failures it is their saving grace (2 Chron 15:17). For other kings, among other successes, it is their damning epitaph (2 Chron 12:14). The writer evaluates the reign of each king this way–whether their heart is inclined toward the Lord or away from him. Essentially, sometimes this serves as the extent of the Chronicler’s comments in a king. “Because,” he seems to say, “It’s all you need to know.”

It seems so clear, doesn’t it? Yes, of course, the heart. When I’m replanting or pastoring I’ll make sure I have a day retreat every week week! I’ll take long walks in the early dawn hours. I’ll climb a mountain and write my whole sermon from there. 

But life looks different away from the mountaintop. You run over budget numbers in your mind on your way to the next meeting. You meet with ministry leaders trying to resolve issues. You groan when the air conditioner breaks again.

I’ve learned this matters. The state of my heart matters far more than my next appointment or next message. Making time for this isn’t just a good thing to do, it changes everything.

The Bottom Line

Do you know, without thinking about it too much, whether your heart is inclined toward the Lord this week? This year?
If it is, remind yourself that this matters. Immensely. God rejoices.
If it is not, don’t fix your small groups before you fix this.
If you’re not sure, take some time to pray and consider.

Then consider talking a walk through the books of Chronicles and seeing why it matters so very much.