calling

How to Keep Going in Christian Ministry

I got this blog post in my email inbox this morning. It’s from “Practical Shepherding,” one of the most useful and, well, practical ministry blogs I follow. Well worth the (short) read:

One of my pastoral teachers and heroes, Bill Hughes, said goodbye to his beloved wife of over 60 years this past week who met her Savior in glory and is no longer suffering.  Bill spent most of his long and faithful ministry serving in Scotland.  Thinking about and praying for Bill this week reminded me of a simple, but profound truth I learned from him about how to endure through the constant struggles of pastoral ministry.  In an exposition of 2 Corinthians 4 I once heard Bill Hughes preach, he made this observation to answer the nagging question, “How do I endure through the difficulties of pastoral ministry?”

“Never forget the debt to mercy we owe.”

See what I mean?  Simple.  Stunningly true.  Yet, when measured against anything we might face as pastors, it produces endurance in every trial, struggle, and difficulty.  Bill instructed that when we remember who we once were and the amazing debt to mercy we owe to our Savior, we will be more patient, gracious, and merciful to even the most stubborn and petty of conflicts and complaints we experience in the church.  Likewise, if we forget who we once were  and presume upon this debt to mercy in the gospel, those same petty people and issues will eat us up and will destroy us and our ministry.

Dear brothers, if you find yourself discouraged, angry, wondering why some of your people do and say what they do and you can’t take it any more…do not forget the debt to mercy you owe.  It is a debt greater than you and I could ever payback.  It is a debt that should weigh heavier on our joyful hearts than the most difficult person in our church.  Apply this truth that I was so powerfully taught to me by this sweet and faithful man and see if you then find the hope and perspective you need for that struggling person or circumstance you face in your ministry.

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What’s the main thing you need to be a pastor?

This both encourages and challenges me: the main qualifier for ministry is steady growth in love for God and others. Paul Woodson writes,

There is no one style of ministry that is productive and no one type of personality that represents good pastoral ministry. The sheer diversity of personality types among ministers is surely a sign that any particular personality type has little to do with the building of the Church. But the pastors whose ministries I particularly applaud (whether successful in the eyes of the world or not) are those whose love for the Lord Jesus is transparent and growing, whose ability to expound the Scriptures with devotion, clarity, practical application, and real unction is increasing, and whose love for people is not artificial or sentimental but self-denying and perceptive (this is essential to what is often called “pastoral care”), and whose desire to proclaim the gospel and work out its implications dictates the focus and priorities of their lives.

You can download this book, “Letters Along the Way” by D.A. Carson and Paul Woodson for free as a pdf by clicking here.

McKiddie on Offline and Online Leadership

A word in season for many I think. Definitely for me. Eric McKiddie writing on how impactful leaders are offline influencers:

Eric McKiddie

Eric McKiddie

The social media landscape can make the average person wonder if he can make an impact in the world today. If you take a look at well-known pastors, you can’t help but notice they are prolific, not only in printed books, but in tweets, blog posts, and Facebook likes.

One might derive an invalid conclusion from this phenomenon, thinking, “If well-known pastors are making a big impact, and have a massive social media following, then if I’m going to have a big impact, I need a social media presence, too.” …

The difference between attention and impact
The social media climate has caused some people to confuse attention with impact. Many, pastors included, assume that if you have people’s attention, you will necessarily make an impact on them. While, it’s certainly true that you can’t impact someone without their attention, having their attention doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have an impact on them. This is good news for pastors who are neither interested in social media nor have the time to learn how to use it effectively.

How do offline pastors make an impact in a world that is crazy about social media?

Furthermore, how should pastors who are active on social media measure their influence for the gospel?

His answer? Sacrificial leadership.

A decade-long diet of well-prepared sermons and encouragement during times of need are the kind of things that impact people for the kingdom. Yes, a ministry like this will come at a cost to you. But if you are not willing do this, you don’t deserve a massive online following. You should not even be in ministry at all.

Read the full article here, and check out his great blog for pastors and leaders, Pastoralized.

Personality and Ministry: Perspectives

In this “personality and ministry” series, I’ve sought to provide my own answer to the question, “how do I fulfill my duties in ministry in a way that is (primarily) faithful to the gospel and (secondarily) faithful to the kind of person I am?”

The question hints at my priorities. I want, most of all, to be faithful to the gospel. On the last day, I want to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Don’t we all? But I realize that I’m living out this faithfulness with a particular set of strengths and weaknesses. Everyday I have to deal with me.

Thankfully, other people have worked through these issues before me. I’m not the first person to ask that two-fold question. In this post I’ll be pointing your attention away from my little blog and toward some articulate and thoughtful men who have wrestled with this issue.

1. Gavin Ortlund: We Shouldn’t Moralize Strengths and Weaknesses

In his article, “Why I find the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator Helpful,Gavin Ortlund makes a really helpful observation about the relationship between personality and morality:

No personality trait has any moral superiority to any other; God simply makes people differently. And yet it seems to me that we all tend to think that the way we operate is the “normal” one. … while the disputes that can occur between a J [judging personality type] and a P [perceiving personality type] can touch upon moral issues, they are not necessarily moral issues. The line between “personality” and “wisdom” or “personality” and “right/wrong” is not always crystal clear. … They remind us that not all of our differences are moral differences, and thus help us not make unnecessary judgments. They help us leave room for God-given differences, and thus learn from others where we might be tempted merely to criticize, and be cautious to assume our way is always the right way.

Do you see what he’s saying? The ways we operate as extroverts and introverts, perceivers and judgers, or whatever, are not always moral issues; though they can be. This is an area where discernment and caution can save us a lot of trouble.

Orltund makes two other helpful observations, and the rest of the article is worth your time if you’re interested in this subject.

2. John Piper: Awareness does not excuse complacency

John Piper I’ve had about seven Jiminy Crickets (Pinochio’s “official conscience”) walking around on my shoulders while writing these posts. They’re reminding me that I like, love my comfort zone, and that I better not slack off in my areas of weakness simply because I know they’re areas of weakness. I can’t let myself say, “I’ll leave those things (I’m not any good at) to other people.”

John Piper would agree. There is no reason for any sensible person called to ministry to settle for what they find themselves with. Piper, the man who has had more influence in my life than almost any other, wrote about this issue early in his days at Bethlehem Baptist:

When I came to this church I knew that I was not gifted in evangelism and personal witnessing. I have never been very good at turning a conversation with an unbeliever into a serious spiritual discussion of his condition before God. I suppose I could content myself under the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit and say that he has called me to be a pastor-teacher, not an evangelist. … [but] unless the Lord makes it very clear to me that I must, I am not going to accept my lack of giftedness in evangelism. I have been praying and will go right on praying and ask you to pray with me that God will give me the gift to win people to Christ, one-on-one and through my preaching.

3. Justin Taylor (observing John MacArthur and John Piper): God does not create all pastors equally

Justin TaylorAt a conference in 2007, Justin Taylor led a discussion with John Piper and John MacArthur about a range of subjects related to ministry. In the video below, Taylor asks the two men how they deal with depression. Their responses are as different as is possible:

MacArthur: I don’t get depressed.

Piper: I get really depressed really often.

God uses the ministries of both these men to bring the truth of his Word to lives all around the world, but he does so through their black-and-white different personalities. I’m filled with hope when I realize that personality is not an obstacle to God’s grace — it is a conduit of God’s grace.

Conclusion

I begun by saying that I approach this whole issue with two goals, 1) I want to be faithful to the gospel, and 2) I want to be faithful to the person God made me to be.

These goals are not equally weighted. Like Paul, I am a servant of Jesus Christ. He has bought me with his blood and I am belong to him. Jesus begun his public ministry by telling people: repent and believe. Both of these are self-effacing actions. They both require that I look to Another. My most important calling is to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ — to repent of my sins and believe in the Good News.

But I’m daily submitting to Jesus’ kingship as the person he made me. Which means that my “repent and believe” will look slightly different when compared to yours. I daily have to repent (per point 1) of judging people for not being organized and self-disciplined, daily believe (per point 2) that God is intent on transforming me by his grace and not content to leave my in weaknesses, and I’m daily reminding myself (per point 3) that God will use me in whatever place I am. It’s never that neat and tidy. But it happens. There are moments of repentance. Sweet moments when I’m aware of God’s grace and his ability to use me wherever I am.

What have you heard people say about this issue?

What are your thoughts about the call to this two-fold faithfulness?

Personality and Ministry Part 3: God Works through Means

I’ve wondered if this series of posts is nothing more than a sly cover — a way to weasel out of courageous/extroverted ministry. But after some reflection, I think it’s safe to say they are not. Here’s my short answer as to why that’s the case:

God usually works through a means

You and I see this everyday. And it’s so beautiful and common that we don’t even notice it. You might go to lunch with a person who is an unusually (yet wonderfully) attentive listener. The conversation is easy and natural, and you unravel your past week in front of them. You notice how they lean forward, calmly acknowledging your struggles and sincerely celebrating your successes. And you walk away refreshed because you sense that you were cared for. You’re sure that this person was a means of grace — an answer to your prayer that very morning for companionship in this desert-like season.

Most of us have had conversations like that. But only some have eyes to see God himself healing and building up a fractured heart during that time. It’s God’s goodness and kindness (sometimes his loving discipline) finding its way into our lives through his appointed means. And sometimes that means is another person. But it’s God’s work – it’s the Holy Spirit stirring up love in another person’s heart toward us.

God usually works through a means.

In relation to ministry, my point is this: no two ministers (anyone called by God to Christian ministry) will work out their calling in the same way because they must do so through their own unique capabilities. And this is always the case because God works through them.

If your hypothetical lunch partner approached the time together simply wanting to bless you with an attentive ear and heart, they probably didn’t transform into a pastor-robot as soon you started speaking. It’s more likely that they simply focused on you, and directed their skill of listening onto your conversation.

This is why the church has a variety of gifts: because when we use them, we do so within the constraints of our own person(ality). God works his will through the manifold means of the Church’s members. Eyes seeing. Ears hearing. Feet walking. Each in accordance with its design.

With his usual clarity, John Piper makes a similar point about Charles Spurgeon. How easy it would be, he says, to try imitate this incredible man.

He [Spurgeon] read six serious books a week and could remember what was in them and where. He read The Pilgrim’s Progress over 100 times.

He added 14,460 people to his church membership, and did almost all the membership interviews himself. He could look out on a congregation of 5,000 and name the members.

He founded a pastors’ college and trained almost 900 men during his pastorate.

Spurgeon once said he had counted as many as eight sets of thoughts that passed through his mind at the same time while he was preaching. And he often prayed for his people as he preached to them. He would preach for 40 minutes at 140 words a minute from a small sheet of notes that he had worked up the night before. The result? Over 25,000 copies sold each week in 20 languages, and someone was converted every week through the written sermons.

What do you do when you stand before a man like this? Courageous but desperate imitation is my gut response. Piper crafts a metaphor to illustrate how dangerous simplistic comparison would be in this situation,

If you try to make your Minnesota hill imitate a mountain, you will make a fool of your hill. Hills have their place. So do the plains of Nebraska. If the whole world were mountains, where would we grow bread? Every time you eat bread say, “Praise God for Nebraska.”

(Read the article here)

CC Image courtesy of Macpedia on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of Macpedia on Flickr

Remember that God works through ranges of people, whether mountainous or level. I look at the ways (the means) that God works through other people, and I rejoice. Praise God that there are extroverts! I need those hills! And so do others. But I am a valley through and through. And that’s okay. God will work his will through my folded and falling landscape. God will work through this means he has given me.

Personality and Ministry: Part 2

Even if it’s become an out-dated evangelical buzz word, “fellowship,” captures the idea of an essential New Testament teaching: True Christians will actively seek out the fellowship of other Christians. The NT might allow for different expressions of this fellowship, whether it be corporate gatherings, small groups, Bible study fellowships, etc. But we must gather. We must associate with one another. Because of the way we see the early church conducting their lives as well as the numerous and inescapable commands concerning this issue (organized in the graphic below), we’re not really left with any room to question if we’re to be involved in other Christians’ lives. The right question is not, “should we?” But “how should we?”

Spread across the entire New Testament are approximately 40 “one another” passages that explain how this interaction should be expressed. Verbs like “love” “instruct” “greet” “accept” and “forgive” show what the affirming work looks like. But on their heels follow commands to “submit” “rebuke” “admonish” and “teach” one another. Both initially restorative and eventually restorative interactions must happen. This is a realistic and full-orbed perspective on relationships. So here are two related observations that I think might help to get the discussion going in the right direction:

Every Christian is called to

  1. have relationships within the local church
  2. have those relationships exist within certain parameters (the one anothers are a good place to start).

It’s not just leaders who need to ask these questions (although that is the angle I’m coming from). The question, “how will I interact with other Christians?” is laid on all who joyfully follow Jesus Christ. But the question, at least in my experience, is never that simple. And that’s because I myself am a human being with certain dispositions that makes a clear and reasonable command unfortunately cloudy. I bring my sin (rebellion against God) into the equation.

So, it’s simple: fulfill the “one anothers.” And it’s not simple: fulfill them as a person marred by sin with other people who are marred by sin. We now know we must “get in each other’s lives,” as my pastor says. How, therefore, are we to do this in light of our sin-permeated efforts? And closely related, are there refractions of glory in our individually blemished dealings with people?

Personality and Ministry: Part 1

If you had approached me when I was in high school and asked if I thought of myself as an introvert or extrovert, I probably would’ve replied, “No, I’m South African.” I wouldn’t have understood the question. It hasn’t been until the last few years that those categories have existed for me.

But when I begun my undergrad career, I noticed huge differences in the way that my roomate (who you should check out here) and I interacted with people. After hanging out with a group, he’d be energized — I’d be drained. It was around then that I was introduced to the terms introvert/extrovert, and they made a lot of sense.

Then came sophomore year. What a year. By about January (halfway through the school year) I felt confident that God was calling me away from the music major I’d been working on for two years, and towards (Christian) ministry. When my junior year rolled around, I made the academic switch. And everything felt official. I had taken the first step on a long long journey to being a pastor.

It’s been almost three years since then, and I’m more confident than ever that I made the right choice. But there have been rough days. Days when I’d rather read the Bible by myself than next to a friend who needs some guidance; days when I have no desire to make the phone call or ask the probing question or extend the invitation to lunch. Basically, days when my natural disposition trumps my calling.

These days the tug of war is pretty hard to ignore. And it has often made me question whether I really am called to Christian ministry. So during the next few weeks I’m going to be covering a couple issues related to ministry and personality, as well as highlighting some helpful resources I’ve found along the way. I hope it’s encouraging to other people who have wrestled with the personality-calling tension.

Stay tuned.