Pastoral Traps: Greed

Pastors can easily fall into the trap of money-grubbing. Or in simpler terms, we can be greedy.

This is true if money winds up in the pastor’s pocket that was earmarked for some other realm of ministry. This is true if the minister is asked about his financial policy with regard to ministry money, and he responds with a “that’s-none-of-your-business” type of reaction. Dependable shepherds are not motivated by what Peter referred to as “sordid gain” (1 Peter 5:2). The old King James Version bluntly calls it “filthy lucre.” That’s an archaic expression, but it says it straight. “Not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind.”

My counsel to all in ministry is to keep your hands out of the money. Period. Don’t take cash from people. Don’t give change. Don’t take up the offerings. Don’t count the offering . . . or even concern yourself with where the money is counted. And by all means, don’t try to find out who gives the most! If you do, it will affect the way you preach. On the other hand, if you don’t know what passage of Scripture will offend the largest donors, then you’re free to preach the truth to everyone!

We pastors have to watch out for doing ministry just for the money. Or officiating at a wedding, for example, because there’s money in it. Or doing a funeral because you’ll get a hundred bucks. Greed has no shame. It will wink at you and tempt you, especially in a day when many pastors are underpaid relative to their education.

What I’m saying has nothing to do with “muzzling the ox.” My warning is simple: If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself justifying greed.

Please . . . don’t go there.

                    —Chuck

Pastoral Traps: Exclusivism

A major trap pastors can fall into is exclusivism. That’s the attitude that says, “I alone am right.” It’s the “us-four-and-no-more-and-I’m-not-sure-about-you-three” kind of attitude. An exclusive spirit occurs when a pastor allows (or even promotes) a clannish, cultic kind of following around him.

Paranoia often accompanies an exclusive spirit: “Other ministries don’t do it as well as I do”—or some similar statement. Watch out for that kind of attitude. Guard yourself from too many first-person pronouns. It is nothing more than pride.

One time John told Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). Jesus’s rebuke revealed that we don’t have to be one of the twelve to minister to people. And others don’t have to be one of us either.

We have no corner on the best way to serve Christ. We need to display an absence of competition and an absence of jealousy . . . while cultivating genuine humility. Pray that your attitude and words—and those of your church’s staff—will not become exclusive.

                    —Chuck

Pastoral Traps: Authoritarianism

Not long ago I put together a short list of some of the unique battles that accompany the role of the pastor. I’d like to share them with you over the next few blog entries. While the battles we pastors face are many, I want you to consider five in particular . . . not necessarily in the order of their importance.

The first is the problem of authoritarianism. It’s easy for the pastor to become authoritarian. What does that look like? If the minister needlessly represses the freedom of God’s people, if he becomes inflexible and dictatorial, tyrannical and oppressive, if he bullies people with threats, if he lacks a servant’s heart, if he himself is not teachable, if his arrogance has replaced humility, then he has become an authoritarian. He needs reproof . . . even if he is the pastor.

Tell just a few who are close to you, perhaps a trusted colleague—even your wife, if you have the courage!—to let you know if you start to drift into authoritarianism. It’s not the same as leadership. It is leadership gone wild. Put bluntly, it is sin.

Remember Jesus’s words to His twelve men when they were haggling over who should be first in importance: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served . . .” (Mark 10:45).

You remember the rest.

                    —Chuck

Pastoral Traps: Rationalization and Unaccountability

I know a minister who began to live a lifestyle of sensuality. He got around it by preaching the doctrine of “privacy.” I’ve never seen anything near the doctrine of privacy in Scripture, but he found it. (I should say he forced it!) And it became one of his major messages.

When black-and-white facts are whitewashed, when wrong is justified with a defensive spirit, when inappropriate actions are quickly glossed over and/or denied—watch out. Something’s wrong. Rationalization is occurring.

As pastors, we have to be careful that we don’t exchange our role of teaching what the Word means with a dogmatic deciding what it means. Scriptural truth must never be altered to fit the pastor’s lifestyle; it’s the other way around.

We are to be accountable—not isolated islands of independence. Sustaining unaccountability in a pastor’s life is like moral quicksand. Beware of becoming a secretive and untouchable man. And by all means, don’t rationalize your way around it by claiming, “I am God’s anointed.” Please . . . don’t go there. Don’t even think it! You are the Lord’s servant. So am I.

No matter how eloquent or how competent we become, none of us is above accountability. It’s good for us. We need it. Otherwise, rationalization may worm its way into our pulpits . . . or, worse, into our hearts.

                    —Chuck

Stubborn Independence

I’ll never forget a principle I first heard from Francis Schaeffer while attending one of his lectures. There he stood in knickers and a turtleneck sweater, delivering a message to a group of young, idealistic listeners—many of us struggling to find our way. I heard him say this again and again: “The Lord’s work must be done the Lord’s way. The Lord’s work must be done the Lord’s way. The Lord’s work must be done the Lord’s way.”

If you’re in a hurry, you can make it work your way. It may have a pure motive and all the marks of spirituality, but it won’t be the Lord’s way. Stop and realize that.

John Pollock, in his splendid book The Apostle, states,

The irony was not lost on him that the mighty Paul, who had originally approached Damascus with all the panoply of the high priest’s representative, should make his last exit in a fish basket, helped by the very people he had come to hurt.1

That about says it all, doesn’t it?

Just to set the record straight, our lives and ministries are not caught “in the fell clutch of circumstance.” Our heads are not to be “bloodied, but unbowed.” You and I are neither the “masters of our fate” nor the “captains of our souls.” We are to be wholly, continually, and completely dependent on the mercy of God, if we want to do the Lord’s work the Lord’s way. Paul had to learn that. So must we.

My question is: Are you learning that? If not, today would be a good day to start.

                            —Chuck

1. John Pollock, The Apostle: A Life of Paul (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1985), 45.

Trusting God in the Shadows

Have you ever felt God wasn’t using your ministry? Ever felt forgotten in the shadows? I want to dispense a fresh supply of hope. To help accomplish that, let me suggest four principles.

First, when God prepares us for effective ministry, He includes what we would rather omit—a period of waiting. That cultivates patience. As I write these words, it occurs to me that I’ve never met anyone young and patient. (To be honest, I’ve not met many old and patient folks either.) We’re all in a hurry. We don’t like to miss one panel of a revolving door. Patience comes hard in a hurry-up society. Yet it’s an essential quality for ministry, cultivated only in extended periods of waiting. Most often, God imposes it.

Second, as God makes us wait, hiding us in His shadow, He shows us we’re not indispensable. That makes us humble. One major reason the Lord removes us and has us wait in His shadow is to remind us we’re not the star attraction. We’re not indispensable. That realization cultivates genuine humility.

Third, while God hides us away, He reveals new dimensions of Himself and new insights regarding ministry. That makes us deep. What we need today is not smarter people or busier people. A far greater need is deeper people. Deep people will always have a ministry. Always. God deepens us through time spent waiting on Him.

Fourth, when God finally chooses to use us, it comes at a time least expected, when we feel the least qualified. That makes us effective. The perfect set-up for a long-lasting, effective ministry begins with surprise. “Me? You sure You don’t want that other person?” That’s the idea. It’s refreshing, in this highly efficient age, to find a few who are still amazed at the way God is using them.

Some of God’s greatest work begins in the heart of a pastor. Patience . . . humility . . . and depth. Make these your ambition even when you feel in the shadows. God alone is in charge of the results.

                            —Chuck

The Crucial Issue

What will it take to convince us that the last will be first and the first will be last? For some it will take a lifetime. For others only a few semesters in seminary.

Each May, at the end of the spring term at Dallas Theological Seminary, we have the joy of listening to the school’s top preachers. They’re nominated and selected by pastoral-ministry professors. One year a talented young man preached on that pivotal passage in John 13 where Jesus washes His disciples’ feet. After a compelling exposition of that simple text, the young senior class preacher leaned low into the microphone, looked across the faces in Chafer Chapel, and asked his fellow students, “Do you want to have a great ministry . . . or do you just want to be great?”

The packed chapel went silent. Nobody blinked. I’ll never forget his question. None of us will. I hope he never does either.

In a single question he captured the crucial issue: greatness. Not as the world defines it. But greatness according to the standard of the Almighty God. Great leaders are servants first. Like Paul . . . like Paul’s Master, Jesus Christ.

This is for you, and this is for me. If you’ve never submitted fully to the Master, this is your moment. If you’re still arrogant, you probably won’t be struck down with blindness or find yourself shackled in a Roman prison. That was Paul’s experience. But now that I have your attention, I suggest you take a good look within.

You do know how strong-willed and proud you are. So do the people you lead. You know how slow you are to encourage and how reluctant you are to affirm. They do too. You know if you’re greedy. You know if you’re self-serving. Frankly, it’s time to give all that up. We’re back to the crucial question: Do you want to have a great ministry, or do you just want to be great?

How you answer will determine how you lead.

                                    —Chuck

Affectionate Leaders

Good leaders have affection for people. Paul writes, “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God . . .” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Is that great, or what? Paul didn’t shrink from sharing his emotions with his flock. That strong man, an apostle of Christ, looking back on the Thessalonians said, in effect, “Oh, what an affection I had for you. How dear you were to me!” Those are affectionate words of intimacy.

To keep this simple and easy to remember, I want to suggest that affection for people can be demonstrated in two ways: small yet frequent acts of kindness and stated and written words of appreciation. Those you lead should have a few notes of appreciation and encouragement from you by now. They should be growing accustomed to your expressions of affection that include small yet frequent acts of kindness. No one is so important that he or she is above kindness. That aspect of leadership calls for courage and a spirit confident in God’s grace.

I came across a couplet that summarizes this point nicely:

        Life is mostly froth and bubble. Two things stand in stone.
        Kindness in another’s trouble. Courage in your own.

I’m grieved by strong leaders who consistently walk over people. We wonder how people like that make it into significant places of influence. Here’s some free advice I give from time to time: If you don’t enjoy people, please, do us all a favor, don’t go into leadership! Choose another career stream. Everyone will be better off. Say no when you’re offered an opportunity to lead.

Neither the world nor the ministry needs more bosses. Both need more leaders––servant-hearted souls to lead as Paul led, with sensitivity and affection toward others. Love and affection, when appropriately given, fill the gap when words alone fail to comfort. If people know you love and value them, they’ll go to the wire for you. Paul told the Christians at Thessalonica that he loved them. They never got over it.

Neither will your flock.

                                                —Chuck

Stepping Out

Stepping out in faith always brings clarification of God’s plan. When Ananias went to see Paul (then Saul), he received additional information (read Acts 9:10–21). As Saul submitted himself to the ministry of Ananias, he found out more about God’s plan for his life. You’re “a chosen instrument of Mine.” I’m going to use you “to bear My name” (9:15). Saul hadn’t known that before. (He had never read the book of Acts!) He knew nothing of what was in store for him until Ananias took that initial step of faith. Both men discovered that God Himself chose Saul to be His instrument and that intense suffering would mark his ministry. That’s the way God operates.

When Cynthia and I first sensed God’s direction to leave California and relocate our Insight for Living ministry, we could hardly believe it. We had planned to stay in the same place for the rest of our lives. Neither space nor time allow me to describe the things God has shown us since we made the decision to move. Initially, very few people could grasp God’s plan for us. In fact, some firmly rejected it. But now as God continues to put the finishing touches on His magnificent portrait, what we see is absolutely beautiful. Until we took that initial step of obedience, all we had was, “It’s time to go.” It’s amazing to me, even as I write these words! Surprises always bring about clarification of God’s plan.

By the way, the Swindolls have grown deeper in our relationship with the Lord, having trusted Him without first knowing all the details. The same will be true for you. Obeying God drives the roots of your faith much deeper. And that obedience stimulates growth in every area of life. We’re stretched emotionally, often physically, but most importantly, spiritually. Obedience always stimulates growth.

Ananias’s compliance with God’s surprising plan allowed him to witness supernatural power. No one else in Scripture witnessed the scales miraculously falling from the contrite former Pharisee’s eyes. Only Ananias. When Saul’s sight returned, Ananias’s own eyes were also opened to the amazing power of God to transform a life. Obedience always stimulates growth.

Step out on faith, and you’ll find solid ground.

                                        —Chuck

Humble Yourself

Rather than racing into the limelight, we need to accept our roles in the shadows. I’m serious here. Don’t promote yourself. Don’t push yourself to the front. Don’t drop hints. Let someone else do that. Better yet, let God do that.

Today would be a good time to resist going through life and ministry trying to live according to your own understanding—thinking if you can just climb one or two more rungs, you’ll be there. Then you’ll have what you need. Your family will be (what’s that word we like to use?) . . . comfortable. You know what your family needs most? They need you to be right with the Lord. That takes humility . . . especially as pastors.

If God is pleased to expand your ministry, trust me, the word will get out. You’ll be found . . . in God’s time. If you’re necessary for His plan, God will put you in the right place at just the right time. God’s work is not about us. It’s His production, start to finish. So back off. Let Him pull the curtains and turn on the stage lights.

Or He may choose you to be one of the nameless, lesser-known individuals who make the difference for someone else. View either path as a privilege . . . because it is.

Your part, pure and simple: humble yourself. Go there, my friend, and stay there.

                            —Chuck