5 Posts from June 2010

What Ministry is All About

I am the product of mentoring.

There have been men in my life, some of whom you would not know if I mentioned their names, who have made a major difference in my life. They saw potential where I did not. They encouraged me to become something more than I was. They reproved and corrected me. They modeled what I longed to become.

Hands down, one of the most significant men in my life has been Dr. Howard Hendricks. “Prof”—as his students affectionately call him—has recently retired after completing sixty fruitful years of teaching in the seminary classroom.

That’s not a typo . . . sixty years!

I had the privilege of participating in an interview with Prof that I’d like to share with you. The video’s dialogue lasts just a few minutes . . . but its lessons continue to linger in my mind. In fact, they are life-long.

That’s where you come in as a pastor. I urge you not to underestimate the impact your ministry is having on those who hear your words and—more importantly—on those who observe your life (see 1 Timothy 4:16). Week after week . . . month after month . . . year after year—you are making an eternal impact on the lives of countless individuals. Never forget that.

Prof Hendricks is one of my few living heroes. Why? Because he has committed his entire life to building into the lives of others.

That, my friend, is what the ministry is all about. 


Can't watch the video? You can download the audio file instead.

The Church: A Safe Place to Hurt

Everybody hurts. But not everybody lives such honest and vulnerable lives that they admit the pain. Why? Because, most often, there isn’t a safe place to do so. The church should be that place (second only to the home). Regrettably, it isn’t.

I heard of a research study where psychologists discovered the top three places where average people “fake it.” First, we tend to put on airs when we visit the lobby of a fancy hotel. Next, we typically fake our true feelings alongside the salesperson at a new-car showroom. And the third place we wear a mask? You guessed it. In church!

Tragically, in church where authenticity should be modeled, we’ll paint on the phony smiles, slap backs, and shake hands, all the while masking what’s inside our hearts. In reality . . . we’re hurting.

I’ve often said that if you could know the pain in the lives of those sitting in front and behind you in church, you’d be shocked. Everybody hurts. We’ve all been wounded . . . we’re all bleeding within. Including the one behind the pulpit.

Part of what makes a church magnetic is when Christians aren’t afraid to live transparent lives with one another. Paul’s challenge to Timothy pushes past the façade and reminds us to live in reality: “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3). I like the simplicity of Paul’s words . . . though they are not simple to live.

In the original language, the phrase, “Suffer hardship with me,” translates a single verb that means, “to endure the same kind of suffering as others.” It’s not a command we can obey on our own. It requires the application of a principle: When tested, the body pulls closer together. How wonderful it is when this actually occurs! See the word with in the verse? That’s what makes a church so attractive. When one hurts, we all hurt.

It’s like what occurred in the early church. Who would have ever thought so many Christians would have been martyred in those days? Because of the persecution, the church pressed right on. Because they suffered together, their ranks grew. You don’t find that in the world’s system. When testing comes, folks usually scatter like rats on a sinking ship; you’re on your own! There’s competition. There’s envy. There’s hypocrisy.

But in the church? Grace pulls us together. It’s about considering others more important than ourselves. When someone is going through a tough time, a phone call is made. Somebody shows up at the door. Another brings a bag of groceries . . . sometimes a hot meal.

We cannot endure hardship with someone from a distance. In a contagious church, everybody hurts. Because nobody hurts or heals alone.


Self-Control, Part 2: Steps to Living above the Flesh

If we think we can’t win the fight against the incessant temptations of the flesh, then Scripture is mocking us. We’re being dangled by a hope that will never be realized. To put it even more bluntly, Paul was a liar.

But fortunately, we’re in a winnable war. Paul wasn’t lying. I offer four truths that can arm us for the conflict.

First, appreciating the nature of the battle is essential. It’s a universal war that began all the way back in the garden of Eden and includes every one of us. Our flesh craves satisfaction in the very things that God hates. And until we stand with the Savior in heaven, the age-old civil war rages on! Yes, we will experience the attack of Satan from the outside, but we have an enemy within that we must never forget or ignore. The flesh never takes a holiday.

Second, we are powerless to win the war against the flesh without the Spirit of God. By conscious submission, we engage the Holy Spirit in the first moments of crucial decisions. Our ability to do that will grow as we practice the spiritual disciplines. All of them prepare us for battle. All of them give us greater intimacy with the Almighty, who lives within us. The result is predictable: when faced with temptation, the Lord fights the battle on our behalf.

Third, developing this discipline is a personal matter. We can depend upon no one else to develop our own discipline of self-control. Paul wrote, “I discipline my body” (1 Corinthians 9:27, emphasis added).  This is something each of us must do in the Lord’s strength. If someone else has to restrain us, it’s not self-control! As a pastor, I’ve seen a lot of people marry with the hope that a partner’s strength will prop up his or her own weakness. (I’m sure you’ve seen it too.) The opposite is more often the case. There’s no magic in marriage. A godly marriage can be the instrument of God’s working to make us more like Christ, but marriage by itself makes nobody strong. Developing the discipline of self-control cannot be the responsibility of a husband or wife.

Finally, ignoring the consequences invites disaster. Lack of self-control will invariably lead to embarrassment for us, for our ministries, and for those we love. With issues of self-control, we’re usually dealing with things that we know are wrong and will have negative fallout. And they usually involve something habitual, which means that the people we hurt are probably growing weary. What’s worse, it adversely impacts our spiritual life.

In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul uses a word that most translations render “disqualified.” It’s in keeping with his word picture of the athletic competition, but “disqualified” can lead us to wrong conclusions about the spiritual consequences. Salvation and the assurance of heaven are not the issues in Paul’s mind here. Obviously, you will not lose your salvation if you fail to control yourself.

However, you quite possibly can be put out of the race by God’s disciplinary action. I have seen, on more than one occasion, a pastor sidelined by God for the good of the family, the ministry, and, of course, the individual.

I repeat: I urge you to appreciate the nature of the battle. Remember that you need the Spirit of God for victory. Take personal responsibility to develop self-control . . . and refuse to ignore the consequences.

They are disastrous.

Self-Control, Part 1: Meeting Our Impulses Head-On

Many years ago I was on an annual retreat with our church leaders.

After a busy afternoon of work, most of us men decided to relax and watch a championship playoff game between the Lakers and the Pistons. The Lakers weren’t playing very well, so the network kept switching back and forth from the game to coach Phil Jackson. As the gap in the score widened, he was getting more and more perturbed.

Just over Phil Jackson’s shoulder sat a woman wearing a low-cut blouse. Whenever the cameraman showed the coach, he made sure to frame the shot to include the woman. Not her face, mind you. Just what he and most red-blooded men in America would find most interesting. Not surprisingly, the network showed the coach a lot during the latter half of the game. With each shot of Jackson, we saw less of the coach and more of the seductive woman behind him—though never her face.

I noticed that the pastors grew more and more silent, and after a little while it was as quiet as a room full of nuns. Finally I blurted out, “Kinda hard to keep looking at Phil Jackson, isn’t it?” The guys burst into laughter as every ounce of tension fled away. I don’t think anyone there was guilty of lust, though that’s exactly how it can start.

In an unguarded, unexpected moment, something grabs our attention, and without appropriate boundaries and an honest acknowledgment of the temptation, we silently and secretly yield. We can dwell on the image, nurture it into a fantasy, and—even in the middle of a room full of fellow pastors—allow the impulse to drag us into lust.

But remember: simply noticing an enticing image doesn’t qualify as a lack of self-control. However, what happens in the five seconds after that may or may not qualify, depending on what we choose to do.

The apostle Paul obviously had the same penchant for lack of self-control as the rest of us. He wrote, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

I wish that full-time ministry made the battle against the flesh easier, but you and I know it doesn’t.

Even when Paul was writing God-breathed words, he still had to suit up and face the enemy in a civil war that never skips a day.


See also: Self-Control, Part 2: Steps to Living above the Flesh

Make the Time for Solitude

We pastors love being with people . . . but not all the time. Let’s be honest: people (especially talkative people) can be draining.

In times of solitude with God, however, the only person who needs anything is you. You bring your needs to God’s inexhaustible supply. There He sifts the essentials of life from the chaff. There He trains your mind on what’s important. The result? You’re left with a healthy perspective of who you are and what He’s called you to do.

The gospel of Mark tells us that “in the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there” (Mark 1:35). Why so early? Was Jesus a morning person? Not necessarily. Early morning was probably the only time He could be alone. He arose early even though the previous day had been non-stop. Even as a busy man, Jesus found a way to balance the demands on His time with His need for solitude with the Father.

That requires creativity and a willingness to inconvenience yourself . . . to the point of losing sleep, if necessary. But even making that sacrifice, there’s no guarantee you’ll get all of the time alone that you would prefer. Check the record. Jesus sought solitude, while everyone sought Him! (See Mark 1:36–38.)

Solitude and ministry exist in tension with each another, yet they cannot be separated. Effective spiritual leaders must learn the discipline of keeping themselves in proper balance. Our purpose as pastors, like that of Christ, is to serve others, not to cloister ourselves away in order to hoard up spiritual treasures for our own enrichment.

In terms of ministry, solitude is an investment—one that will make us richer so we can share that wealth with others. On the other hand, a pauper has no riches to give. Fail to seek solitude, and you will be too poor to give anything away. Your spiritual reservoir will quickly drain and stay near empty. The refreshment Jesus gleaned from solitude with the Father translated into meaningful ministry to the people.

In truth, some of you reading this are on the ragged edge. You are continually in motion, constantly in the presence of needs and people and demands and expectations—children pulling at you, spouse needing support, friends wanting help, groups looking for leadership, schedules, making plans, attending events. You can’t remember the last time you were absolutely alone, sitting—or better, kneeling—in silence. Because you have lost perspective, you will soon burn out. Stop before it’s too late! Not much ministry gets done from a pine box.

Let me suggest the obvious. Make time for solitude with God. Schedule it in your calendar like any other appointment. 

Then guard it—and enjoy it—without explanation or apology.