“One can’t believe impossible things,” said Alice to the White Queen. “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” –From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
I write this mostly tongue in cheek. But not completely.
Try not to appear to be bragging, pastor. It’s unbecoming to you.
Having pastored six churches over 42 years and having preached for over 55 years, I know how what I am doing or thinking, fearing or dreading, anticipating or remembering tend to work themselves into what I am preaching.
In fact, it seems to require the strength of Samson to keep these things out of our sermons….
If a pastor jogs or works out, it is impossible for him not to work that into a sermon at least monthly. “As I was jogging yesterday morning, I’d just completed my third mile….”
“Context is king.” Ever heard that? Many seminary professors have taught that to the young preachers in their classrooms.
It’s in error.
According to so many scholars, “What did the author mean?” is the first question we should ask when seeking to understand a Scripture. It implies that if we can get inside the head of the writer(s), we will have the full and accurate meaning of the text.
Not right. Not even close.
This morning, a friend shared a devotional from Exodus 12 concerning the Passover Lamb and the blood upon the doorpost. Christians–i.e., those who know the rest of the story and enjoy the teaching of the New Testament and the perspective of Calvary–know this was pointing to the blood of the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. We are redeemed by the blood is the constant theme of the New Testament. And the Passover Lamb was just one of many ways the inspiring Holy Spirit chose to plant that preparation in the minds and hearts of His people.
But Moses could not have known that. He surely had no clue.
His job was to obey, whether he understood or not.
What the writer understood is informative, but not the end of the story.
Did Moses understand the “snake on a stick” from Numbers 21? No way did he know what God was up to with that. But Jesus knew. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
So, what Moses understood has nothing to do with anything.
The only method I can find in the Bible to seeking a new pastor is to ask the Lord repeatedly (maybe ten days?), then narrow it to two candidates, offer up a this-is-it-Lord prayer and then flip a coin. That seems to have been the system the disciples used in Acts 1, but if anyone thinks that is presented as a recommended formula, it’s news to me. (And btw, I am not one of those who thinks the disciples did a wise thing there in the Upper Room. But it’s merely my opinion.)
There is no scriptural precedent for pastor search committees that I know of. Yet, they are a necessary evil, if I may be permitted to say. The alternative seems to be bishops appointing pastors or church bosses hiring them. Both methods have been tried and found wanting. But so has the search committee system been found to be flawed. There is no foolproof method.
“We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
These days, some churches are hiring firms to conduct the initial searching and culling for them. If they have found this system to be an improvement over the spontaneous-committee-of-the-untrained, I haven’t heard.
Pastors eventually conclude that search committees come in all shapes and sizes, all theologies and philosophies and agendas. Ministers learn to take what they say with quite a few grains of salt. Committees often function like the local chamber of commerce, giving their community and church the glamour treatment to the point that even their own members wouldn’t recognize it. They make promises they never follow through on, and ask all kinds of ridiculous questions they ignore once the questionnaire is returned.
Not all, of course. Once in a while, a pastor discovers a gem of a committee. I once told such a team, “The Lord is not leading me to your church, but I want all six of you in my church forever!”
Alas, those are the exceptions.
Alternate titles for this might be: Ways to Prevent Burnout. Or, How to Pastor the Saints Without Losing Your Religion. How to Mind God’s Work Without Losing Yours. How to Enter the Ministry Rejoicing and End the Same Way.
Okay. With me now? This list is as it occurs to me, and is neither definitive nor exhaustive. You’ll think of others.
One. Pace yourself. You’re in this for the long haul, not just till Sunday. Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. Among other things, this means you should not stay in the office too long, should not stay away from home too much, and should not become overly righteous.
Say what? The “overly righteous” line comes from Ecclesiastes, something they say Martin Luther claimed as one of his favorites. “Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself?” (7:16). I interpret this to mean: “Don’t overdo it, pastor. Keep your feet on the ground, and your humanity intact.” It’s possible to be so religious you become a recluse, so devout you come to despise lesser humans, and so righteous you become a terror in the pulpit. Stay grounded, friend.
“We do not know how to pray as we should” (Romans 8:26).
I know some things my pet does not.
My dog thinks he wants to fight that pesky cat next door. By his barking and straining at the leash, Albie gives every indication that chasing that cat would be the high point of his day. It wouldn’t. It would be his greatest nightmare.
That little cat sits on the driveway, completely unmoving when my dog walks within 10 feet, barking and snarling and threatening. The cat hardly blinks an eye. Another day at the office. Another house dog who thinks he wants a piece of me but has no idea the trouble he’s asking for.
I know what a fierce cat can do to a sweet little house-broken dog that has never been in a real fight in his life. I know his instincts tell him to chase the cat–that this is what he was put here on Earth for–but I know better.
I hold the leash and lead this lovely little canine on to other things, and as far away from that fierce little feline as we can get.
And just so does our Lord lead His children.
“Preach on sin, Pastor!” When the old gentleman urged that bit of counsel upon me, being young and a know-it-all, I assumed he wanted me to harp on the ways of drug addicts and murderers and terrorists, sins no one in our congregation was committing. But I know now what he was saying.
The old man was right.
Preachers who love the Word and are committed to the Lord’s people–well, a goodly number of them–have found that it is pleasant to the hearers and strengthening to his job security to leave out the sin business.
I’ve noticed this a lot. And it’s not just one or two preachers.
Here’s what happens.
You preach a great text and share some wonderful insights you’ve gleaned. And they are good. You end your sermon, satisfied that you have fulfilled your assignment from the Lord. Little old ladies–God bless ’em!–brag on you at the exit, and you go home pleased with yourself.
But not so fast.
“….according to my gospel, for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal….” (2 Timothy 2:9)
Pot-stirring: To take a stand on a controversial issue. Known colloquially as “opening a can of worms.” Rocking the boat. Rubbing the old cat’s fur the wrong way. Upsetting apple carts.
It’s a poor pastor who doesn’t stir the pot from time to time.
They didn’t crucify Jesus for sweet-talking the 23rd Psalm, for explaining the symbolic meaning of items in the Tabernacle, or for spending six months on the Greek verbs. He took a stand on what matters most, and when people didn’t like it, He held His ground and paid the ultimate price.
Bertha and her husband Gary were young and just getting started in the Lord’s work. Gary would sometimes be invited to preach in a church and at other times sing. This particular Sunday, after the service Bertha waited while her young groom stood near the piano talking with one of the women in the church.
The woman’s daughter, perhaps 9 years old, stood nearby staring at Bertha. At length, she spoke up.
“Do you sing?” she asked.
“No, I’m afraid I don’t sing,” said Bertha.
The child was quiet a long moment. Then, “Do you play the piano?”
“No,” Bertha answered. “I don’t play the piano.”
The child stared at her while processing this information. Finally, she blurted out, “Don’t you do anything??”
And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark. (Acts 12:25)
The Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them…. and they also had John as their helper.” (Acts 13:2,5)
Now Paul and his companions put out to se from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia, and John left them and returned to Jerusalem. (Acts 13:13)
After some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us return…’ And Barnabas was desirous of taking John, called Mark, along with them also. But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another. And Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and departed, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord….” (Acts 15:36ff.).
Staff members! Can’t live with them and can’t live without them!
The biggest headaches most pastors will know in a lifetime of ministry will involve staff members. Some will be his best friends, strongest advisors and most loyal supporters. Others will write the script for his nightmares, will be Absalom to his David (i.e., rebelling and leading an insurrection), and will turn hairs in his head either to gray or loose.
Perhaps the three greatest problems a pastor will face in his entire ministry will be choosing members of his ministerial ministry team, motivating and guiding them, and (occasionally) having to terminate them.
“When you come to appear before Me, who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer, incense is an abomination to Me…. I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your….appointed feasts; they have become a burden to me…. Even when you multiply prayers, I will not listen.” (Isaiah 1)
Often I pray at the beginning of a sermon, “Lord, help me not to squander Thy blessing, waste their time, or miss my opportunity!”
Today, we’re talking about the second of these: Wasting time.
We do a lot of that in church, I fear.
We waste time in church every time we find ourselves:
–praising the God whose word you are flouting, pretending to adore the God whose will is the last thing you want.
–voicing hymns which express truths you do not believe and adoration you do not share.
–bringing pitiful offerings in place of something meaningful. Or even worse, bringing an offering while griping about pastors preaching on money.
–saying prayers by rote when your mind is a thousand miles away.
Our Lord said, “This people honors me with their mouths, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8).
Such worshipers are wasting their time.