The pastor’s heart: Reservoir or cesspool?

“Guard your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23).

“Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19).  “Rend your hearts, not your garments” (Joel 2:13). 

This is one of those lessons almost no pastor learns except by personal experience.

Someone told you a joke years ago.  In my case, it was an older cousin and I was a young teen.  The joke was dirty by any measurement and some would say it was funny.  But it was filthy and has stayed with me all these years.  The joke is still in my mind and I am unable to get rid of it.

I wish I’d known.

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“Two questions that bug me about pastors”

“But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; My steps had nearly slipped.  For I was envious of some pastors, when I saw the success of those less gifted  than me….  Their strength is firm; they are not in trouble as other men, nor are they plagued like other men.  Therefore pride serves as their necklace…. Their eyes bulge with abundance; they have more than their heart could wish….” (Psalm 73…sort of…  With apologies to the Psalmist.) 

A pastor friend who has seen his share of troubles during his pastorates which total perhaps 25 years shared his questions with me.

One.  Some pastors live their entire lives without problems, serving church after church with a string of unbroken successes.  What sets these pastors apart?

Two.  And yet other pastors seem to know setback after setback in their ministries.  Are they to blame for this?  What are the characteristics that lead some pastors to go from trouble to trouble in churches?

After posing the questions–good ones, I think most will agree–he said, “I expect there are so many reasons for this,” and he named a few.  “God’s sovereignty, the pastor’s ability to deal with church politics, and temperament/personality.”

I promised him I would give this some thought and put the questions out here for our friends to comment on.  (Consider this your invitation.)

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What the lonely pastor should do

“My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.  Stay here and watch with me” (Matthew 26:38). 

When you are hurting, you need a friend.

Even our Lord did.

At a denominational meeting, a man approached and introduced himself. It turns out he reads this blog and is acquainted with my cartoons. And he said something that lingers with me to this day.

“Sometimes I think about calling you.  It gets so lonely where I’m working and I just need someone to talk to.”

As I recall, he is not a pastor of a congregation but works with pastors and other ministers.  Therefore, he has no regular constituency.  And often, that means no one is looking after him.  He is bearing this burden alone.

I tore off a piece of paper and wrote my phone number.  “Call me,” I told him.  “Please!”

That is one courageous man.

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Longevity in ministry: How to stay as long as God wants!

“Certainly, I will be with you” (God to Moses in Exodus 3:12).

Poor Moses.  He served the same congregation for forty years.

During all that time, Moses had no opportunity for advancement. And instead of getting easier as the years came and went, the work seemed to never let up.  One challenge after another.  It was enough to age a fellow prematurely.  Which is why, perhaps, the Lord chose a fellow who was already old–like eighty!–at the start.

Think of that.  Just at the time most people are getting fitted for a rocking chair and ordering their walk-in bathtub, Moses took on a new assignment.  Clearly, the Lord did not ask a committee of Israeli leaders what they wanted in the next shepherd.

Not only was Moses’ congregation the largest one around, it was the only one!

During those forty years, Moses did not receive a single raise.  And not the first award or recognition.  Well,  other than from God, which as it turned out, was more than enough.

The writer of Hebrews said we should ‘consider Jesus “who endured…” (Hebrews 12:3).  True. But we may also want to “consider Moses.”  He was a lot like us and demonstrates a hundred lessons on how to hang with a difficult job through good times and bad until you get the people of the Lord to the promised land.

Here are a few of those lessons.

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The team member who is your biggest headache

“…a thorn in the flesh was given to me …lest I be exalted above measure” (2 Corinthians 12:7).

They’re standard equipment, these “thorns in the flesh.” Burrs under the saddle.  Pains in the, well, you know.  They come with the territory.

I’m reading Jack “Dusty” Kleiss’ memoirs of his service in the Second World War.  “Never Call Me a Hero: A legendary American Dive-Bomber Pilot Remembers The Battle of Midway” is the lengthy title.  I recommend it highly.

As a student of the Second World War, I must have read a dozen or more of such books, memoirs of veterans of this greatest of all conflicts.  In spite of the title, Kleiss deserves the recognition and accolades of a hero as much as anyone ever has.  Again and again he risked his life flying planes of all kinds throughout the Pacific in the war against Japan.  He kept good records, his team did great research, giving us details on the days he served, the planes they flew and the men he served under alongside, which included Admirals Kimmel, Halsey, and Nimitz.

All is good, except for one guy who keeps popping up throughout the story.

Lt. Clarence Dickinson was his thorn in the flesh.

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The insecure pastor

“I am only an unworthy servant; just doing my duty” (Luke 17:10). 

I’ve noticed that actors seem to be an insecure bunch.

On the reruns of the old Match Game show (Game Show Network; these shows were run in the 1970s), celebrities are asked to supply answers that match those given by the contestant.  Invariably, the guest celebs are so frightened their contributions will be laughed at (in the wrong way) by the audience.  Their nervous laughter betrays them.

It’s understandable.  And even endearing.

The longtime “mayor of Hollywood” was Johnny Grant, who died in 2008.  It was an honorary position since Hollywood is a district of Los Angeles.  But Mr. Grant was known for his participation in the Hollywood Walk of Fame when a star would be placed on a sidewalk to honor a celebrity.  I heard him say once that in all the years of his involvement, he had never met one celebrity–not one–who was not insecure and afraid no one would show up for the little ceremony.

My wife and I were watching the PBS series on Queen Victoria last Sunday evening.  This segment dealt with the publicity the queen received which threw everyone for a loop.  An artist had sketched her giving one of her seven children a bath.  A print shop made hundreds of copies and sold them on the streets. The public was crazy about the drawings.  But Buckingham Palace was not so sure.  The queen’s advisors were alarmed and they upset the queen by assuring her the mystery and dignity of her office, of “the crown,” were being undermined.  She was torn, unable to decide what to do, until she learned that the public adored this image of her.  It personalized their queen and they loved it.

Insecurity in anyone is a frightening thing and can actually cause a ton of problems.

Pastors can be among the world’s worst at handling their insecurities.

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The people of God are special: Handle with care

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

Before the mediator delivered his decision in a church lawsuit which had been kicked into his domain, the adjudicator said, “I am well aware that in rendering my decision, I am dealing with the fine china of people’s lives.”

We interpret that to mean he was taking great care to get it right, knowing that people could be hurt, lives could be shattered.

We appreciate those who exercise such caution and wish the crazy driver on the highway would be as thoughtful.

Every pastor who stands in the pulpit on the Lord’s Day to proclaim God’s word would do well to keep that in mind.  You are dealing with people destined for eternity, souls for whom Christ died, those who were loved from the foundation of the world.  People indwelt by the Holy Spirit, redeemed by the blood of Christ, commissioned by God to do His work in the world.

They are His children and we are to be careful.

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My suggestion to the pastors….

“From Miletus, (Paul) sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.  And when they had come to him, he said  to them, ‘You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house….” (Acts 20:17ff)

I’ve been asked to speak to the pastors.  I’m delighted with the assignment.

Being a lifelong pastor–well, almost; I was called into the ministry 58 years ago this April–this is my group.  I have loved pastors all my life, literally, going back to the earliest memory of my childhood.  When I hear of a pastor being honored by God’s people, I rejoice.  And when I hear of one being turned out into the cold by God’s people–as I heard this week; abruptly, no severance, nothing!–I hurt as though they had done this to me personally.

Two invitations have come in recently which I hope is going to start a new trend.

Dr. Will Wall is the director of missions for the Pine Belt Baptist Association, which is the Hattiesburg, MS area.  Dr. Barry Joiner holds the same position for the Concord-Union Baptist Association in the Ruston, LA area.  Without either knowing what the other was doing, they each issued the same invitation: Spend time with a meeting of their pastors to talk about “things.”

Will’s invitation is for Monday, February 4.  Barry’s invite is for September 19.

I encourage these leaders to invite pastors to submit subjects or questions or issues they’d like me to tackle.  And I’ll add my own.

Here are questions that have been raised, for me to address….

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What Paul said to young pastors still applies.

“Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (I Timothy 4:11-12).

Most of us started preaching when we were young.

We automatically made a ton of mistakes.  it just goes with the territory, and no young minister should beat himself up over it.

Young preachers can  be shallow, silly, arrogant, sloppy, and most of all ignorant.   I’ve been a young preacher and at one time or the other, was all of those.

When I began preaching, as a college student, I filled my messages with slang and preached a lot of things I’d heard and thought about (but not thought through!), but very little from the Word.

I didn’t know enough of the Word to be able to preach it.

When I began preaching, I searched the Scripture for texts which would lend themselves to my shallow, superficial type of preaching.  I wanted catchy phrases, clear and picturesque sentences which would encourage me to venture out with creative ideas of my own, which I would then attempt to adapt to scripture (!).

I didn’t know any better.  I had never made an attempt to learn the Scriptures, but had heard messages from all over the place, many of them the very kind of preaching I was now attempting.  To say I’d not had exemplary role models is an understatement.

My college preparation had been for the classroom, not for the pulpit. I had not been to seminary.   And even after I got to seminary, I didn’t suddenly become mature and wise and smart.

I’m still working on that.

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How God called me into His ministry (My personal testimony)

“Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?  Then said I, ‘Here am I, Lord. Send me.”  Isaiah 6. 

“I was not disobedient to that heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19). 

I was 21 years old and a senior in college.  Our church was having a revival of the type you never hear about any more:  Two weeks long with over 400 people saved.  Pastor Bill Burkett baptized 250 of them.  On Tuesday night of the second week, the living God found me singing in the choir during the invitation.  “Jesus Paid It All.”  We were singing it non-stop as the flow of people to the altar seemed unending.  (We sang the same invitational song every night, so there’s no question on what we were singing!)

Suddenly, it felt like a curtain was being opened in my mind.  And the voice of God, that strong presence that I would come to know intimately over a long ministry, registered His presence and His message:  “I want you in the ministry.”  A thought completely new to me.  Something from outside, yet inside me.  Surprising, unexpected, not my voice.  But just as surely, I knew it was the voice of God.

It felt right.  Assuring.  Powerful.

I thought, “If this is really the Lord–and I know it is–it’ll still be here tomorrow night and I’ll go forward and announce it to the church then,” as was our custom.  And just that promptly the answer came: “This is the Lord and you know it is the Lord and there is no point in waiting.”  I remember thinking, “That’s true.”  I stepped out of the choir, walked down to the floor level, took the hand of Pastor Burkett and said, “God has just called me into the ministry.”  I have no memory of what he said.  He presented me to the congregation a few minutes later, along with all those who had come to be saved.  My friends came by to speak to me.

I was the only one surprised.

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