“Now, in the last days, difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self…boastful, arrogant, revilers…ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited…. Avoid such men as these.” (II Timothy 3:1-5)
Veteran Christian workers get this a lot. People tell you of a conversation with you from years ago in which you spoke words that changed their lives. You were God’s gift to them that day, or, just as likely you infuriated them and they have not been able to get past it.
The problem is you don’t remember any of it.
My daily e-mail brought two such messages, one of each kind. A young minister was thanking me and an older pastor was venting. The conversations had occurred some ten years earlier. I remembered neither.
The older pastor told of the time he sat in my office, seeking guidance for entering the ministry. According to him, I had asked what kind of church position he was interested in. That was the harmless little question that had ticked him off and fueled his anger for a full decade.
“I was morally outraged by the question,” he said.
I urge you, brethren–you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints–that you also submit to such and to everyone who works and labors with us. I am glad about the coming of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, for what was lacking on your part they supplied. For they refreshed my spirit and yours. Therefore, acknowledge such men. (I Corinthians 16:15-18).
Refreshing others. What a wonderful ministry. As opposed to wearing them out and using them up. Leaving them stronger than how we found them.
I’m struck by Paul’s tribute to Stephanas at the end of his epistle to the Corinthians. Along with his family and friends, this brother in the Lord did three things which earned him an “honorable mention” in Holy Scripture—
1. They were addicted to ministry. That’s quite a tribute. In our day, when people see needs, they frequently imitate the Lord’s disciples in the early part of John 9 and get into debates over who is to blame. But there are among us a few who have no time for such pointless dilly-dallying. They jump in to see what they can do to alleviate the situation.
There are so many kinds of addictions, but surely this is the best.
“What’s the worst thing about being a pastor?” she asked. “What is your worst nightmare?”
She and I were Facebooking back and forth about the ministry when she broadsided me with this one.
She suggested possible answers. “People writing nasty letters complaining? giving you advice? criticizing what you wear?”
I laughed and thought, “Oh, if it were that simple. No one enjoys getting anonymous mail trying to undermine your confidence in whatever you’re doing, but sooner or later most of us find ways of dealing with that.”
“It’s worse than that,” I typed. Then I paused to reflect.
Hers was such a simple question, one would think I had a stock answer which had been delivered again and again. But I don’t remember ever being asked it before.
“And a mixed multitude went up with them.” Exodus 12:38
“And the rabble who were among them had greedy desires, and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat?’” — Numbers 11:4
The unbelieving world is attending your church.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is sometimes we turn it over to them. Not good.
When the Israelites left Egypt under Moses, they were not alone. Exodus 12 says a large company of riff-raff seized the opportunity to flee the Pharaoh’s harsh rule also. (Various translations refer to them as “a mixed multitude,” “a motley mob,” “a mingled array of other folk,” “a crowd of mixed ancestry,” and “a great rabble.”)
Did we think the Hebrews were the only slaves in Egypt? Doubtless there were slaves from many countries. So, in the same way a jailbreak might free all the prisoners, many of the Pharaoh’s “inmates” decided they had had enough, that anything was better than the slavery of Egypt, and they threw their lot in with the Hebrews and the fellow named Moses.
Before long, the wisdom of that decision would be put to the test.
Bear in mind that these people, being outsiders, had no idea who Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were. They had no inkling that the great I AM was doing something mighty in their midst. They had no knowledge of Moses and no loyalty to him. Their thoughts were of themselves and their wants.
Don’t miss that.
“And all in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things….” (Luke 4:28).
“These things they will do because they do not know the One who sent Me” (John 15:21).
My notes from that church business meeting a quarter-century ago are fascinating to read from this distance, but nothing about that event was enjoyable at the time.
Our church was trying to clarify its vision for the late 1990s and into the 21st century. What did the Lord want us to be doing, where should we put the focus? Our consultant from the state denominational office, experienced in such things, was making regular visits to confer with our leadership. For reasons never clear to me, the seniors in the church became defensive and then combative. No assurance from any of us would convince them we were not trying to shove them out the door and turn over the church to the immature, untrained, illiterate, and badly dressed. To their credit, the church’s leadership, both lay and ministerial, kept their cool and worked to answer each complaint and every question.
My journal records a late Sunday night gathering in my home with 30 young marrieds from a Sunday School class. They were a delightful group. They wanted my testimony and had questions about the operation of the church. Then someone asked the question of the day.
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6).
In normal times–that means non-pandemic days–preachers tend to log a lot of miles on their cars.
And, in my opinion, most preachers tend to drive aggressively.
I’m a preacher. In a typical, “normal” year, I will log 35,000 miles on my car, mostly traveling to preach.
Now, I work hard at driving well, and my wife says I do well. But sometimes I wish someone would ride with me and point out if I’m doing something wrong or a bad habit I’ve fallen into.
My notes remind me of three occasions when I found myself riding with pastors as we drove to their churches.
In each case, I did unto them as I want someone to do unto me. That is, I helped the pastor with his driving. (smiley-face goes here)
What we are attempting here is to walk a fine line between the fun of humor and hyperbole and the conviction of truth and righteousness.
The Lord called you to preach the gospel and you answered. You went off to a Bible college or theological seminary of one kind or the other, and you earned yourself some degrees which are now prominently displayed on your wall, right beside your high school diploma and the certificate of appreciation from the supermarket where you led the prayer of dedication for their grand opening. That was a long time ago, and these days, well sir, you are somebody. You finally got past those tiny churches which many consider boot camp for the pastoral ministry and now you are uptown in a fine facility–or even better, out on the interstate in a spacious new campus–with your name boldly plastered on the sign out front as the senior pastor.
Have you “arrived” in the ministry? From all appearances, you have. But here are some ways you can tell for sure….
1) You have a Bible published with your very own commentary notes.
“The Official Roger Bigshot Bible.”
This is for pastors and other church leaders in particular.
When Jim went to his church as the new pastor, he told me, “They have a bad history. Every two years they run the preacher off.” He paused and said, “Let’s see if we can change that.”
He didn’t. Two years later, in spite of the wonderful growth the church was experiencing, a little group informed him that his work there was done and it would be better if he left.
I served one church where a small group of leaders–some elected and some not–met from time to time to make important decisions for the church. The poor pastor had little or no say. When I, the new preacher, suggested that this is the type of thing a congregation needs to know about and make the decision, the spokesman said, “We don’t like to upset the congregation about these things.”
These days in my retirement ministry, since I’m in a different church almost every Sunday, I see all kinds of congregational setups. In one, the pastor seemed to be an appendage and was considered irrelevant by the lay leadership. In another, he was the good old boy expected to not make waves.
Since my ministry in a church (as the guest preacher) is usually confined to preaching a sermon and extending the public invitation, I try to find out certain things before the service begins:
(In leading church conferences, I often present Ephesians 5:21 as the secret key to a thousand good things in a church fellowship. See what you think.)
“Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
I leaned over to my grandson in church and whispered, “I remember when Brother Ken brought the drum set into the church. Some almost died. Now look.”
On the platform sat a dozen musicians–pianist, keyboard, several guitars, two or three drummers, one violin, a couple of horns, and this time, for a special emphasis, a mandolin and banjo. The church music that day was absolutely outstanding.
I sat there thinking, “What if we had given in to the naysayers? What if Dr. Ken Gabrielse and I had feared the criticism and buckled?” (Note: At that time, in addition to being our minister of music Ken chaired the Music Department at our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Later he headed the Fine Arts Department at Oklahoma Baptist University. These days, he is a professor of Truett-McConnell University in Georgia. As fine a colleague as I’ve ever served with.)
There are times when church leaders need to pay attention to the criticism, and times to ignore it.
My longtime friend Will was telling me his story.
I was the student minister in a fine church many years ago, We had a wonderful ministry. The single negative about the entire experience was the pastor. You never knew what he would do next.
Case in point. One night in a church business meeting, the pastor announced that some property the church owned, including the former pastorium, was being offered for sale. At the time, my wife and I were living in that house! And now we learn they’re selling it. This was the first we had heard of it.
That night, my wife was angry because she thought I had known about it and not told her. But that was the way this pastor worked.
Staff members were nothing to him. Just pawns to be manipulated.
Listening to my friend tell of that experience, I thought once again that the number one trait a staff member is looking for in a pastor–as employer, supervisor, mentor, and hopefully a Christian brother-–is integrity.
Without integrity, nothing matters.