The Greatest Achievement

Achievement“How’s your church doing?” The question is often asked at church conferences by one pastor of another pastor. It may not always be verbalized, but most pastors are at least thinking the question when in conversation with another pastor.

If we’re honest we pastors have to admit to a twinge of jealousy when we hear of another pastor’s church doing better in some way than our own. If we’re honest we have to admit to a twinge of perverse delight when we hear of another church’s struggle. May God forgive us!

The church culture of our time doesn’t help us here. Church seminars are frequently conducted by mega churches, a superstar pastor, or are by church “experts” who refer to the mega churches as examples and quote the superstar pastors as experts. Images of dynamic churches we see in church magazines are rarely of the smaller church sanctuary with a pastor positioned between the Lord’s table behind him and the pulpit before him. Rather, the images are of a large stage and a multitude of lights casting a rainbow of colors upon a large praise band leading worship before a seemingly endless sea of people. Stories of thriving churches are more often than not stories of growing crowds and expanding buildings led by pastors who are bestselling authors.

Over the years I’ve grappled with what it means to have achieved something great for God as a pastor. Now that I’m retired from the pastoral ministry and looking back from the vantage point of hindsight, my perspective is a little different. The dreams didn’t always come true; the hard work didn’t always pay off the way I expected it to. Could I have done things differently? Yes, but would that have been better? Sometimes I think so, but in many cases I can’t be sure. Hindsight is not always 20/20. At any rate, it is what it is. Thankfully, I can also reflect on many good experiences and lives that were changed over the thirty-nine plus years we were together as a pastor and people. How can I accurately assess what was achieved?

I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have to assess what was achieved! I’ll leave that to the One whom I serve, and sought to serve all of those years. In one of Jesus’ stores two of three guys who were given their master’s resources (all three received different amounts) were obedient and did something worthwhile with what had been entrusted to them, with differing results. As Jesus told the story, the master gave the same response to the two faithful servants.Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21, 23)

This, then, is what I have come to see as the greatest achievement of pastoral ministry, and of life in general, for that matter: to seek to be faithful and obedient so that by His grace and mercy the Lord will say to me, Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

When Thomas Hooker, a preacher in the colonial time of our country, was dying a friend said to him that he would soon be going to heaven to receive his reward. Hooker replied, “I go to receive mercy.”

If a sponge’s greatest achievement is to absorb water, then my greatest achievement is to absorb the grace and mercy of God, articulated in His “well done” for me. I seek to live for Him and to serve Him knowing that this affirmation from Him already is a done deal. Any measurement of my achievements is irrelevant in the face of His immeasurable grace toward me. My greatest achievement is the acceptance of His grace!

Tears From the Speck in My Eye

LatheArtistSmallI’ve cut and sanded a fair amount of lumber over the years in my attempt to do home improvement projects. Handling wood can result in getting a speck of sawdust in the eye. It may be a speck, but it feels like a plank!

Jesus, having grown up in his stepdad Joseph’s carpenter shop and then presumably, as the oldest child, taking over the family business at Joseph’s death, knew about sawdust in the eyes feeling like planks. One time Jesus used his early years of experience with wood to make a point when He taught, How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4)

I’ve preached and taught on the passage a number of times, as probably have you. I’ll admit that my motive often was to help my parishioners see how wrong it was for them to be nitpicking, complaining, and judgmental people. I was missing the right application of the text, that the message was first meant for me! Jesus’ whole point was that we’re not to convict others so much as to be convicted ourselves. In seeking to drive home the message for my parishioners’ benefit rather than my own I was inadvertently demonstrating the very sin Jesus was illustrating! My ego prompts me to hope my listeners didn’t see that.

Oswald Chambers states in his June 1 devotion in My Utmost for His Highest,When God wants to show you what human nature is like apart from Himself, He has to show it to you in yourself.” We pastors are quick to point out that we understand fallen human nature very well because of our observation and frequent experience of it in the lives of our parishioners. Silly us; our first and most graphic example is closer to us than any of our parishioners, it is we ourselves!

In the latter years of my ministry leading up to my retirement I came to see more clearly that I am in the best position to pray for someone’s struggle with sin when I’ve first been humbled by the need for God’s grace with the sin in my own life. My heart must tear up over the “speck” of sin in myself more than the “plank” of sin I see in others.

Disappointment, Yes, Discouragement, No!

DiscouragementArtyThere’s the old story of Satan holding a garage sale where he offered a variety of his tools for sale to any demons who stopped by. There were tools of anger, lust, fear, lying, and so many more. A demon noted a tool in Satan’s garage that didn’t have a price on it and so he inquired what Satan might be selling it for. Satan replied, “That tool’s not for sale. It’s my most effective tool against God’s people.” What’s the tool?” the demon asked. Satan replied, “Discouragement.”

I’ve dealt with discouragement at various times through my years of pastoral ministry. I’ve asked myself if there’s any record of Jesus being discouraged. To my knowledge, there isn’t.

There are many accounts of Jesus being disappointed. Remember the story of Jesus coming down off the mountain top experience of being transfigured into His heavenly glory before Peter, James, and John? The remaining nine disciples had attempted an exorcism on a boy and had failed. When Jesus arrived the religious leaders immediately called His attention to the failure of His followers. “Jesus answered, ‘O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? (Luke 9:41) Sounds like Jesus was disappointed, even exasperated.

Then there was the time when the disciples forgot to pack a lunch and Jesus used it as a teachable moment. He then said to them, “Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:9-11) His disappointment clearly comes through the printed text. It seems there were plenty of times when Jesus was disappointed, but never discouraged.

I infer from this that to be disappointed is not a sin but that discouragement is, for the perfect Son of God was disappointed but not discouraged. My own experience confirms this. Disappointment has rarely brought me to a conviction of having sinned, but being discouraged, upon honest and sometimes prolonged reflection, has brought me to such a conviction. I’ve come to realize that being disappointed is usually prompted by the outcome of circumstances surrounding me or the behavior of people around me. Discouragement, on the other hand, comes from an inadequate or wrong view of God. If I really trusted Him for what was happening to me, that He has His reasons and purposes, then I wouldn’t be discouraged, perhaps personally disappointed, but not discouraged.

I’ve come to realize that discouragement is the fear that I’ve lost control and there is no way things are going to turn out well. Such fear of what has happened and what seems to be an inevitably bad outcome is based on a lack of faith that God is still on His throne and in full command.

As a follower of Jesus, and a servant of His, I seek to be like Him. This means I am willing to embrace disappointment because I live in an imperfect world but will reject discouragement because I serve a perfect Lord who is still in ultimate control and gives me the courage to keep from being discouraged.

“Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” (Joshua 8:1, 10:25, 1 Chronicles 22:13, 28:20, 2 Chronicles 20:15, 17, 32:7)

A Big Heart for Smaller Churches!

churchsideMedHere’s an article about “5 Myths of Small Church Pastors” by Eric Moore assistant professor of pastoral ministries at Moody Theological Seminary-Michigan. He is also the pastor and co-founder of Tree of Life Bible Fellowship Church of Southfield, Michigan.

Those who pastor small to medium sized churches can develop an inferiority complex. It may be due in part to the fact that so much of the literature about healthy churches uses large or mega churches as examples. Then too, there’s the assumption that bigger is better. Whatever the reasons, pastors of small to medium sized churches can be discouraged and lose heart concerning their ministry. This article can help encourage the heart of the pastor! Check it out HERE!

 

Wearing Dead Men’s Clothes

deadmenclothesSmallOne of the strange aspects of my pastoral ministry is that I’ve ended up wearing dead men’s clothes. This is not something they prepared me for in seminary!

This is how it happens: some man dies in my congregation, someone about my size. Getting rid of a deceased husband’s clothes is a difficult task for the widow. She can give the clothes to a non-profit, but there’s strong emotional attachment to her husband’s clothes. She thinks of a compromise, a way to give the clothes away and still see it worn (my bit of amateur psychoanalyzing here). The widow determines that I’m about the size of her late husband. She offers me his best clothes. (Clarification: I’ve not been offered any clothes the man has actually died in, at least not to my knowledge.)

Such an offer is a risk for the widow. “I don’t want to offend you, pastor, just say ‘No’ if you don’t want them.” I take no offense and accept the clothes, especially if he was a man with good taste.

One of the deceased men and I looked enough alike that people said we could pass for brothers. Some weeks after sharing her late husband’s wardrobe with me the widow, glancing into my office, said, “Oh, for a minute I thought it was Jim.” That particular day I was wearing both her husband’s sport coat and slacks. All in all, I sensed she was glad to see I was making use of Jim’s clothes.

I stopped by the apartment of the widow of our first associate pastor, Ray. His wife Marie had asked if I wanted to come over and go through his clothes. I had been close to Ray. He was old enough to be my father and, in fact, with my own father being deceased, was sort of a father figure to me. I drove home with a collection of his suits, sport jackets, slacks, and ties piled on my back seat, clothes he had often ministered in at our church alongside me. Wearing his clothes has been a reminder that his legacy lives on through my ministry.

Being a preacher/writer means I’m always looking for an illustration, a metaphor, or some kind of applicable principle in almost everything that happens to me, even the strange. What observations are there to be made from wearing dead men’s clothes?

First: if I want to save money on clothes I should target my evangelism to older men in failing health who are near my own size. Just kidding. Seriously now…

Christ “put on” humanity. The apostle Paul wrote that Christ was “…being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man… (Philippians 2:7-8) Our call to pastoral ministry is a call to live among His people, a call to be incarnated among them, in some small way, as He was among humanity.

Empathy is a key characteristic we’re to exhibit as pastors, which calls to mind the metaphor of walking in another’s shoes. As pastors we attempt to walk in our parishoner’s shoes. We “wear” our parishoners’ circumstances by imagining ourselves in their place as best we can. The apostle Paul says to “rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” (Romans 12:15) Though empathy is to be a characteristic of every Christian, we who pastor His people should lead the way in modeling it.

Walking in a man’s shoes, a dead man’s shoes, or wearing his coat or slacks is a vivid metaphor for incarnational ministry. It may not be listed as a sacrament by any church body but I, for one, have found it to be sacramental!

aaaqaqaq copyI came across this statement by a character in a novel I’m reading. Sometimes we find Biblical truth in strange places, including a science fiction novel that’s not necessarily religious. The truth of what this character expressed can help realign our heart and soul for ministry.

Assault from Nearby

KnifeInHeartMedWe were conducting a medical and evangelistic mission in Mexico with our daughter, her husband and their Fishers of Men ministry. Our daughter Julie asked the host pastor’s wife how she could best pray for her. They pastor a small church of about fifteen adults in a large town dominated by the Catholic Church. One needs to remember that the Catholic Church in Mexico has lingering and strong influences of the pagan beliefs that were a part of the culture long before the Catholic Church evangelized the country. For this, and I suspect other hard to define reasons, the Catholic Church is very antagonistic toward evangelical protestantism which has, in some cases, resulted in violence against evangelical Christians.

Given this spiritual environment you would expect the pastor’s wife to suggest that this conflict was her and her husband’s greatest challenge. Not so. She asked for prayer concerning the discord within their small church, especially for the critical attitudes people had toward her husband and his ministry.

Just a couple of weeks earlier I was in communication with a young pastor who I know well. I see no red lights in his ministry. He’s doing a great job but is facing harsh criticism by a couple of key leaders. These leaders are not handling their grievances in a way that honors the pastor they themselves believed just a couple of years ago God had called to be their pastor and the pastor of their church.

It may shock many to know the number one reason missionaries leave the mission field. It’s not because of conflict with local authorities, antagonism from other religious groups, cultural differences or inclement weather conditions. The number one reason missionaries leave the mission field is conflict with other missionaries!

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised; Jesus’ arrest and execution were orchestrated by the religious establishment, leaders of His own religion, the Jewish faith. He was the Messiah of the Jews, and it was the Jewish Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish ruling body, that manipulated the Romans to have Him executed!

Then, too, remember David’s lament. “Even my close friend, someone I trust, one who shared my bread, has turned against me.” (Psalm 41:9)

This blog is all about the pastor’s heart, and it is a heart often pierced and even broken by the very people we pastors are called to serve! What are we to make of this? What are we to do?

I don’t want to disappoint, but I don’t have a magic cure to offer. If I did, I’d set up my own consulting firm and charge an exorbitant price for you to attend my conference! Just kidding – about the consulting, exorbitant price and conference part – not about my lack of a magic cure.

Reflecting on my thirty-nine plus years at the church I served I can recall time and time again when I was deeply hurt by people in the church. I believe I survived it primarily because I had a sense of a profound call from God to be their pastor. I can remember one night, after a brutal congregational meeting in which two leaders took turns with the wireless hand held microphone and questioned my ability to lead. I lay in bed that night, on my back, in the dark, my wife lying beside me. I raised my arm up toward the ceiling, formed a fist, shook it and nearly hollered out between clenched teeth, “I will not quit.” It was, in retrospect, one of the shortest and most bizarre prayers I’ve ever prayed!

I know we can question our call when things get tough, but if our questioning is prompted primarily by complaints or criticisms, then we have good reason to question our questioning of our call! It seems to me if God wants to steer us in a new direction that He will speak through angels and not demons. If, after some quiet, reflective, prayerful soul-searching one feels a ministry in a certain place is no longer effective and no longer God’s plan, then so be it. I don’t think, however, we can hear that still small voice of the Lord in the high decibels criticism coming from our detractors. Our call should always trump criticism.

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