Both Joy & Shame

John Newton

I’m still reading Letters from John Newton, a wonderful compilation of many, many letters the famous hymn writer penned over the years. What wonderful wisdom flowed from his pen to paper in his letters! Here’s yet another example, a quote that should go straight to the pastor’s heart.

“When I look at some of my people, I am filled both with joy and shame; joy to see that the Lord has not allowed my labor among them to be in vain; shame to think that I have preached so much more effectually to them—than to my own heart.” John Newton

Resisting the Celebrity Pastor Temptation


We pastors like to be respected, even admired.  This can be good, we aren’t going to positively influence our parishoners if they don’t have a loving and positive view of us.  However, the danger is to want our parishonerss to take us too seriously. I’ll admit I sometimes bristled at how a church board resisted my ideas and sometimes seemed to treat me as an employee. I dreamed of being highly esteemed like some mega church pastors.

“The Celebrity Pastor Problem Is Every Church’s Struggle” is an article by RICH VILLODAS, a pastor that’s worth reading on the Christianity Today website.


The Last Idol

John Newton

Cotton Mather

I’m no longer in the “thick of it” as a pastor, having been retired as of this writing for over six years. The following quote from a letter of John Newton, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” articulates a truth that’s become more clear to me since my retirement from pastoral ministry.

John Newton writes concerning God and his own pastoral ministry, May he make me willing to resign it at a moment’s warning; and to sit quiet in my chair or my bed, and rejoice that his work is prospering without me, and that others are serving him better when I can serve him no longer! A sentence in Dr. Cotton Mather’s life struck me more than fifty years ago, and has been often upon my mind from that time — ‘My usefulness was the last idol I was willing to part with — but now I can part with that, and am content to be laid aside and forgotten, so that he may be glorified.’”

The fact that I gain great value from the writings of John Newton from centuries ago is good enough in and of itself, but then he gives a quote from Cotton Mather that meant much to him for more than fifty years! It’s a keepsake quote handed down from Mather to Newton, from Newton to Claassen, and now from Claassen to you! In this quote from Mather, John Newton reminds us that one of the idols we may worship is the idol of usefulness!

Now retired, I sometimes don’t feel as useful as I did when I was in the mad rush of ministry. In my occasional lamenting concerning this perceived diminished usefulness I’m learning that the Lord Himself is to be my all in all. While doing ministry it was always tempting to make the Lord’s work my all in all. Making work, even the Lord’s work, our all in all, turns it into an idol. I see this with greater clarity now that I’m retired.

It’s easy to see how the business person, the athlete, or the entertainer makes their work their idol. Not so easy is seeing how we as pastors can make our calling our idol.

Here’s a short checklist I’ve come up with to determine if ministry might be an idol (you probably can add to the list): Do I find it difficult to relax and feel like a whole person when I take a day off or take some vacation time? Am I jealous of other pastors who seem to be succeeding more than I am? Am I disappointed when I don’t get the affirmation I expected? Am I debilitated by criticism? Is all of my study and spiritual reflection geared to putting it into a future sermon or teaching?

Productivity and usefulness are highly regarded in our culture. There’s no doubt that they have their place; we certainly should attempt to be productive and useful, especially for the Lord. But they can be overrated! Undoubtedly the Lord having given us one day in seven to rest from work should help us grasp this truth and live it out. Unfortunately for us pastors the designated day of rest, Sunday, is one of our busiest days. Yes, we can find another day of the week for our Sabbath, and that’s good. But keeping productivity and usefulness from becoming idols will require a change of heart and attitude.

I’ve always been amazed that Jesus, the Son of God, God incarnate, waited until about the age of 30 to begin His active, public ministry. Here He was, God come to earth, and He was comfortable working in his stepfather’s carpenter shop from around age 15 to 30. If anyone could have been a child prodigy preacher it would have been Jesus. He was not; He was a carpenter. He obviously didn’t look at productivity and usefulness in the same way as we often do.

“My usefulness was the last idol I was willing to part with,”  Cotton Mather observed of himself.  If we’re honest with ourselves it’s probably a stubborn idol in our lives too.  I suspect, however, that once we stop making our productivity and usefulness an idol, we’ll be more productive and useful to the Lord!

Paul’s Heart-felt Words, Expressing a Pastor’s Heart

In my morning devotions a portion of 1 Thessalonians 2 was next up for me to read. I thought, wow, this describes the pastor’s heart. I re-read it. This is, by God’s grace, the way I tried to be during my nearly 40 years of ministry at Mayfair-Plymouth Church in Toledo, Ohio. My prayer is that Paul’s words will warm your own heart for this kind of ministry.

“But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us… For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8, 11-12)

What words! We’re to pastor like a mother, being gentle, and like a father, exhorting, encouraging, and charging our people to walk worthy of God… Being affectionately desirous of our people… Sharing ourselves, as well as the gospel, because the people are dear to us.

I just thought the reminder from Paul would be helpful in re-imaging for us what a pastor’s heart is to be like. It was for me.

Oxygen for Your Soul, First!

We hear the instructions every time we fly, the flight attendant explaining the oxygen masks that will deploy in an emergency. If we’re traveling with a child, we’re told to first put on our oxygen mask before we help the child put on theirs. For only the first time and then for only an instant, the instructions seem wrong. Of course, it makes total sense; you can’t help the child if you’ve already passed out from oxygen deprivation!

By God’s grace we pastors/preachers provide a breath of fresh air every Sunday, and oftentimes the days in between, for our parishioners. We’re conduits of sorts of the Breath of God, the Holy Spirit. Our calling is to be used of the Lord to breathe greater spiritual life into those under our pastoral care.

We all need oxygen for the soul, those of us who pastor and those we pastor. Oxygenating souls, increasing the spiritual metabolic rate, moving people beyond spiritual lethargy, helping to prevent Holy Spirit deprivation is what we’re about as pastors. We’re even called upon to resuscitate those who are drifting dangerously close to being unresponsive to God or unconscious of God.

The reality is that we can end up so exhausted and winded ourselves, our own souls being Holy Breath deprived, that we’re little good for helping others take in the Breath of God. We need to apply the instructions of the flight attendant to our ministry!

It may seem like proper Biblical sacrifice to allow ourselves to be winded and soul-depleted of the Holy Breath of God’s Spirit for the benefit of others, but it’s not. Any scripture about self-sacrifice we might attempt to use is bad exegesis, using it as a proof text to back up our misguided efforts. Even Jesus took time away from the crowds and from His disciples too, spending much time alone in prayer. Not surprising that it’s been said prayer is oxygen for the soul; Jesus lived the principle. We do well if we do the same.

Taking time off, days off, vacations, study leaves, taking time each day to be alone with God to pray, even more than once a day, all are ways to catch our breath, the Breath of the Holy Spirit. The flight attendants have it right. We should inhale the oxygen of the soul for ourselves first, then we’ll be in a good position to help provide oxygen for the soul to those God has providentially placed around us.

Pastoral Peripheral Vision

Most pastoral leadership material encourages pastors to pour a majority of their time and effort into the lay leaders and potential lay leaders of the church. These leaders, when well discipled and trained, are to, in turn, do much of the ministry with the rest of the congregation. I would argue, however, that while we should have a focus on leaders and potential leaders, we should also utilize our peripheral vision and see the value of our ministry as pastors to the peripheral people!

Pastors who believe they should focus almost exclusively on leading leaders find the basis for this approach in Jesus’ example. Jesus, especially toward the end of His ministry on earth, spent a majority of his time with His disciples who, in turn, would reach others.

But there’s another side to Jesus’ ministry. The early part of His ministry not only included spending time with His disciples but also reaching out to the peripheral people. Think of the Samaritan woman at the well, a prime example of a peripheral person. Note that her encounter with Jesus takes up the entire fourth chapter of the Gospel of John; this peripheral person was pretty important! Unless we have a premonition of our own ensuing arrest and crucifixion, perhaps we should also embrace Jesus’ early model of ministry to peripheral people!

Jesus frequently and habitually reached out to the marginalized people of His day, the peripheral people, and He did so to such an extent that He was criticized by the “religious leaders” of His day for doing so! Ministering in the name of Jesus, therefore, certainly must include giving significant attention to those in our church who are not mature spiritually or active in ministry, the marginalized, the peripheral people.

During my nearly 40 years of pastoral ministry I conducted an every other week men’s breakfast and/or luncheon that consisted primarily of men who were not in leadership, were not potential leaders, and weren’t active in any ministry. Most, by my estimation, were not very mature in their faith, though some had been church attenders a majority of their lives. In all honesty, they were more interested in the camaraderie over a meal than in the short Bible study that I brought to the table. That was okay by me. After all, many of the people drawn to Jesus wanted a healing more than a Word of the Lord, and He obliged them.

We pastors aim for offering college level studies in the church, perhaps even seminary level courses, with ourselves being the professor. In our church I found myself the adult nursery attendant taking care of the infants in the Lord, the crawlers in Christ, and the toddlers in the Truth.

I would bring with me to the restaurant pocket New Testaments, hand them out, and give the page number of the Biblical text which we were to study. I doubt most could have found the Gospel of Matthew without resorting to the table of contents. If I had asked them to bring Bibles I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone showed up with a white gift Bible still stored in a polished cedar wooden box!

But these were good times with these guys! On rare occasions one of them offered to give thanks after the server brought us our food (I never put anyone on the spot to pray, read the text or answer a question). It usually was a beautifully simple, child-like, and honest prayer. The pray-er had not yet “learned” how to intone a long pastoral-type prayer with “thees” and “thous” peppered throughout.

None of these men were the student type nor would they likely ever be, it just wasn’t in their DNA. You would not have caught a single one of them with a three-ring binder taking notes of a sermon or Bible study. Some had difficulty comprehending what they read, so they didn’t read much. Yet, I saw growth in them, a warming to the Lord, a grasping of the things of God that up until our restaurant rendezvous had eluded them.

As I reflect back on these men, I can’t recall any of them giving me any hassle as their pastor. Ironically, though I would have loved to have seen them blossom into leaders and sacrificial participants in the church’s programs, I found they caused me far less grief than the leaders and sacrificial participants in our church!

Yes, I have fond memories of meeting with these men and am sobered by how many have gone into eternity. My prayer is that all of them are with the Lord; we certainly talked about how to be assured that that happens.

Back to the training of leaders to lead the rest of our people: how can we as pastors train our leaders to connect with the marginal and peripheral people, seeking to move them along in their faith, when we ourselves are not regularly doing so? We can’t teach and model what we don’t do.

As much as we pastors need to focus on leadership development, let’s also be aware of what is in our peripheral vision! Those peripheral people are a blessing in disguise! Let’s embrace them!

Useful to the Lord, No Matter What

I’ve been reading through “The Letters of John Newton” and was impacted by what he wrote to a friend. Being retired from pastoral ministry, I was encourage by these words to keep active for the Lord and to do so with the right attitude.  Most who come to this blog probably are still active in pastoral ministry but I’m thinking it still is a helpful insight. We should always live with the end in view and this thought from John Newton certainly helps us do that.

“It will, however, be well worth while to live while the Lord is pleased to enable me — for the preaching of the gospel, and to own me in it. And should he see fit to lay me aside, I hope still to be willing to live my appointed time. May his grace make me so! If I could exercise submission, patience, and thankfulness — I might be still useful, even if bedridden.

“I have no notion of a minister outliving his usefulness, provided he is preserved in a right spirit. Might not I sit quiet in a corner, and rejoice to see others coming forward to serve the Lord better than myself, when I could serve him no more? Might not I bear private testimony to his goodness, and his truth — when I could no longer speak for him in public? I have observed sometimes that caprice, peevishness, jealousy, and other evils have stained the old age even of good men. My chief prayer now respecting myself is, that I may be preserved from indiscretion and folly; and that if it pleases the Lord, my evening of life may be consistent with my profession, and that I may set without a cloud.”

Covid – 19 and Martin Luther

Martin Luther painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1529

As we deal with the pandemic of the coronavirus, we can learn much from something the great church reformer Martin Luther wrote over 400 years ago. I first saw this quote in a post on the Rock Point Church (of Schertz, Texas) Facebook page. Their post stated…

“When Martin Luther was dealing with The Black Death (Bubonic Plague, 14th-16th centuries), he wrote these wise words that can help inform the way we approach things happening in our world right now…

‘I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me, and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.’

And so Luther stayed in his hometown of Wittenberg, Germany, along with his pregnant wife. He cared for and ministered to those dying of The Black Death until the plague had passed from his area.

Quote From: Luther’s Works Volume 43 pg 132 the letter “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague” written to Rev. Dr. John Hess.

I wanted to pass along this Facebook post because Martin Luther’s words are insightful and helpful all these years later! So are the words of the Psalmist with which we close.

“Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.”  Psalm 91:1-2 & 5-6

Behind the Patchwork Quilt

“What makes me a successful pastor is __________,” or “What would make me a successful pastor would be if ____________.” How would we fill in the blanks?

I suspect most of our responses would actually describe aspects of a healthy, thriving church. After all, if our church is successful then we’d likely see ourselves as a successful pastor. So, what phrase first popped into your head with which to fill in the blank or blanks? Would it be “growing numerically,” “mission minded,” “where almost everyone is in a small group,” “a tithing church,” “a God glorifying church,” “a Christ-centered church,” “a socially engaged church,” “a ____________ church?”

It could be a more personal answer too. “Being an expository preacher,” “working a lot of hours,” “knowing most of the people love me as their pastor,” “being well respected by my pastoral peers.”

More likely than not we’d like the option of filling in the blanks with several different responses. Perhaps our core identity is a patchwork quilt of a number of aspects of ministry that would be a comforter we could snuggle in so as to feel good about ourselves as ministers.

Now that I’m retired from pastoring, I’m seeing things a bit differently in hindsight. Having been out of the pastoral ministry for nearly six years I’ve had to grapple with what my core identity is, that means apart from being a pastor. The essential question is, who is the real Dave Claassen, now that I’m no longer “Pastor Dave”?

The answer is, of course, that I’m the same Dave Claassen! My identity is not in what I do but who I am, a loved child of God who has a call from God! That’s always been true, even all those years I pastored a church; it’s just easier for me to see it now than it was when I was in the thick of it as a pastor.

The Apostle Paul put it well when he wrote to the Corinthian church, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.” 1 Corinthians 4:3-5

The pastoral ministry has many aspects to it, like a patchwork quilt with all of its pieces. Most of these pieces of ministry are important (to one degree or another), but they shouldn’t be what we wrap up our identity in. An interesting characteristic of a quilt is that it has a backing, one piece of material, that backs everything, that helps hold it together and give it strength. That’s how I see God, as the all important backing to my patchwork quilt of calls from Him. It’s in who I am in Him, not in what I do for Him, that I seek to wrap my identity.

John Newton’s Confession, and Mine!

I’m reading “The Letters of John Newton” who was an English Anglican clergyman and wrote the most beloved hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace.” In a letter to a friend he wrote, “I continue to creep on. I preach to others with some marks of acceptance. I attempt to preach to my own heart likewise – but it is very dull, and not easily impressed. It is a strange heart; it needs to be emptied – and filled, to be broken – and bound up, to be softened – and consolidated, at the same time….

“… I am sometimes almost weary and ashamed either to write or preach anymore, there is such a vast difference between what I am in myself, and the idea the Lord has given me of what a believing sinner ought to be.”

I take a perverse kind of comfort to know that such a great man of God and great pastor was open and honest enough to share such thoughts with a minister friend in a letter. John Newton certainly knew of what he wrote when he composed the hymn “Amazing Grace.” We pastors, if we’re as honest as John Newton, will have as our personal anthem “Amazing Grace.”