It’s a dangerous thing to be a Christian and a pastor.
If you don’t keep your wits about you, the relentless pull of the church will swallow you whole. I’ve been there. And I didn’t know what was happening until I stepped away.
Last year, the church I pastor gave me a sabbatical. I unplugged from the rigors of full-time ministry, put away my task manager, and ignored my email. It took four weeks for my mind to match the speed of my sabbath schedule, but when it did I discovered a rest and joy I hadn’t known for years.
But I also unearthed a dangerous development in my heart.
THE GOSPEL AS TOOL
I spent my mornings with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reading through his book, Discipleship. Early on, he develops the thesis that discipleship is commitment to Christ: because Christ exists, he must be followed. Anything less than this dynamic, relational, whole-life following of Christ is “an idea, a myth.”
Those words lodged themselves in my heart and began to pry open a carefully-concealed secret I’d long sensed, but not understood. As I spent my mornings with Bonhoeffer, I grew aware that I was committing a gospel fallacy. I had come to see discipleship as a system of ideas I administered to others. I had converted the gospel into simply a tool for ministry.
I never denied the gospel or its power, but in collapsing the truth about Jesus into my professional ministerial life, I learned to access that truth by performing my role. And now, removed from the office, I found the pursuit of Jesus feeling a whole lot like work.
Thankfully, the Lord disciplines those he loves. And by his grace I am doing better. I am fighting to undo the patterns that got me in trouble. Three practices in particular have been helpful to keep me from mythologizing Jesus.
SCHEDULING REGULAR, CRITICAL DISTANCE
It is remarkable how many sins, stresses, and spiritual pathologies go unnoticed in my heart when I stay busy. Ministry has a way of always demanding just one more thing, and I find myself moving from one task to another.
It’s exhausting—but also attractive. In many ways, it’s easier to focus on other peoples’ problems than my own.
But it should not be so with us. Bonhoeffer rightly warns, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community.”
Enter regular, critical distance from busyness. In order to see clearly and grow faithfully, we must regularly step away from the noise, lists, phone calls, projects, people, and emails . There is a kind of clarity that comes from being alone, when we have nothing to see but the state of our souls. Frightening as such a vision may be, it is the only way to identify the struggles, joys, and wonder knotted about our hearts.
And in the solitude, we are reminded that we are not actually alone. The God of grace meets us in the humiliation of our self-examination. He meets us, and in that weakness, he supplies us with all the help we need.
It may feel impossible to carve out time for such unstructured solitude. But if you entrust your soul to a faithful Creator (1 Pet. 4:19), surely he can handle your to-do list. He who holds the universe together by the word of his power will no doubt keep the ministry afloat while you commune with him.
SEPARATING PREPARATION FROM DEVOTION
It’s odd to say, but it’s hard to be a Christian in full-time ministry.
For me, the very thing that makes ministry such a delight—studying and teaching—is also that which threatens to compromise my relationship with Christ. In assuming that a vibrant communion with Jesus was happening through my own preparation, I found myself unable to access Jesus apart from my work as a pastor. But beloved, there is one mediator, and it’s not the ministry!
We were first and most wonderfully called to be disciples of Jesus. Our ministry could end tomorrow. The identity that lasts is not the prefix “pastor,” but the identity bestowed when we were baptized in the threefold name of God.
So, we must separate our preparation and our devotion. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn from our study. But if sermon or lesson preparation is our only time in the Word, we will invariably equate the Word with work. And Scripture then transmogrifies into a message for them, rather than a word of life for us.
The same rings true for prayer. The pastor must pray for his people, but even more importantly, he must love to commune with his Savior.
SUBMITTING TO TRANSPARENT COMMUNITY
Ministry is hard, lonely work, even in team leadership contexts. So much energy is expended investing in others’ lives that we can forget how much we need others to invest in ours. Add to this the frequent expectation that the pastor should have it together, and we discover a recipe for isolation.
Isolation is different than the solitude described above. Isolation is our enemy. The devil always divides and conquers, and in ministry contexts where the pastor goes it alone, he doesn’t even have to break a sweat. If we remain in isolation, we have only our perspective. Only our words of affirmation. Only our self-condemnation.
We need brothers and sisters with whom we can untangle the knots in our hearts, confess our sins, ugly cry without fear, and express our troubled anxieties. I am learning how much I need this. I currently have several peers with whom I can be brutally transparent about my walk with Jesus. To grow, I need—we need—partners from whom we need not hide.
We don’t ask our church members to go it alone or to fight the good fight in isolated struggle. We extol the beauty of Christian community. But if we don’t heed our own advice, we’ve got a problem.
To refuse to engage our own discipleship with such transparency is to mythologize Jesus by calling people to a reality we don’t really believe for ourselves. When we enter intentional and trusted community, we prove to our people that we take discipleship seriously.
THE GLORY OF MINISTRY
The work of vocational ministry is a weighty calling, studded with struggle, joy, sorrow—but above all, filled with glory. The privilege of leading people to Christ is unlike anything else in this world, because Jesus is unlike anything in this world.
The church needs pastors and ministry leaders who refuse to diminish their own joy by making Jesus a myth.