Pastors are not quitters. Or at least, they don’t plan to be. Yet about 250 pastors leave their pulpits a month. Most pastors don’t plan on quitting, but they also don’t plan not to. Unless pastors are built to last, they might find themselves burned out and beleaguered long before they planned on stepping down.
An aging and soon-to-be executed Apostle Paul once wrote to Timothy, his young protégé, to paint a picture of a pastor that’s built to last:
Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. — 2 Tim. 2:3-6
Paul challenges the young pastor to endure for the sake of the gospel. Paul knew that Timothy was going to face great resistance to much of what he had been commissioned to do. He knew Timothy would suffer for proclaiming his faith and telling people that Jesus was the only way to heaven.
So Paul gives Timothy three illustrations to help flesh out the kind of endurance he’s talking about. Paul paints pastors using the analogies of the dedicated soldier, the disciplined athlete, and the hardworking farmer. Each of these illustrations tells us something about what it takes to be the kind of pastor that’s built to last.
A Dedicated Soldier
In the first example of the dedicated soldier, Paul tells us that pastors are not simply participants in a religion, but soldiers in a battle. In his letter to the Ephesian church, Paul wrote, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
To be a Christ-follower—and even more so a pastor—we must realize that we are engaged in a spiritual battle against very real forces with very real consequences. Realizing the nature of the battles we’re in forces us to focus on what matters most. This is what Paul means when he says, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Tim. 2:4).
Imagine being in one of those hellish foxholes during World War 1 that you’ve probably seen depicted in a movie. If you found yourself in that environment, you wouldn’t be wondering what’s for dinner that night; you wouldn’t be browsing Amazon for a new pair of shoes. No, all that would matter is winning the battle.
Too often we get distracted from what matters most. We confuse doing good things for doing God things.
Pastor, are you distracted from the mission? Do you think more about what you’ll eat, wear, or do than how you can live for Jesus and his church? Do you ever ask God what he thinks about major decisions like where you’ll live or work? Do you have so many activities scheduled that you can’t make time for serving the poor or investing in someone’s life?
If you want to finish well, remember that your aim is to please your Father.
A Disciplined Athlete
Paul’s second illustration is a disciplined athlete. He said, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” We all know that, don’t we?
A golfer can’t move their ball wherever he or she wants and still win a tournament. Runners win by staying on the track.
If you want to win as an athlete, you have to play according to the rules. To do that takes discipline—and lots of it.
Michael Phelps didn’t win his gold medals by swimming a couple times a week. He trained for years and years, multiple times a day, to be the athlete he became. That takes an enormous amount of discipline.
And that’s Paul’s lesson for us here. If we’re going to become pastors who are built to last, we have to become people of discipline. We have to become disciplined to grow in godliness. As Paul told Timothy in his first letter (1 Tim. 4:7), we must train for godliness.
If you were to write out everything you do in a normal week to grow in godliness, would it reflect someone who is serious about following Jesus? This isn’t about a certain number of events that makes you become more like Jesus, that’s not how it works.
But at the same time, our schedule really does reflect our values and beliefs. Our schedule reveals what we think is most important.
Most of us are distracted from doing the things of God because we haven’t disciplined ourselves to do them. We miss reading the Bible in the morning because we stay up too late watching Netflix for another hour and we have to sleep in to get enough rest. We aren’t investing in the lives of others because we’ve involved ourselves and our children in so many activities that we don’t have any time to give to others.
There are, of course, life circumstances that are out of our control, but that’s not the case with everything. There are plenty of activities and events we give our time to that keep us from doing the work God has for us.
This is why the practices of following Jesus have traditionally been called “spiritual disciplines,” because it takes discipline to follow Christ.
A pastor that is built to last, trains himself in godliness. He disciplines his heart, mind, body, and soul for the work of building up the body of Christ.
A Hard-Working Farmer
Paul’s third illustration is of a hard-working farmer: “It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.” Farmers have to put their hands to the plow and do the hard work that’s demanded by their crops and allowed by the weather.
There is little or no glory in the hard work of plowing, planting, and patiently waiting. It doesn’t earn a man acclaim. It’s simply the hard, diligent work that’s required if he wants to enjoy the harvest.
If the farmer doesn’t plow, he doesn’t reap. If he doesn’t reap, he doesn’t survive.
So much of the work of ministry is like this. We spend time reading another chapter, preparing sermons, or going over a budget. We put in hard work and sometimes long hours to partner with God in the work he wants to do through us. And sometimes this work is tiring.
That’s why Paul wrote to the Galatian church, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9). Though the work is hard, we press on because of the promise that we will reap eternal life with Christ.
But we cannot go on like hard-working farmers without community or we will grow weary. We were made for community, and one of the primary reasons for that community is so that we can encourage one another to keep pressing on. As Hebrews 10:24 puts it, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.”
Put your hand to the plow and do the hard work of ministry. But don’t draw back from the people in your church. Share your life with them and draw strength and encouragement from them where it can be found.
Give Yourself Up to Christ
Unless we are dedicated to Christ, disciplined in Christ, and hard-working for Christ, we will not be able to endure for the gospel; we will not be built to last.
“In the school of Christ, you will have to learn some lessons which are not very pleasant to flesh and blood. You must learn to labor, to run, to fight, to wrestle—and many other hard exercises—some of which will try your strength, and others your patience.”
It’s often said that pastors must have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the skin of a rhinoceros. While there is certainly some truth to that statement, what pastors truly must have to endure in ministry is a profound understanding of grace. Grace sustains us through the ups-and-downs of ministry.
“But do not be discouraged—you have a wonderful and a gracious Master, who does not only give instructions—but power and ability! He engages that His grace shall be sufficient, at all times and in all circumstances, for those who simply give themselves up to His teaching and His service.”
Pastor, if you want to be built to last—like an orderly soldier, tenacious athlete, or hard-working farmer—give yourself up to Christ and his teaching. Do the work of ministry and draw on the grace of Jesus.
Grayson Pope (M.A., Christian Studies) is a husband and father of four, and the Managing Web Editor at GCD. He serves as a writer and editor with Prison Fellowship. For more of Grayson’s writing, check out his website or follow him on Twitter.