Pastors

In Praise of the Plateaued Church

In Praise of the Plateaued Church

We pray for more, because we think more, bigger, and louder will bring us closer to where God wants us to be. But what if “more” actually hinders our ability to draw near to him?

Pastor, Here's How to Be Built to Last

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.

John Newton, a pastor who was himself built to last, once wrote a letter encouraging other pastors to endure in the ministry. Newton wrote,

“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.

Newton writes,

“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.

The Essence of a Gospel-Soaked, Faithful Teacher

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How did we get to a place where Christians turn against Christians in the name of political power? How did we get to a place where we demonize one another by oversimplifying our beliefs and convictions?

How did we get here? By quarreling over words and secondary matters to the neglect of what matters most; by not faithfully teaching and demonstrating those things which matter most. Without faithful teachers, God’s people have few, if any, guardrails against worldly pursuits and thinking.

But what does it look like to be a faithful teacher of God’s Word? In 2 Timothy 2, Paul paints three compelling pictures of a faithful teacher for his young protégé, Timothy: the unashamed worker, the clean vessel, and the Lord’s servant. Taken together, these three pictures convey the essence of a gospel-soaked, faithful teacher.

THE UNASHAMED WORKER

The first picture Paul gives Timothy of a faithful worker is a sharp contrast between a good and bad workman:

"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness." – 2 Tim. 2:15-16

The good workman does his best to present himself as one approved. He is diligent about the work of teaching. He reads good books, takes classes, and disciplines himself to learn God’s Word. The good workman is humble. He knows he needs his instruction just as much as those he teaches. The good workman is careful to ensure he is presenting the Bible’s truths clearly and accurately. He knows the more clearly he presents God’s Word, the more powerful it is.

The bad workman, on the other hand, gets lost in endless controversies, inevitably entangling others in their foolishness. Their talk spreads like gangrene, infecting people everywhere it goes. Quarreling over such things as secondary or tertiary matters creates divisions and hurts the people you teach.

Don’t get tangled up in the parts of the Bible that are unclear when there is so much that is clear. Be like the good workman: present yourself as one approved, with no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

THE CLEAN VESSEL

Next, Paul explains that a faithful teacher is like a clean vessel:

"Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work."– 2 Tim. 2:20-21

“Vessels” refers to containers that would be found in one’s home in Paul’s day, like Tupperware in ours. Some vessels would have been used for honorable things, like eating, whereas others would have been used for dishonorable things, like washing feet.

We have a Tupperware cabinet in my kitchen (you know, the cabinet where every container falls out every time you open it). One of the “vessels” in that cabinet is a yellow, plastic bowl we use for thawing raw meat. I wash the bowl every time we use it, but even though I cleaned it, I’m not about to eat out of it. Why? Because that would be gross. That bowl is used for a dirty, or dishonorable, task.

In the same way, people are used for either honorable or dishonorable tasks. Without Christ, each of us was a vessel for dishonorable use—we were far from God and probably cared little for others. We were slaves to sin and set ourselves apart for dishonorable use.

But in Christ we have been made clean through the blood he spilled on the cross. Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension justify us in the sight of God once our faith is in him. We have been cleansed, made holy, and are now set apart for honorable use.

Honorable vessels are “useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.” As believers, we are useful to God in the sense that we are equipped to do good works here and now for people made in the image of God in a way that brings him glory (Eph. 2:10).

The words Paul uses—“honorable” and “set apart”—indicate that his clean vessel picture is about holiness. Paul wants to remind Timothy, and us, that holiness matters.

Holiness has fallen on hard times, though. We want to be accepted, so we wink at the number of drinks we have when we’re out with friends. We’re loose with our tongues, or we’re quick to laugh at a crude joke. But each time we participate in sin, we’re making dirty what Christ has made clean; making dishonorable what God has set aside as honorable.

Believer, pursue holiness and set yourself apart as useful to the Lord Jesus Christ.

THE LORD’S SERVANT

Paul’s third picture of a faithful teacher is the Lord’s servant:

"So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will."– 2 Tim. 2:22-26

Paul first tells Timothy to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” This is related to holiness, and it relays the Bible’s most basic instruction for how to deal with sin: to flee from it. As fast as you can.

Most of us have an overinflated sense of how strong we are. We think we can stand up to temptation and beat sin through sheer strength or willpower. But we can’t—that’s why Jesus had to die for us.

The Lord’s servant is not prideful. He knows he needs the grace of Jesus and the power of his Spirit to stand up to temptation. Sin and its consequences are scary enough to the Lord’s servant that he wisely runs the other direction. Instead of running to temptation, he should run to righteousness, faith, love, and peace. These are the fruit of the Spirit—attributes he will cultivate in us as we pursue them alongside him.

The Lord’s servant should also be gentle. In contrast to the devil’s quarrelsome servant, the Lord’s servant should be “kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” Think of your relationship with the people you lead: are you kind to them? Patient with them? Do you endure their questions and hardships? Are you gentle in your conversations and sensitive to their struggles?

The world is filled with impatient, prideful, power-hungry leaders. God’s Kingdom should house leaders who are just the opposite. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t correct people when necessary—Paul clearly states that Timothy should be correcting his opponents. But he should be doing so in gentleness, because “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”

Be patient with your flock. Be kind to them. Love them. And if they have strayed, instruct them in gentleness, and perhaps they will come to their senses and find their way back to the truth.

JESUS IS THE FAITHFUL TEACHER

Faithful teachers should be like a good workman, a clean vessel, and a servant of the Lord. And if, like me, you feel woefully inadequate to be all of these things, then take heart, because you don’t have to be.

You don’t have to be the perfect workman, the cleanest vessel, or the greatest servant because Jesus is.

Jesus is the perfect workman who never shrank back from declaring the truth and correcting false teaching. He never mishandled the Word of truth. He never quarreled over inessentials and never tired of telling his people of God’s goodness and their need for salvation.

Jesus is the clean vessel who presented himself pure and blameless before the Father. He was an honorable vessel his entire life but willingly gave himself up to dishonorable treatment on our behalf. He was willing to be dishonored so that we could become honorable through him.

Jesus is the Lord’s servant who was perfectly pure, never sinning though tempted in every way as we are. He was focused, never straying from his mission to bring the gospel to bear on all mankind through his sacrificial death on the cross. He was gentle, treating the lowliest of men and women with the highest amount of dignity. He patiently corrected, continuously endured.

Jesus is the faithful Teacher. He is the only leader who can do all of these things. And it is only by looking to him and relying on him that we will become the faithful leaders he means for us to be.


Grayson Pope (M.A., Christian Studies) is a husband and father of three, 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.

Sacrificing for Our Idols

IDOLATRY: AGAIN

In his early years, Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Europe with his family. On one trip, they went hunting for a few days, but Roosevelt couldn’t hit a thing. He later wrote:

One day they read aloud an advertisement in huge letters on a distant billboard, and I then realized that something was the matter, for not only was I unable to read the sign but I could not even see the letters. I spoke of this to my father, and soon afterwards got my first pair of spectacles, which literally opened an entirely new world to me. I had no idea how beautiful the world was until I got those spectacles. I had been a clumsy and awkward little boy, and while much of my clumsiness and awkwardness was doubtless due to general characteristics, a good deal of it was due to the fact that I could not see and yet was wholly ignorant that I was not seeing1

Idols make us blind. They not only make us blind, but also make us blind to our blindness. As many have noted, idolatry often turns good things into god things, where we seek ultimate satisfaction or security. I am not saying that every pastor who reads this is, right now, committing idolatry. I am saying, alongside men like Calvin, who said that our hearts are idol-making factories, that ministry idols can be and are a regular temptation for those in vocational ministry.

Colossians 3:1–10 is a great passage of Scripture to give us new “spectacles” to understand what is going on inside our hearts. To the extent that Christ is not supreme and preeminent in our hearts and lives, and to the extent that we are not seeking the things that are above, something else will be preeminent and our hearts will seek things here below. This is why it is so crucial for ministry leaders not only to feed others with the glory of Christ and the wonder of grace, but also to nourish their own souls at the feet of him who is the fountain of life. This is one of the reasons why Paul says that covetousness is idolatry (3:5). We are seeking life and fullness in someone or something other than God.

Keep this in mind: covetousness always says “more!” and never says “enough!” However, when the gospel of Christ and the glory of God capture our hearts, and when we see the supremacy of Christ and rest in his sufficiency, hearts that are content in the gospel will always say “enough!” and never say “more!”

Because I struggle with this idolatry in my heart, and I venture you do too, I am often tempted and often succumb to thinking like this: “I know I have Jesus, but I’d be happier if more people were sitting in the pews, if more people were grateful for what I do, if more people gave so we could have a larger budget or build a larger building, so that I could have more of a reputation and be known and admired by more people.” More. More. More. During the times when I am not sinking my heart deep into the “It is finished” of the gospel, I long for more, am never satisfied, and never say “enough.” What is the “I’d be happier if . . .” of your heart? Seriously. Take a moment and reflect on that question.

Partner—GCD—450x300Reflection is important because ministry leaders make such enormous sacrifices for their idols, whatever they may be. All idols demand that we sacrifice in order that they will bless us, so in order to experience the blessing of recognition, power, comfort, control, acceptance, or any other idol, we sacrifice our health, our families, our relationships, and even our own walk with Christ. This is why, I believe, when we are pursuing the idols that promise more and always deliver less, we will be filled with the anger and lying and bad-mouthing of others that Paul describes in verses 8–9.

The consequences of this idol worship are that, deep down, leaders may be filled with anger or constant disappointment with others because they are not able to deliver what the leader is looking for. The consequences for the leader are a dry and hard heart toward the Lord and often wrecked health and strained relationships with other leaders, with other people in the congregation or ministry, and even with his own wife and children. Idols subtly bring death into practically every sphere of life.

If the idols we are pursuing are blessing us, we will feel alive and successful—and prideful. If the idols we are pursuing are cursing us, we will feel despair and death. In the moments (and there have been way too many) when I have thought about leaving the ministry, the Lord has usually been quick to point out that I have been building my own kingdom and pursuing false gods. The disappointment and discouragement that I have felt has been more about my reputation being hurt and my selfish kingdom being crushed than about genuinely feeling I wasn’t called to ministry. I have realized that I have needed to repent for acting like some kind of Pharaoh and forcing the lambs under my watch and care to work hard to build Clay Werner’s kingdom, rather than prayerfully advance God’s. It’s as if God has been saying, “Clay, let my people go!”

Here’s what I want to say: when you realize that your internal idolatry is driving your heart and ministry, you don’t change by mere willpower. Moving forward isn’t about sin management, but about worship realignment. Deep down, at your core, Christ must become more satisfying than anything and everything else. Thankfully, the Spirit is eager and willing to help reveal Christ to your heart in such a way that you’ll treasure Christ above all things and endure even when the kingdom of God around you seems so weak and slow.2

THE KINGDOM OF GOD REMAINS FOREVER

Kingdoms come and kingdoms go, but the kingdom of God will remain forever. The danger of ministry is that pursuing our own kingdom can be easily disguised by using language from the kingdom of God.3 Too often, leaders themselves are blind to the reality that they are making ministry “their world” rather than a place of nourishment for God’s people and equipping for God’s mission. However, once the little kingdom is forsaken and repented of, the kingdom of God that is invisible yet inevitable, seemingly insignificant but yet incomprehensible in its power and breadth, will provide the deepest joy and the greatest security, especially as the eyes of our hearts remain fixed on its King.

1. Quoted by Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (New York: Random House, 2001), 34 (emphasis added). 2. Some helpful material for diagnosing idolatry are David Powlison’s “X-Ray Questions” in Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 129–44; Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman, The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions about God (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994). I have also found John Owen’s books Communion with God, Meditations on the Glory of Christ, and On Being Spiritually Minded very helpful in cultivating a heart of worship and adoration. 3. See Paul David Tripp, A Quest for More: Living for Something Bigger Than You (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2007), 72–82.

Clay Werner (MDiv, Westminster Seminary in California) is senior pastor at Lexington Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Lexington, South Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Liz, and their five children.

From On the Brink: Grace for the Burned-Out Pastor by Clay Werner. Used by permission of P&R Publishing, http://www.prpbooks.com/.