It was the first class of my first year in seminary. We were on a lunch break.
A man who would turn into a life-long friend, let’s call him Dan, pulled me and another of our colleagues aside to this gazebo, one of the few distinguishing features of Westminster Theological Seminary.
We sat down and Dan showed us a picture of excited men and women posing together for a final group photo. They were all preparing to all leave their homes and do the hard work of church planting. Dan, younger by about ten years, was there in the picture, surrounded by kingdom workers. It was an optimistic, joyful picture.
Then Dan began to point to each face. This one had burned out after a couple years. Another had committed adultery and quit. A third had a spouse who couldn’t handle the lifestyle and was forced from the ministry. Someone else also burned out. The list kept growing.
Of all the church planters pictured, only a couple had survived. The rest were casualties, defeated by the many dangers of ministry life. And these stories are not unique.
You’ve heard the stories and you know the pastors.
They’ve written books, spoken on conference stages, and led churches of thousands.
They’ve toiled in obscurity, struggled to build their congregation, and battled a deep sense of loneliness and inadequacy.
It doesn’t seem to matter what level of worldly success or spiritual fruitfulness, these same pastors fall out of ministry. They commit adultery, use their power to crush instead of build up, work for their platforms instead of the kingdom, or become overwhelmed with the rigor of the job and burn out.
So brothers and sisters, pray for your pastors and ministry leaders.
I’m heartbroken every time a story like this comes across my social media feed. There is something especially devastating about a man or woman who has dedicated their lives to the work of the Kingdom falling in a way that ends a career in full-time ministry. Years of fruitfulness and faithfulness brought to a crashing end by mere moments of sinful pleasure. Yet this is the destructive power of sin.
When I was younger, I believed this couldn’t be me. But the truth is, the same sin that lives in my fallen brothers and sisters lives in me as well. Yes, we are made into new creatures when Christ saves us. Yes, we are being daily transformed into the image of the Son of God. But listen to how the Westminster Confession describes us new creatures:
XVII.III – Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.
The Confession is describing Christians. If not careful, I can fall into these grievous sins in such a way that would disqualify me from Pastoral ministry.
I, too, am a potential failed pastor.
So what do I do? Here is a simple strategy that, with God’s help, will keep me from falling.
Most first year seminarians and Bible-college students will learn Hebrews 4:12 – “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Armed with this verse, eager students of the Bible will begin applying this verse outwardly, challenging others and seeking to discern the heart-motivations that keep people from the Gospel.
But this sort of application misses what the Bible is actually saying. The author of Hebrews isn’t applying the two-edged sword outwardly; its aim is inward. Notice the verse immediately before – “Let us strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” (Heb. 4:11)
The living and active sword is to be used on me! I am to turn the blade inward and use Scripture to locate the sin in my life that it may be cut out. If I’m not daily subjecting myself to biblical surgery, then the sin will grow like a malignancy and threatens to destroy not only me but the work that God has called me to do.
Sin isn’t the only danger for pastors. Many become overwhelmed by the demands of the job and the equal pull of family obligations. Difficult church members and the hours needed to do the job well can leave ministers sapped of energy and questioning their call to church work. Eventually, some leave the ministry in pursuit of a different line of work.
When I am discouraged, I must “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let my requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). It sounds quaint, I’m sure. Read my Bible and pray. It’s the advice we give to children.
But the advice for children is good for pastors because it’s God’s advice to his people. And he attaches a promise to the command to pray. When we come to the Lord in prayer, God promises us to meet us with his peace which surpasses all understanding and will guard our hearts and minds from those things which would pull us away from Christ Jesus (Phil 4:7). Prayer is a potent defense, then, against the danger of ministry burnout.
Fruit of the Spirit
Seminary graduates have been trained to work on our theology and deepen our understanding of the Scriptures. It can be the case, however, that our theology and knowledge of the Word can become abstract and disconnected from our daily lives. Pastors must be especially careful to develop the fruit of the Spirit with as much vigor as they develop theological precision. They must be sure to grow in their knowledge of holiness alongside their appreciation and reliance on Scripture.
When our flesh attacks, we must be prepared. Cultivated joy will meet discouragement. Self-control can be wielded against the temptations of sin. And love will be developed for those difficult church members that frustrate and discourage.
Prayerful cultivation of the fruit of the spirit takes practice. We have to work at the fruit of the Spirit as they are foreign to our sinful selves. But the rewards of this work will be a lifelong, Spirit-empowered ministry.
As Dan held that picture, he exhorted us to be faithful brothers and sisters. He pleaded that we pursue faithfulness to Christ above all else.
We all have ministry goals. Some of us dream of a successful church plant. Others have a church size in mind. Others have their sights set on writing books or preaching from a conference stage. None of these are necessarily wrong goals, but when they become the focus of our ministries they eclipse the true aim of church workers: faithfulness.
In fact, the highest compliment that the Apostle Paul could pay Epaphras, one of the leaders of the Colossians church, is that he was a faithful minister (Col 1:7).
It is not wrong to succeed in ministry. I have no idea what worldly success I may or may not achieve during my life of ministry. But any worldly success should be a byproduct of a heart faithful to the Lord and a ministry goal of Kingdom faithfulness.
If I pursue faithfulness above all else, cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, routinely bring my burdens to the Lord in prayer, and allow Scripture to continually push me toward holiness, then perhaps, with God’s help, I will enjoy a fruitful life of ministry.