There’s a book here and a church resource kit and other resources, but if you visit the website, this short film is there for anyone to watch.
Check out Godspeed.
The work of a pastor can be tough. When you’re facing a global crisis, it gets tougher. Normal patterns are disrupted. Pressures increase, and as they do, cracks become more pronounced.
Reverend Jakob Topper, pastor of NorthHaven Baptist Church in Norman, Oklahoma, tells several disturbing and sad stories emerging as a result of the pressure of pastoring during a global pandemic in an opinion piece at Baptist News Global. Topper writes:
I was on a Zoom call recently with 10 pastors across three denominations, when one of the participants shared a struggle with suicidal thoughts in these challenging days. By the time the meeting concluded, four of the 10 had found the courage to admit their own suicidal ideations.
He goes on to chronicle the troubles. One congregation opened early and shortly thereafter a member died from COVID. Other pastors were threatened by congregants from each extreme, who said they’d leave or withhold their tithes if the church didn’t reopen/remain closed. Another pastor was fired because the church was unhappy with her leadership, one had to lay off half their staff, and another was a victim of assault by a congregant–who came to the building and kicked the pastor’s door off its hinges, attempting to provoke a fight in response to the previous Sunday’s sermon, which addressed the topic of race in America.
Rev. Topper notes other factors that make church work tough right now. There is vast economic uncertainty, cultural anxiety, hyper-partisanship, a contentious and ongoing civil rights debate, and to make matters worse, it’s an election season.
We’ve got to get through this. And it will be much better if we’re able to get through this together. We’re bruised, battered, and beaten. Devouring one another from within won’t do us–or the world, or the kingdom of God–any good.
Rev. Topper offers advice to churches and congregants. For congregants, it is important to remember that the church and Christ are united, but not one and the same. Jesus is our Savior and Lord, and his goodness is not in doubt. But God has called together human beings who are still on the way, who are still in the process of being sanctified, who are yet to be glorified. We will fail one another, but Christ will not fail us. Rev. Topper also calls us to remember that pastors are undershepherds who serve the Good Shepherd, that we should pray for our pastors, to commit to being encouraging and faithful church members during a time of trial, and to advocate for your pastor’s mental health.
Rev. Topper then gives advice to pastors. He encourages pastors to see a counselor, talk to their primary care physician about their mental health, to slow down and reset expectations, to actively cultivate friendships via wise and available channels, and to lean on peers, other co-laborers in ministry. Excellent guidance, all.
The only thing strange about Rev. Topper’s framing of this crisis is his choice to draw upon the biblical story of Saul falling on his sword. He states, “There’s a story in the Old Testament about King Saul being defeated in battle. Instead of waiting on the opposing army to torture and ridicule him before killing him, he chooses to take his own life by falling on his sword.”
Rev. Topper writes that “pastors are already facing ridicule not just from their adversaries but from many of their own congregants. They’re being tortured by their own inability to lead their churches out of a pandemic, out of hyper-partisanship and out of racism. Falling on their swords is starting to look pretty attractive.” He adds, “this is a new level of hell that pastors are living.”
The problem is that Saul’s choice to fall on his sword is neither condemned nor praised in 1 Samuel 31. This particular text is silent on the subject of suicide. It most certainly is not an endorsement of this option, however. The arc of the Saul narrative offers us more of a picture of an example to avoid rather than one to follow.
Rev. Topper’s connection with Saul could be read as an out for ministers, one with biblical precedent. The overall thrust of his article argues that we do not want to see ministers choose this avenue even though some are considering it and that we can do a better job, together, of caring for one another. But the Saul example seems to suggest it is an available or at least an understandable avenue, even if it is not a preferable outcome.
I would think that better analogies could have been drawn from Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, or any of the other apostles. There are multitudes of New Testament examples of the early church facing immense suffering and trying times, and yet because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, these early disciples were able to both name the reality of the sufferings they faced while also praising God because of the reason for their hope: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some were glad to suffer for the name. Others recognized quite quickly that suffering is unpleasant, yes, but it also holds transformative potential, a signal that God, in some way, may yield something precious as the result of passing through the refiner’s fire.
The New Testament also gives us every reason to believe that the church consists of both enemies and friends, and that persecution and intense hostilities can arise from within the body as well as from without. That’s a sad reality, one that I’ve experienced firsthand. Pastoring is tough work. It always has been. Being the church is tough work. It always has been. The wheat grows up with the chaff.
Rev. Topper’s evidence is anecdotal–another sampling of pastors may reveal churches and leaders who are thriving. But there is no doubt that these are challenging times. We need to care for our pastors, and for one another. And we would all do well to tend to these troubling signs of the church’s spiritual health.
If our pastors–and our congregants–are responding to this crisis in ways that are destructive, then perhaps we are not as healthy as we thought we were before the pandemic. That’s a discipleship problem, one that can only be addressed if congregants and their pastors, together, commit to honest self-evaluation and renewed commitment to following Jesus wherever he leads. Whatever we were doing, this is the result. Changes may be in order. If so, make them.
I want every pastor to be mentally healthy, resilient, buoyed by hope, steadfast, and strengthened so that they can persevere. I do not want our churches to be places that crush their pastors. And for anyone who does have suicidal ideation, that can happen. Pastoring is tough. Get help. You are loved. There are people who will walk with you through the dark valley and help you see your way to the other side, who will do so as friends of God. You may not see them right now, but they are out there, maybe not in your context, but in the wider world and, hopefully, in the wider body of Christ.
This season has been tough on everyone. Times are tough. We’ll make it through. Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus. He went through worse–some might say he went through hell–and he did it for us, not only to inspire us, but to flood the world with his redeeming grace.
I subscribe to Alan Jacobs’ newsletter and his last edition contained several items I enjoyed, including this piece of artwork by Pawel Kuczynski and this post on the different interfaces in the LEGO universe and what they teach us about console design. He also shared a poem by R. S. Thomas offered in his collection The Echoes Return Slow:
I was vicar of large things
in a small parish. Small-minded
I will not say, there were depths
in some of them I shrank back
from, wells that the word “God”
fell into and died away,
and for all I know is still
falling. Who goes for water
to such must prepare for a long
wait. Their eyes looked at me
and were the remains of flowers
on an old grave. I was there,
I felt, to blow on ashes
that were too long cold. Often,
when I thought they were about
to unbar to me, the draught
out of their empty places
came whistling so that I wrapped
myself in the heavier clothing
of my calling, speaking of light and love
in the thickening shadows of their kitchens.
In digging around for more information about Thomas, a Welsh poet, Anglican priest, and none-too-cheery-looking fellow, I found a prose piece that accompanied the poem above:
What had been blue shadows on a longed-for horizon, traced on an inherited background, were shown in time to contain this valley, this village and a church built with stones from the river, where the rectory stood, plangent as a mahogany piano. The stream was a bright tuning-fork in the moonlight. The hay-fields ran with a dark current. The young man was sent unprepared to expose his ignorance of life in a leafless pulpit.
What an image.
The pulpit does expose you, and service in ministry reveals to you how little you actually know. Indeed, you do represent “large things” even in small places–which really turn out to not be so small–and the people there contain depths profound and unfathomable. There are surprising moments, and unanticipated exchanges of words filled with tremendous meaning, not only about everyday moments, but about God, not only in the light, but in the shadows of life.
This image comes our way via Dallas Willard, and is among his helpful diagrams.
Don’t mix these up.
The main thing is never to get discouraged at the slowness of people or results. People may not be articulate or active, but even so, we do not ever know the results, or the effect on souls. That is not for us to know. We can only go ahead and work with happiness at what God sends us to do.
– Dorothy Day, The Reckless Way of Love, 63
I used to believe this to be true because I had found it to be true in my work with children and youth. But now I believe it to be true in all of ministry, in all of life.
Observing positive results and good fruit is a blessing, so never forget to rejoice. But when you see little yield, do not lose hope. The harvest belongs to God. Maintaining trust, and practicing obedience to the command to love one’s neighbor, is an expression of faith.
This message was delivered to the people of University Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, on November 11, 2018. The occasion was the ordination of my friend, Jennea Pilcher.
Opening Remarks and Word of Testimony
Good evening. It is good to be here tonight and to look upon some familiar faces. I’d like to thank Pastor Jerimiah and Jennea, as well as the people of University Baptist Church, for extending an invitation to me to be part of this wonderful occasion. It is truly an honor to be here, to witness the work of God in this place, and to worship and give thanks together for what it is that God has done.
Many of you are aware that I served this congregation from June of 2013 to June of 2016 as Minister to Students. In youth ministry, you might be aware that a common element of a typical gathering is games. But you see, that isn’t exactly my forte. From the day I began service, I knew I’d need help in that regard. So all during my first summer, I prayed.
And God answered. On the first Sunday of the fall semester Jennea Pilcher attended the College Bible Study class in Room 200, led by Cheryl and Tim Wilson. Jennea was pleased to see a familiar face–Kathy Raines had met Jennea at TCU’s church fair, and though their meeting had maybe taken place the previous year, Kathy remembered Jennea, and welcomed her. Not long afterward Jennea and I had a conversation. She was interested in youth ministry. And she would be more than happy to plan, prepare, and lead the games portion of our Wednesday night gatherings.
Jennea became a key leader in our youth ministry. She served this church as an intern, and later as interim youth pastor, and she and I became not only colleagues, but friends. Jennea shared with me her passion for missions, and her discernment regarding her calling in life. Her experiences in South Africa had led her to believe that God may have been calling her to serve as a missionary. I, of course, asked, “What about youth ministry?”
Jennea answered firmly: “No.”
I eventually came to ask her about pastoring, about serving the local church. Throughout the Bible there are examples of women exercising leadership and having authority, who set for us a tremendous example of faith. In the Old Testament we find Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who feared God and defied Pharoah, Ruth the Moabite, Esther the Queen, Huldah the Prophetess, Deborah the Judge, among others. In the New Testament we read about Mary the mother of Jesus, her cousin Elizabeth, Mary of Bethany and her sister Martha, Dorcas, Lydia, Junia, and the daughters of Philip the Evangelist, who had the gift of prophecy, as well as others.
Now, I know there are some passages in the Bible that are hermeneutically challenging, that are difficult to interpret, and some of those even have to do with women in leadership. But I trust this congregation has done that work, and has proceeded here tonight convicted by the Holy Spirit that this is God’s will, that you as a body have witnessed God’s gifts and graces resting upon Jennea, and have chosen to set her apart and to ordain her for the work of the gospel ministry.
That is a decision I am glad to affirm and applaud.
Our Scripture reading for tonight comes Jeremiah 1:1-9. We read:
1 The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. 2 The word of the Lord came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah, 3 and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile.
4 The word of the Lord came to me, saying,
5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
6 “Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”
7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.
9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.
This is God’s Word.
Jeremiah was a prophet of Israel. He was appointed by God as a messenger during a difficult and challenging time. Jeremiah’s time was not unlike our own. You could say God wasn’t exactly “in,” but God wanted a relationship with his people, so he sent them a messenger. Jeremiah was not always well loved by those in power. No, he was a bit of a troublemaker. But he was faithful to God. That, in the end, is what counts.
This text contains vital truth for the minister, for the pastor, for the person who serves God while serving the church. But it also contains truth for every Christian, for each one of us, for it reveals to us what God has done, and what God is doing. We see how God set apart Jeremiah. But we also find that God has likewise set apart each one of us, called us and incorporated us into God’s plan and purpose, bringing about the kingdom of God in our midst through the people he has gathered, the church.
This reading tells us, first that God prepares. Second, it tells us that God calls. Third, it tell us that God sends. And lastly, it tells us that God provides.
First, God prepares. God tells Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” God had seen that there would be a need, and God appointed a prophet, one whom God foreknew even before he was born.
We find a similar thought in Psalm 139:13-16. David writes:
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
In Luke 1:14-17, the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, that John “will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Jennea, it is vital for you to remember, and for all of us to remember, that even before we were born, God was preparing us for this moment, for this time, in which to live and serve. Paul said it well in Acts 17:25-27, in that God “himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”
God uses our life experiences, both the good and the difficult, to prepare us and refine us, to shape us so that we might best serve under God’s reign. God prepares the way, and prepares us. This may lead us to some uncomfortable places. This may lead us to places where the soil is rocky. Conversely, it may also lead us to places where the waters are still and the grass is lush. Be encouraged. God is with us. God is the source of all joy, but God is no stranger to sorrow. If you do not believe that, look at Jesus Christ.
God, indeed, prepares.
Secondly, God calls.
In Jeremiah 1:4 we read, “The word of the Lord came” to Jeremiah. He was given a summons, a call, an invitation. As Christians, we worship the God who speaks, the God who brought our reality, the Creation, into being with a word. God spoke to Abraham and said, “Go to the land I will show you.” He spoke to Moses and said, “remove your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
God continues speaking, continues calling. In the New Testament, that call is revealed most fully and completely in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
In Matthew 4:18-20, we read that “18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.”
In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says, “ “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that Jesus Christ, “walked the infinitely long way from being God to becoming man; he walked that way in order to seek sinners!” When he came and walked among us, he called human beings unto himself as disciples. He was the companion of ordinary men and women, of the very old and the very young, and to all he said, “Come to me.”
God’s word came to Jeremiah. And Jesus’ word comes to us: “Come to me.” God calls us, as disciples and as followers, as the redeemed, as those to whom God has extended his salvation. This calling is true for every person in this room, no matter how saintly you are, or how far from God you may believe yourself to be–if you’re here, you are not as far from God as you think.
The prophet Jonah said, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” We are called to trust the saving work of Jesus, even as we are called to follow. Each of us has a calling. It is not hidden behind a veil of mystery. It is the calling to be faithful to Jesus Christ.
But some, like Jennea, sense a calling to serve God in a particular way as a shepherd, as a voice, as a minister, as a pastor. And, as is true for all of us, it is important to remember that that word, that summons, has come from God. The surety, the depth of conviction regarding that calling, sustains us.
Thirdly, God sends.
God said to Jeremiah, “You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.” God is a sending God.
And this message proved to be important to Jeremiah. He would be sent to Israel, not only to proclaim God’s word before ordinary people, but also before the most powerful people in the land, people who had the means and authority to arrest him, detain him, and even execute him.
God remains a sending God. But when we are sent by God, we have nothing to fear.
In John 20:19-23, following Jesus’ resurrection, we are told
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Jesus did not want his disciples to remain behind locked doors, hiding from those in authority, but instead to go out, to enter into the world, to proclaim the kingdom of God, to offer forgiveness, to preach the gospel of repentance, and to invite all people into fellowship with God through faith in Jesus Christ.
In Matthew 28:18-20, the risen Jesus said to his disciples, ““All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Jeremiah was given a mission. We have been given a mission.
That is our mission.
It is the best mission. The word gospel means, “good news.” We have been given the best possible news. Christ is risen! And because Jesus has conquered death and defeated the grave and atoned for our sin and opened the way to fellowship with the Father and the Spirit, we can have peace with God. We can also be about God’s work, feeding the hungry and offering drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked and visiting those who are sick or in prison. We can proclaim good news to the poor, and declare the year of Jubilee. Christ has come, and now he sends.
This is a word for you, Jennea. Christ now sends you into the world as a minister of his good news. Not your good news. His good news. But this is also a word for all of us. Christ sends us into the world as heralds, as servants, as witnesses. We are sent.
Lastly, God provides.
When Jeremiah is told by God that he has been appointed as a prophet to the nations, he has a reasonable response.
“Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”
7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.
9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.
You see, God prepared Jeremiah, called him, and sent him, but he also promises to provide for him, to be with him and to give him the things that he will need.
God promises his presence, “I am with you.” God promises his protection, “I will rescue you.” And God promises his provision: “I have put my words in your mouth.”
You may be afraid. There is wisdom in knowing you are afraid, but there is also wisdom in knowing that we serve a God who has power over all things that cause us to be afraid, and he has given us the promise of his presence and protection. You may be anxious because you are young, and that you may not have the wisdom or the words you will need, but you can find assurance in the knowledge that we serve a God who is from old and who is all-wise. Anything you need, God can provide. And God dwells within you. It is Christ in you. It is the Holy Spirit that is in you. Learn to walk by faith, and you will never lack. God’s abundance is inexhaustible; his riches are beyond measure.
God will provide.
We are gathered here today for worship, and to set apart a friend and fellow servant for the work of the gospel ministry. Some of us may be tempted to say, “This is what Jennea Pilcher is doing.” Or, “This is what we, University Baptist Church, are doing.”
But the good news for us today is that this is what God is doing. God is the one who is at work in our midst. God has prepared, called, sent, and now provides for us what we, as the people of God, need in order to continue to follow Jesus faithfully. That includes pastors, ministers. God has appointed a servant, our friend Jennea. God has invited us as companions, to God and to one another. God has made this possible through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Are we not thankful? Is God not good? Is God not worthy of our ceaseless wonder and praise, our glad and joyful obedience?
I’m thankful. God is good. God is worthy. Praise be to God. Amen.
We live according to our values and priorities, and, as Greg McKeon has observed, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
Our family has a list of values. They are:
How do we know when we’re living according to our values? It is hard to measure something like “togetherness,” and I didn’t think a scoring system was proper. So I derived a few true/false statements that could help me have confidence we were hitting the mark. We are living according to our values if:
I wrote these things down at the start of 2017. We had been in Waco for six months. While most of our values were pretty clear, it was helpful for our family to write them down and to think about what I wanted to pass along to my children as the years passed. The true/false list helped as well, not only when evaluating how we’re doing, but also when making decisions.
Living our values and our priorities begins with our family, which is why “peace at home” is a critical marker for how we are doing. “Peace” involves each person and the entire unit. We have to evaluate how we are doing physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. And peace begins with me.
One of the questions I ask each week is this: “Is your family happy and thriving? Can you help them in any way?” This requires that I act as a peacemaker. Peace isn’t just the absence of conflict. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. Peace, in the Jewish and Christian traditions, suggests completeness and wholeness. As God’s agent, I am called navigate conflict peaceably and seek the good and right in all circumstances. That’s not always easy.
If we have peace at home, we’ll be secure in one another’s love. We will know that we are loved. And from that place of security, we can find courage to be the people God has called us to be.
We go through seasons where we are busy. To be busy is acceptable. To be in a hurry is not. We want to be good stewards of the life we have been given by God; we want to use our talents in a manner that is pleasing to God. This relates in obvious ways to the next two evaluative statements. We have to say no to many things so that we can be free to say yes to the best things. We also have to take a wide angle view of life, seeing that there are many seasons we pass through, and therefore we must build in rhythms of work and play. We begin small, week by week. We practice sabbath. When it is time to work, we work hard. When we grow tired, we plan for a break.
My two children are different. Both, in their own way, have moments when they try to play things safe. They need to be nudged, pushed. So does Molly. So do I. Therefore, we encourage one another to take risks from time to time, to do something creative, to open ourselves to the possibility that we will fail. We remind one another that it is safe to fail, for there is no failure that will cancel out the love we share and the love we know that is ours in Christ.
Our faith leads us to value service, and we want the world to be a better place because we passed through. Therefore, we remind one another that we are helpers, and pitch in when we can in ways large and small. We do good works. We are also generous with our resources, including our money.
I apply this principle to myself first. I’m a servant of my wife and my children. I want them to experience joy and success and the good things life has to offer, and I am willing to give of myself in order to increase their chances of growing, thriving, and finding success.
We don’t always get it right. So when we are missing the mark, or when we outright fail, we begin anew. God’s mercies are new each morning. We learn from our mistakes and correct course. We start over, if necessary. For this to work, we have to be honest. An old proverb says, “When the horse is dead, dismount.” If our present course is the wrong one, we face it together, and change direction.
When we do get it right, we celebrate. Whether it is a small victory or or a big win, we party. Celebration is a discipline; joy is something you can grow. I want my children to experience life at home as a place of happiness, encouragement, and fun.
Whether you are a married or single, have a big family or no children at all, you might find it helpful to define your values, to think about how to live a life you intend. Your children may be grown. You may be old. But there is still time left. Live your days well.
Praying together and praying for one another is in Paul’s mind one of the most important ways Christians utilize the spiritual connections they have with one another in Christ. The language he uses to describe the activity of praying with and for suggests that in his mind it is a strenuous and vigorous effort. The synagonizo compound combines syn with agon, a Greek word that comprises a larger “agon motif” in Paul’s epistles. It is a motif or cluster of synonyms all built around the athletic imagery of ancient Greece and Rome. All of the terms that comprise the motif in Paul’s letters “suggest the thought of exertion and maximum endeavor.” Prayer for Paul was not a passive folding of the hands in a serene posture of worship but an active exertion of maximum effort in collaboration with other Christians. He viewed it as a legitimate engagement with him in ministry and often requested that his coworkers in ministry pray specifically for him as he prayed for them (2 Cor 13:9; Eph 1:16; Phil 1:4; Col 1:3, 9; 1 Thess 1:2; 5:25; 2 Thess 3:1-2). Paul’s prayer relationship with his churches and coworkers was a reciprocal exchange of ministry effort that produced mutual spiritual benefit for all involved. Paul prayed for his churches and coworkers and he asked them to pray for him.
– Stephen D. Lowe and Mary E. Lowe, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age: Spiritual Growth Through Online Education, 158. Emphasis mine.
One of the ways I have encouraged fellow Christians to support their ministers as well as their fellow congregants is to pray for them, and I have often asked friends in ministry to pray for me. The most meaningful gift I have received from those I have served with and alongside has been their prayers, for in the knowledge I am being prayed for I have found encouragement, a sense of shared commitment to God’s calling, and a deepening love. When someone tells me they are praying for me and then follows through, I experience incredible joy.
Lowe and Lowe write that prayer is an effort of “reciprocal exchange” that builds up all parties involved. It not only results in God strengthening and guiding the minister, but the strengthening and guiding of the whole body of Christ. Prayer unites the thoughts and actions of the body of Christ, heightens sensitivity to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and deepens commitment to Jesus, his calling, and his way.
Pray for those in your fellowship. Pray for your pastors and leaders. Invite others to pray for you. Through prayer, God builds you up and strengthens those around you. This is so not only for your benefit, but for the world’s sake, and, ultimately, for the glory of God.
A free confession is a condition of full remission and when the sin is public the confession must be public. If the minsters of England had sinned only in Latin, I would have made shift here to admonish them in Latin, or else have said nothing to them. But if they sin in English, they must hear of it in English.
– Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 15
Richard Baxter was an Englishman, churchman, and minister who lived from 1615 to 1691. The Reformed Pastor, an instructive treatise on the ministerial vocation, was written in 1655.
In it, Baxter advocated for clerical reform. He believed ministers should be faithful and diligent in service. He believed many were not and should be called to account. He felt it was his responsibility to rebuke his fellow clergymen and to call for change.
In Baxter’s preface, we discover that other ministers objected to his instructions, particularly when he named their failings in the common tongue–English. His opponents preferred Latin so that only the clergy could read it. But Baxter thought publishing in English was necessary and of the greatest possible help. By writing in English, congregants would remember their clergy were like them and find assurance that their pastors would lead the way in repentance.
Clergy and congregation were together in the same boat.
If thousands of you were in a leaking ship, and those that should pump out the water and stop the leaks should be sporting or asleep, yea, or but favour themselves in their labours, to the hazarding of you all, would you not awake them to their work, and call out on them to labour as for your life? And if you used some sharpness and importunity with the slothful, would you think that man were well in his wits that would take it ill of you, and accuse you of pride, self-conceitedness, or unmannerliness to talk so saucily to your fellow workmen? or should tell you that you wrong them by diminishing their reputation? Would you not say: ‘The work must be done, or we are all dead men : is the ship ready to sink and do you talk of reputation? : or had you rather hazard yourself and us, than hear of your slothfulness?’ This is our case, brethren. The work of God must needs be done : souls must not perish while you mind your worldly business, and take your ease, or quarrel with your brethren : nor must we be silent while men are hastened by you to perdition, and the Church to greater danger and confusion.
– Baxter, 16
Baxter calls on his fellow pastors to get to work, for it was not only their lives that depended on it but the lives of all those in their care. He wanted other ministers to hear his message and also wanted congregants to be aware so that they too could see the need for the whole church to enter a season of repentance and a time of dedicated prayer for renewal.
He adds, “I speak all this to none but the guilty; and thus I have given you those reasons which forced me, even in plain English, to publish so much of the sins of the ministry, as in the following treatise I have done.”
It has been said the church is more of a hospital for sinners than a mausoleum for saints, though it is in fact a place of formation, care, exhortation, and responsibility for both. All, in this respect, will be accountable for their fervor, dedication, and obedience to the calling of Christ. Imperfect clergy are part of an imperfect church; both are counting on a perfect salvation offered by a perfect Messiah. And we need one another in order to be faithful.
Yet the pastoral vocation does bring with it the responsibility to direct the hearts and minds of the people toward God and to walk with the people in holiness. Ministers should bear that weight and own that facet of their calling.
Baxter understood that if the church is in trouble, the first people called to repent are her ministers. This demonstrates the clergy have understood several essential and related truths: that salvation is by grace, that the power of God transforms, that forgiveness is ours in abundance, and that service in the kingdom of God is a great privilege. These truths are for the whole church, not the minsters only. But by leading the way in repentance, there is greater possibility for new direction and new life for the body as a whole.
In our examples of Christian leadership, we too often emphasize getting others merely to do as they are told. In this way the church largely conforms to the leadership structures of the world. Indeed, leadership is normally an empty euphemism when applied to our standard communal efforts, whether in a church or outside it.
To manipulate, drive or manage people is not the same thing as to lead them. The sheepdog forcibly maneuvers the sheep, whereas the biblical shepherd simply calls as he calmly walks ahead of the sheep. This distinction between sheepdog and the shepherd is profoundly significant for how leaders of Christ’s people think of their work. We must ask ourselves frequently which role we are fulfilling and constantly return ourselves, if necessary, to the practice of the shepherd.
– Dallas Willard, Hearing God, 107
This passage from Willard has long been one of my favorites because he captures the essential nature of the pastoral task, which is to lead others in the “manner and spirit” demonstrated by Jesus, described here as the practice of the shepherd.
Too often, pastors think they are responsible for enforcing behavioral conformity, minimizing conflict by correctly navigating congregational power dynamics, or for successfully executing a strategic plan or vision. And while faithful shepherding may involve correcting and rebuking those who err, protecting the flock from danger, creating an environment where all brothers and sisters in the fellowship relate peaceably with one another, and discerning God’s leading for the congregation and leading all to walk according to God’s prescribed path, the manner and spirit in which these things are done, when they are done in the way of Jesus, differs markedly from the ways of leadership we commonly find in the world.
Jesus claimed he was the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). In doing so, Christ pulled together threads found across the Old Testament that speak of God as the true and loving shepherd of a people God has claimed as his own. Christ remains our Good Shepherd. Those who serve him, both men and women, are called to lead in a way that reflects his person and character. Willard writes, “When we lead as shepherds, our confidence is in only one thing: the word of the Great Shepherd, coming through us or, otherwise, to his sheep.”
How is this possible? We are reminded that Jesus knows his sheep, and they know him, and they know and listen to his voice (John 10:1-16). This is the way we should want it. Willard says, “We do not want them to follow another, even if we ourselves are that ‘other.'” We trust that God has called the congregation together, that the Spirit has been given to them, that we have limited responsibilities as servants and shepherds, and that Christ is the head of the church.
This understanding of the pastoral task, of course, is congregational. That is another reason I think it is so helpful, and so needed. It is a way of leading not only for pastors, but for the body, who respond together to the leading of Christ. Willard states, “Following the practice of the shepherd, we would never stoop to drive, manipulate or manage, relying only on the powers inherent in unassisted human nature (see 1 Peter 4:11). Not only that but the undershepherds (pastors of God) count on their flock to minister the word of God…to them. Ministry of the word is never a one-way street when it is functioning rightly in any group.”
Leading in this manner requires a quiet confidence in the power of God, a steady commitment to teaching the congregation the Scriptures, and demonstration of holiness in heart and life.
This also requires the rejection of all other ways of leadership and a form of servitude that can only be learned by putting aside oneself and putting on Jesus Christ. Paradoxically, that is both the hardest part, and, in the end, the easiest way, for while trusting in Jesus requires the abandonment of all that we are and all that we have, it brings to us the return of eternal and abundant life.