Survival Tips for Pastors

Sometimes, Less Is More

 

peaceful-scene-jordan-hillI attended a heated meeting of homeowners in my community a few nights ago. It seems that our community golf course is closing and a developer wants to build 304 new homes on it. There are all sorts of problems with this, as was made clear by a couple dozen angry homeowners who spoke at the microphone. I agreed with everything they said. But if I’d had the gumption to approach the mic and speak my mind, this is what I would have said to support my community:

Sometimes, less is more.

Less homebuilding means more green space. More undamaged beauty. More available land for a park and hiking trails. More wildlife. More safety. Better education for kids whose schools are already at capacity. All good things. Really good things.

After the meeting I started thinking that less is sometimes more for the Church, too.

Many church leaders think that more is better. To borrow from Daft Punk, they define success as “bigger, better, faster, stronger.” I know what I’m talking about because I used to think that way. I was a pastor for 33 years before retiring and taking a part-time job in a seminary. For many of those 33 years my goal was to grow my church numerically. Outgrow our facility and build a new sanctuary. Add more staff. Increase the budget. Reach more unchurched people. Those aren’t bad things, of course, but in my case they were means to an end: my validation as a pastor.

I know there are better men than me out there whose hearts aren’t as self-centered and insecure as mine. When they think of growing the church, they really do want to glorify God and help more people find Jesus. But I fear that a lot of pastors are like me, looking for self-validation. A growing church means we’re doing a good job, our sermons are hitting the mark, and God is favoring our ministry. Not necessarily. Churches grow for a lot of reasons, not all of them godly.

It’s a risky move, but what would it look like for a pastor to adopt the philosophy that less is sometimes more? I think it would mean the following:

  • He would spend more relaxed time with people. Getting to know them. Enjoying them. Listening deeply to their challenges, concerns, and questions. Getting to know his neighbors. Inviting people into his home and enjoying food and conversation.
  • He would simply be in less of a hurry. He would slow his step and linger with people instead of checking his watch and looking over their shoulders at others who want his time. He would be available and accessible.
  • He would operate out of a state of rest. He would take a real day off each week. He would not live in a continual state of panic about the next big thing, the next sermon, the next elders meeting, or the budget deficit.
  • He would take time to introduce change. He would give due honor to the practices and rhythms that were established before he showed up on the scene. He would listen to others’ opinions and earn trust and respect before implementing his own ideas.
  • He would be grateful that anyone at all wants to be in his church. He would repent of his restless appetite for more new people to walk through the doors on Sunday morning, as though the people already in the pews don’t matter as much.
  • He would support church planting and, if possible, plant a new church. This is because small, new churches make disciples better than big churches. In small churches people know each other, remember each other’s names, and get involved. In big churches people are more likely to be disconnected, anonymous, lonely, and invisible.
  • He would relish the privilege of knowing–really knowing–his sheep, and shepherding them through all the passages of life from the cradle to the grave.
  • He would not feel guilty or inferior or worthless when, at conferences and pastors’ meetings and on YouTube, pastors of big churches get all the attention and applause. Instead, because he is God’s beloved son he would (as Eric Liddell said about running) feel God’s pleasure just being who he is.
  • He would be a man of prayer. Not just talk about prayer and preach about prayer, but really pray.
  • And he would remember that his first and most important “congregation” is living inside the walls of his home.

The Church has taken too many sips of the Kool-Aid of the American Dream. America rewards the spectacular and despises the ordinary. Jesus, on the other hand, rewarded the cup of cold water offered to a child, the mustard seed of faith, the widow’s two copper coins, the five loaves and two fish. He hung out with marginalized people. Out of all his followers Jesus invested the bulk of his time in just twelve men. Of those twelve, three were his special focus. And just one of them was said to be the disciple whom Jesus loved.

Jesus lived by the philosophy that sometimes–maybe most of the time–less is more.

Here’s what I’ve learned: People need pastors. Curators of the soul who have the time, vulnerability, training, and experience to walk with them through life and show them the way. Pastors who aren’t in a hurry and aren’t preoccupied with bodies, bucks, and buildings.

What do you think: Can we reassess the metrics normally used to gauge success in the Church? Can we ministers of the gospel slow down, shepherd our people, and celebrate the “more” that we can have when we try to do less?

Sixteen Restorative Practices for Pastors

come-unto-me-and-i-will-give-you-restHere are sixteen practices that will restore your energy if done consistently. Even if you can start with a few of them, you will be taking better care of yourself. And if you want to be any good for those you lead, you need to be good to yourself. I’ve adapted some of these from J. R. Briggs’ book, entitled simply Fail. It’s a great read.

  1. Secure a mentor, coach or spiritual director. Someone with experience who listens well, cares about you, and can shoot straight with you.
  2. Attend a small group you do not lead.
  3. Visit with a trusted Christian counselor.
  4. Connect regularly with other pastors/Christian leaders who are safe.
  5. Develop friendships with people who see you as a person first and as a pastor/chaplain/missionary second.
  6. Develop a prayer team with whom you can vent and be truly honest.
  7. Stop reading how-to ministry books. Invest your time reading theology, church history, and biographies of faithful Christians. Be sure to read Eugene Peterson and Henri Nouwen.
  8. Journal—and be raw, blunt, and honest.
  9. Talk with your church leaders about what success and failure look like. Make sure you see success the same way.
  10. Avoid conferences that promote Christian celebrities and events that highlight ministry success but will only bring you under bondage and make you envious and anxious.
  11. Be the first to repent and admit weakness.
  12. Practice Sabbath. Disconnect and be refreshed. Learn to work from rest.
  13. Participate in life-giving activities. “It is more important for leaders to focus on energy management than time management.” Do things that replenish your energy.
  14. Get out of your ZIP Code on a regular basis.
  15. Exercise and eat well. “Clergy today have significantly worse health than the average American.”
  16. Listen to your spouse. He or she is the best source of wise counsel you have.

The medicine ball of shame

shame

 

 

 

 

This morning I did something really stupid. I overturned an entire Yeti tumbler of Diet Coke on our family room carpet. And immediately I heard the voices of my parents…

“Idiot!”

“What’d you do that for?”

“THINK!!”

“You jerk, you should be more careful!”

“Just move–get out of the way, I’ll clean it up myself.”

Yep, those were words I often heard as a kid. And look, I’m not a kid anymore; I’m 65 years old. My parents are dead. But those wounding words echoed in my head this morning as I rushed to get towels and wipe up the mess I’d made.

It was quite a revelation, hearing those voices again. And it made me think: No wonder! No wonder I feel ashamed and incompetent so often. No wonder, when I make a mistake or feel that I underperformed, I beat myself to a pulp. No wonder I feel intimidated by older, powerful people.

My parents did not hit me (well, Dad did once). But they shamed me. A lot. Shame was the sharpest tool in their parenting kit. And to this day I haven’t been able to shake it. I know God loves me. I have friends who love me. I often get affirmation and praise. But shame, like a 100-lb. medicine ball, weighs me down and keeps me from running with joy and abandon.

Here’s what shame feels like:

  • Hating yourself
  • Second-guessing your decisions and opinions
  • Feeling you’re never enough
  • Being skeptical of compliments
  • Apologizing for things that aren’t your fault
  • Taking responsibility for others’ comfort and happiness
  • Refusing to forgive yourself
  • Regretting the past
  • Doubting the love and grace of God

You’ve just read a description of my medicine ball.

Remember my first sentence?– “This morning I did something really stupid.” There’s that voice again. But come on. Is spilling a Diet Coke “really stupid”? It was just an accident. It’s not a big deal. But when I was growing up, spilling things was a big deal. So was not perfectly mowing the lawn, slouching in my chair, having acne, stating my opinion, or talking about sex. During my childhood I learned that such things are not just unfortunate or inadvisable, but shameful. Bad.

Chuck DeGroat, in his book Toughest People to Lovesays that we all drag a long, invisible bag behind us. As we grow up, we put things in that bag that we don’t want the world to see, things that our family, friends, or culture think are unacceptable. I remember the night I disagreed with my mother. I said she was crazy. You would have thought that I had just blasphemed the Holy Spirit. “Michael!” my dad shouted. He shamed me for voicing a counter opinion and (jokingly) calling my own mother crazy. That night something happened. I decided I was bad for thinking for myself. I felt ashamed for daring to disagree with an authority figure. So I pulled out my invisible bag and stuffed my bold dare into it. Throughout my childhood and into my teen years, I stuffed a lot of things into that bag. And it really wasn’t until my late 40s or early 50s that I began to reveal parts of my hidden self to other people.

While it hurts to revisit my past like this, it gives me understanding. It helps me understand why I do the things I do and feel the things I feel. And it helps me understand other people too. Because they are carrying around medicine balls of their own. Everybody has wounds no one else sees and hears voices no one else hears. Everybody drags a bag. Shame has dogged us ever since Adam and Eve hid in the Garden of Eden.

To battle shame we have to believe the other Voice. We have to believe the Word that says, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” (Isaiah 43:1, Romans 8:1, 1 John 3:1).

That’s the Voice of love. Listen to it, over and over again, and let go of the medicine ball of shame.

 

The place I find myself

“Who are you?”

It was 1973. I was a 19-year old student at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, eating lunch with friends. Stephanie—serious, inquisitive, known for deeply diving into matters of the heart—was sitting to my right in the dining hall. As I munched on my dry hamburger I could tell she was staring at me. I glanced over at the eyes that were looking into me. She asked again, “Who are you?”

I thought: What do I say? Friends are around, waiting to hear. Do I say something funny or wax profound? What’s she expecting me to say? Is she in love with me, or getting ready to attack?

I didn’t know. So I looked at her, smiled, swallowed my bite of burger, said my full name, and hoped she’d either go away or give me a hug. Stephanie did neither. She kept staring, and asked again. “Who are you?”

It was the era of Watergate, Vietnam, hippies, psychedelia, and campus unrest. Self-discovery was all the rage. We were the “Me generation.” So no wonder she asked. It was a good question. Who am I?

I think Stephanie knew that I didn’t know.

Do I know now?

~~~~~

Stephanie’s question has haunted me since that day in the Furman dining hall.

For the last thirty-three years, I’ve been a pastor. I’ve had a challenging and happy career as a preacher, leader, and shepherd of four different congregations. I’ve baptized, married, nurtured, and buried hundreds of God’s people. Had you asked me a few months ago who I am, I would have told you about the children I’ve raised, the friends I’ve loved, the places I’ve traveled, the sermons I’ve preached, and the people who say I did them some good. All good things.

But do those good things answer the question, Who am I? Isn’t it possible to have done all those things and still not known my true self? Yes indeed.

And what do I say now? I am no longer “Pastor Mike.” In February, 2019, I stepped down from church leadership. I decided I’d had enough. I wanted to do something different.

So I semi-retired. I took a job at a theological seminary as the Dean of Students. It’s part-time. I’ll do some teaching, mentoring, and a bit of preaching here and there. I’ll be free on weekends to travel with my wife and visit our kids and grandkids. But I won’t be wearing my pastor hat anymore. People won’t thank me for a good sermon or a helpful counseling session. I will no longer tell folks that I pastor a healthy, healing church. My email inbox will no longer be filled with questions, meeting requests, and forwards from well-meaning church members.

So if Stephanie were to ask me today, “Who are you?” how would I answer? How would you?

~~~~~

In his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, pastor and author Peter Scazzero writes, “The vast majority of us go to our graves without knowing who we are. We unconsciously live someone else’s life, or at least someone else’s expectations for us.”

I agree with that. Most of us get our identity from what we do. And that’s not entirely bad. But when you no longer do what you’ve done for most of your life, you need to know that you are more than the sum of your contributions to society. The world around us measures us by what we achieve, own, or look like. But all those things are fleeting and unsatisfying. The truth is that identity and value are intrinsic to our being as the people of God. This is why the invalid in the nursing home is just as valuable, just as glorious, as the cancer researcher or the best-selling author or the homeschool mom.

When someone asked Thomas Merton who he was, he said simply, “I am the loved one.”

That’s who I am too. I am God’s beloved. I’m his child, the object of his affection. To me (and you!) God says, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).

~~~~~

So here’s the place I find myself: I’m discovering that my identity is not rooted in me and what I do, but in Christ. Pretty basic, right? I’ve stopped trying to be somebody. I don’t care that I don’t tweet. I’ve given up on trying to make a name for myself in my Presbyterian denomination. What would that have accomplished anyway? I’m trying to heed Jeremiah’s word of warning to his scribe Baruch: “Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not….” (Jeremiah 45:5).

After years of trying to be a good, successful pastor, I’m now trying to enjoy being God’s son.

I’m not there yet. Like unraveling a knot, it takes time to undo a lifetime of seeking reputation and honor. But “I press on,” as Paul says in Philippians 3, to “gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:8-11).

How to Sabbath as a pastor

unnamedI recently retired from pastoral ministry and took on a new challenge as Dean of Students at a theological seminary. Now relieved of the responsibilities of church work, I’ve been reflecting on my thirty-two year pastoral career. One of the things I’ve been stunned to realize is just how much those years were filled with anxiety and frantic ambition instead of “the peace that passes understanding” that we Christians talk about.

Looking back, I wish I had “Sabbathed” better.

I’m using the word “Sabbath” here not in its narrow sense to refer to the Lord’s Day (Sunday), but in its broader connection to the Hebrew word meaning to stop, take a break, and rest. The fact that under the New Covenant we observe the Sabbath on the first day of the week means that all of life, including work and ministry, should flow out of rest. Rest from worry, nervous toil, guilt, shame, and fearful labor has been achieved for us by Jesus through his death, resurrection, and ascension. As God has rested from his labor, so should we (Hebrews 4:10). So being a pastor and living out of a continual sense of rest and peace should not be mutually exclusive concepts.

I’m not saying life as a pastor is easy. Ministry is hard work. It means shepherding stubborn sheep, loving unlovely people, laboring over the scriptures, and praying constantly. Every faithful pastor knows what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians 11 when he admits to “toil and hardship, …many a sleepless night,” and “the daily pressure [of] anxiety for all the churches” (vv. 27-28).

But something’s wrong when pastoral activity is driven (and I use that word driven deliberately) by fear of not meeting budget, worry about membership numbers, the expectations of powerful leaders, or anxiety about what folks thought of your last sermon, rather than by love for people and trust in the Holy Spirit. And I mention these examples because I caved to such pressures far too often. To “Sabbath” as a pastor means to shepherd and love and study and preach and counsel and pray as one who knows Jesus has won the battle and is building his church without a lot of help from us.

So back to the question at hand. How might I have Sabbathed better as a pastor? How can you minister out of rest instead of enslavement to your own and others’ expectations?

Here are ten practices that come to mind:

  1. Have a day off every week. Don’t skip it, open your laptop, answer the phone, or squeeze in a quick visit to the hospital. Surely someone in your church or on your staff can cover for you on your day off. If “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), your day off is for you, not your congregation.
  2. Delegate. You’ve heard of a “to do” list”? Create a “not to do” list. Ask others to take those tasks off your plate.
  3. Read books for sheer pleasure. Keep a non-ministry-related book going at all times.
  4. Have a hobby. What is that “thing” you always wanted to do when you got older? For me, it’s learning to scuba dive–and I haven’t done it yet! What’s on your bucket list? Don’t keep putting it off.
  5. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re not as good as you think you are. And, praise God, you are better than you think you are. But you’re not indispensable.
  6. Say no at least once a day. Meeting every need, responding to every request, replying to every email, and accommodating every suggestion will exasperate and eventually exhaust you. You are not your church’s Savior–Jesus is. You don’t have all the answers–Jesus does. Help your church members turn to Jesus instead of you. You’ll be doing both them and yourself a big favor.
  7. Expect your elders and deacons (or whatever you call them in your church) to do what elders and deacons have been called by God to do. Don’t relieve them from ministry; empower and equip them for ministry.
  8. Take a sabbatical–an extended time of rest, reflection, and fun–at least every seven years. If your church does not have a sabbatical policy, talk to your fellow leaders about the need for one. And do not apologize or feel guilty. Taking a break of at least eight weeks every seven years will make you a better pastor and your church a better church.
  9. Minister out of who you are. Has God wired you to be a prophet, a priest, or a king? Few pastors can be more than one of those types. Determine which one you are, and be that. Be OK with that. God has gifted you and called you for such a time and place as this. Be that prophet, priest, or king with all your heart and soul.
  10. Preach the gospel to yourself every day–more often if possible. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).

The Accidental Pastor

Harry S. TrumanI just finished an excellent biography of Harry S. Truman entitled The Accidental President, by A. J. Baime (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). I didn’t know that Truman was considered a highly unlikely candidate for Roosevelt’s Vice-President in 1944. Only two percent of Democratic voters favored him. People outside Missouri didn’t know much about Truman, and what they knew did not impress. He had run a haberdashery in Kansas City, but it went bankrupt. He hadn’t earned a college degree. He had applied for a license to practice law but changed his mind. Most of his business ventures had failed. Truman’s mother revealed that he didn’t even want the V-P job. “They pushed him into it,” she said. His partnership with the gambler Tom Pendergast put a cloud over Truman’s career in the U.S. Senate. His enemies long referred to him as “the senator from Pendergast.”

When FDR died suddenly in April, 1945, Truman was thrust into the highest office in the land, an office to which he had never aspired. “No man ever came to the Presidency of the United States under more difficult circumstances than does Harry S. Truman,” said a newspaper columnist at the time.

That’s why A. J. Baime calls Truman “the accidental president.” The whole nation was anxious about their new, unproven leader. Yet he successfully finished out Roosevelt’s term in office and went on to win a come-from-behind victory in the presidential election of 1948. Consider the accomplishments of the Truman presidency: the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, the creation of the United Nations and the modern Department of Defense, recognition of the state of Israel, the Berlin Airlift, the formation of the CIA and NATO, and many other things. And of course, Truman’s presidency is noted for the Allied victories that ended the war with Germany and Japan.

Sometimes we in ministry feel like Harry S. Truman. We feel like “accidental pastors.” Not that we haven’t been called and equipped by God to do what we do. Not that our congregations haven’t affirmed our gifts and responded to our leadership. But often we go through seasons when we wonder, “What was I thinking? God, what were You thinking?! I can’t turn this ship around. I’m not sure I belong here. I can’t take all these people to the Promised Land.”

It’s at times like these that we have to remember some of Paul’s words:

What is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:30)

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me…. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

So to myself I say: I am a servant, not a celebrity. I’m a jar of clay. Sure I’m weak, and half the time I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m no accident. I am who I am by God’s design. I am where I am by God’s appointment. So God, have your way in me and be glorified.

Adoption: The Apex of God’s Grace

Do you need good news today?

One of the fruits of the gospel besides justification and sanctification is adoption. TheFather son New Testament says that as soon as a person repents of sin and puts his or her faith in Christ, he or she is adopted into the family of God. It can truly be said that adoption is a higher blessing than even justification and sanctification. Theologian John Murray wrote, “Adoption is the apex of redemptive grace and privilege.” Because of adoption, God is no longer just your Creator, Lawgiver, and Judge. To one who trusts in Jesus, he is your Father.

What is adoption? The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines it this way: “Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges, of the sons of God.”

Here’s a list of ten practical benefits of adoption (there are more!):

  1. Adoption means God wanted you to be in his family. He chose you to be his child before you were even born (Eph 1.5).
  2. It means God will never let you go. He is protecting you and providing for you all the time, even when you don’t see it. Furthermore, he will be sure to get you home (Jn 10.28-29).
  3. It means you have continual access to God and can call him by the most intimate of terms: “Abba! Father!” (Eph 2.18, Rom 8.15).
  4. It means God has made you brand new. You are a new creation (2 Cor 5.17).
  5. It means God’s attitude toward you is always one of love, even when you fail (Col 2.13-14).
  6. It means that Jesus is your elder brother (Heb 2.11).
  7. It means you will be disciplined in love when you go astray (Heb 12.5-11).
  8. It means you are a member of the household of faith (the church), along with all others who trust in Christ (Eph 2.19).
  9. It means you have a glorious inheritance awaiting you (1 Peter 1.3-5).
  10. It means you have a great incentive to aspire after godliness and share Christ’s love with others (Mt 5.16).

Church leader, think often of your adoption. Let it bring you security, assurance, and joy.

My God is reconciled;
His pardoning voice I hear;
He owns me for His child;
I can no longer fear.
With confidence I now draw nigh,
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And “Father, Abba, Father,” cry.

What we can learn from Jonathan Edwards

According to biographer George Marsden, “he was the most acute early American Jonathan_Edwardsphilosopher and the most brilliant of all American theologians.”[1] Others have noted his importance as a preacher, writer, and leading voice in the Great Awakening. But above everything else, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) strove to be a pastor.

Edwards was only twenty-three when he became the assistant pastor of First Church of Northampton, Massachusetts, a Congregational church led by his maternal grandfather, the venerable Solomon Stoddard. Just two years later Stoddard died, leaving Edwards to shepherd the church alone. He would remain pastor of First Church until July 1, 1750. They were years of both revival and adversity. Epidemics of the late 1740s killed over a tenth of Northampton’s population. Edwards lost his own beloved daughter Jerusha, age seventeen, in 1748. Despite the brilliant success of his preaching, powerful people in the church maligned him as harsh and narrow-minded. His stubborn opposition to the Halfway Covenant caused his dismissal from the church. Edwards went on to serve as missionary, teacher, and pastor for a small group of Indians and whites in Stockbridge, wrote his most famous theological treatises, and briefly served as president of the College of New Jersey. On March 22, 1758, Edwards died of complications from a smallpox inoculation.

Considering all that he had to endure, what kept Edwards the pastor going? It certainly was not the numerical growth of the church or the admiration of people. During the Great Awakening Edwards did not even publish a report on the number of conversions that occurred through his ministry. Rather than relying on outward signs of success, Edwards sought to cultivate—through prayer, Bible study, and meditation— dependence upon God alone.

He was ruthless when it came to daily communion with God. “Throughout the day, his goal was to remain constantly with a sense of living in the presence of God….”[2] Edwards believed that his labors as a minister would be no better than his own fellowship with Christ. He spent most of every weekday absorbing the Bible, pondering its truths, making notations in his notebooks, and praying. From his days as a young intern in New York City, “a new master-interest possessed him: it was to enjoy the Word of God.”[3] Because of the abundance of time Edwards spent in the Bible, he “saturated almost every sermon, from text to doctrine to application, with scripture.”[4] Edwards wanted to know God personally and deeply, so that in turn he might live with all his might to the glory of God. Consequently, he experienced a level of intimacy with God that few in our fast-paced, pragmatic world understand. He describes this intimacy in his “Personal Narrative”: “The sense I had of divine things would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were, a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of soul I know not how to express.”[5]

Edwards maintained a number of disciplines throughout his life that fueled his ministerial passions. He cherished his wife Sarah and helped her rear eleven faithful children. He had a high view of the Lord’s Day and kept it holy. He maintained close ties with colleagues in ministry, both in the colonies and across the ocean, not only to work with them for revival but to find encouragement through their friendship. He took extended rides on horseback and chopped wood to refresh his spirit and body. He spent time observing nature. He often contemplated heaven and the rewards that lay ahead for the faithful.

But above all, it was Edwards’ sense of the greatness of God and his conviction that the gospel would one day fill the earth that empowered him to be true to his calling. He was optimistic that, despite the troubles at hand, the Great Commission would eventually be completed. In 1747 Edwards wrote:

That the Spirit of God has been of late so wonderfully striving with such multitudes…is what I should take encouragement from that God was about to do something more glorious, and would, before he finishes, bring things to a greater ripeness, and not finally suffer this work of his to be frustrated and rendered abortive by Satan’s crafty management. And may we not hope that these unusual commotions are the forerunners of something exceeding glorious approaching, as the wind, earthquake, and fire at Mount Sinai, were forerunners of that voice wherein God was in a more eminent manner?[6]

What can contemporary church leaders learn from Jonathan Edwards the pastor? Modern paradigms of ministry are very different from the one Edwards inherited from his father, his grandfather, and the Puritans before them. Today’s pastors find themselves spread thinner than ever. They feel the weight of expectation to be successful fundraisers, motivators, communicators, long-range planners, marriage counselors, civic leaders, church planters, Bible scholars, vision casters, and—while they are at it—inspiring preachers and tender shepherds. Meanwhile they are expected to maintain the model devotional life, marriage, and family. How could looking back to Jonathan Edwards profit the twenty-first century American minister?

Chiefly, Edwards reminds pastors that their charge is first and foremost to preach the Word of God, with particular emphasis on the eternal realities of heaven and hell and the radical nature of discipleship. To care for the sheep, shepherds must feed them the Word. As a prerequisite, they must have a rich and full inner life. Edwards still speaks through his sermons and other writings because he was saturated with the Bible. He spent so much time studying and meditating upon scripture that he was thoroughly affected by its truth, enraptured with the love of God, and able to apply the Word with passion and vigor to his congregation.

If we must fault Edwards, it is for matters of style, not substance. Edwards might have remained longer in Northampton had he been gentler, more outgoing, and less impatient. But what offended the Northamptonites much more than Edwards’ bluntness and social awkwardness was his commitment “to enlighten them concerning the state of their souls; to open and apply the rules of God’s Word to them, in order to their searching their own hearts, and discerning their state.”[7] Too often do we hear today of ministers falling into sexual sin, compromising their ethical standards, plagiarizing the work of others, and watering down the gospel in order to enhance their appeal. We do not read of such things in biographies of Jonathan Edwards. Rather, Edwards remained faithful to the end. By persevering with integrity he loved his people. The well-known words of another famous minister, Robert Murray McCheyne, are relevant in this connection: “What my people need most is my personal holiness.” Edwards certainly gave his people what they needed most, even if they did not want it at the time.

The contemporary pastor needs to shut his ears to some of the modern definitions of success and concentrate on the simple, time-honored pastoral tasks: enriching his own soul on scripture and prayer; preaching to the mind, heart, and will of his parishioners; and knowing and being known by the sheep under his care. Obviously he will be stretched this way and that by the demands of ministry in a sin-ravaged culture that has wandered far from God. But the example of Jonathan Edwards should remind him to return to the study, the pulpit, the bedside, and the prayer closet to shepherd God’s flock. And if he does those things faithfully he is a success, whatever the results may be.

[1] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) 1.

[2] Marsden 133.

[3] Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2003) 41.

[4] Richard A. Bailey, “Driven by Passion: Jonathan Edwards and the Art of Preaching,” in The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, ed. by D. G. Hart, Sean M. Lucas, and Stephen J. Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 67.

[5] Jonathan Edwards, “Personal Narrative,” quoted by Sereno E. Dwight, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979) I.xiii.

[6] Jonathan Edwards, An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People, in Extraordinary Prayer, for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, in The Works of JE, II.294-95.

[7] Edwards, “A Farewell Sermon,” in The Works of JE, I.cci.

Why I quit Twitter

1 Timothy 4:16a says, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (ESV). IMG_0106Another translation renders it, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (NIV).

Like most of you reading this post, Timothy was a church leader. So Paul’s admonition applies especially to pastors and others who lead and teach God’s people. We have to pay particular attention to what’s going on internally: our motivations, fears, idols, secret sins, stress points, and such.

So one of the things I’ve struggled with internally for a long time is Twitter. For me, Twitter does little but create stress. It stirs up feelings of competition, jealousy, and judgment. Perhaps you love Twitter and find it to be a means of sharing and pondering ideas that inspire and stimulate. Perhaps when you read the clever insights of others you think kind thoughts and become a better person. No doubt, there are many people who can tweet with joy and integrity.

But as for me…when I’m on Twitter I think things like, “Everybody knows that!” “What makes him think he’s so great?” “Why didn’t I say that?” “I’m such a loser.” “I wish I had as many followers as that person.” And on and on.

I know. The problem is not Twitter or those who post on Twitter. The problem is me. I’m insecure and weak. The “old me” that wants to control the real me is still very strong and stubborn. Like Paul says in Romans 7, “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Twitter teases out that “old me,” awakens the sleeping giant of sin in my heart, and seduces me with promises of glory and fame that cannot satisfy.

So goodbye, Twitter. I need to keep a close watch on my heart, and you are not good for me. Maybe when I become a holier, more loving person I’ll come back to you.

But don’t hold your breath.

Asleep at Sea

(The following post is by Scott Castleman, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ocean Springs. Scott is not only a pastor who loves the Lord and leads his congregation well; he is my son-in-law. Follow his blog, Soul Bacon.)

There is a picture of Rembrandt’s painting, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” that I keep on my desk. The seas are chaotic and violent. The bow is thrust upward as the stern dips. The disciples in the bow are clinging to lines and mast and sails. There is a disciple straining in futility at the rudder. One disciple in red is leaning over the port stern gunnel in the throws of seasickness. Another disciple is simply holding on for dear life. And there is one shaking Jesus awake. Rembrandt has painted the moment before Jesus has said a word. He imagined Jesus in that odd instant when a person is no longer sleeping but they are not fully awake.

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of GalileeI love that moment in this painting. It looks like chaos. If a person did not know the biblical account but they looked at Rembrandt’s imagination of it they might wonder the end of it all. The painting itself begs the question, “Did they make it?” The only reason I can bear the unresolved tension in this painting is that I know the end of the story. I know the next frame. Jesus rebukes the storm, “Peace! Be still.” And he rebukes the storm in order that his disciples might hear his rebuke of them: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they marvel and they wonder at what they just saw, asking among themselves, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The wind and the waves knew better the voice of their Sovereign than did his disciples. Would that we, like wind and waves, quit our furies and tantrums at the simple word of “Peace! Be still.” But we do not respond as well as tempests and we are not as obedient as the sea. Rather, we rattle the Lord awake with our urgent prayers prayed not with faith but with desperate doubts and sincere uncertainty about whether everything will actually be okay.

That is why I keep this painting on my desk–because at some point between the storms in my life I forget what I learned the last time. I ask myself in the fresh peace of God’s provision, “Who then is this?” I keep this painting on my desk as reminder on nights like tonight that the sovereign God of all things is with me.

Christ the Lord is in the middle of every single circumstance in every single moment. If we could see him we would see that he does not share our anxiety. He doesn’t share our uncertainty about how things will turn out. He does not live in the tension of our worst-case scenario. Our raging sea doesn’t stir him. Who can sleep in the midst of a violent storm that boils a little boat on Galilee in the middle of the night as twelve grown men shout and pull and push and puke? The one who sleeps in that moment is one who knows that the storm is just a storm. He’s not worried about not getting to where he is leading them to go. The one asleep is the one who knows that the wind and the waves are subject to him and not the other way around. The one who sleeps is the one who would silence the storm not in order to save those who were in it, but rather so they could hear him better as he rebuked their fear and their lack of faith.

As your storm rages…

Consider how it is that He can rest

And gently lay your head upon His breast.

O to sleep when others toil and shout,

To find peace while those are tossed about.

Who then is this that wind and sea obey

And calls fearful night to faithful day?

Him whose voice made darkness bright

And brings men from shadows into light.