The end of 2016 has signalled for me another year of ministry done and dusted. I’ve now been at this particular work for five years now. Two years ago I was up for renomination as Pastor and I’m thankful to God, and to my church, for their confidence vote in the ministries I’ve been involved in.
The past five years have also reminded me of Gary Millar’s favourite John Chapman story. Gary’s ministry in Ireland wasn’t always swimmingly great. In fact, if you ever sit down with Gary to hear how ministry was for him you’d be utterly surprised that he didn’t throw in the towel sooner. There were some pretty bad things said about him and done to his family (though, thankfully, nothing physical).
But Chappo was always telling Gary, “Brother, they killed our Lord Jesus. Don’t expect anything less! And remember, the first 50 years of ministry are the hardest.”
I’ve been at it now for five years. That’s 45 more to go before it gets any easier…
So with five years under my belt here are some of the bigger personal reflections.
Preaching is hard work. I came out of College bustling with energy and ideas and convictions that had been freshly laid. The tendency in my early sermons was to preach what I had just learnt (and was wowed by, and wanted people wowed by) and what I wanted to say and show these points from the text before us. By the steady guidance and feedback of my friend and co-pastor Ben I’ve made greater strides in my preaching – to speak clearer on what scripture itself is saying and being a little more discerning (though I often still fail) of what to leave in and take out. Five years on the task is still hard and filled with plenty of ‘woulda shoulda coulda’ moments and reflections.
Another aspect of preaching which is daunting is the sheer responsibility of being clear and faithful. Clarity wasn’t something I was always good at. Points within my sermons were sometimes jumbled and a confused mess. The saying ‘mist in the pulpit means a fog in the pew’ has been apt on many occasions. I’ve been working the hardest on this aspect of my preaching the most over the last five years. But what has struck me more recently is how weighty the responsibility is when the scriptures are clearly and faithfully preached.
For instance, I recently preached on the topic of loving your enemies. It was a hard sermon to chew on and preach on – because Jesus words seem so black and white that to caveat everything would be to miss the point of the radical nature of his words. A few short weeks later and I hear of a family in church which were struggling to cope with a difficult neighbour – an enemy. They had heard God’s word to them and were wrestling with the implications of it. It struck me how weighty those words of mine were. And it drives me to my knees to cry out that my words be faithful, and that the people I have oversight over will faithfully apply the words they hear.
The administrative side of church work can be quite mind-boggling. My first few years oversaw some major changes in the structure and organisation of my church. Basically, it came down to one of the elders in my church to sort out – and wow, the amount of work that went into it was incredible. I’m even more thankful today for God gifting men and women for this task.
Part of the reorganisation of our church brought up a stark reminder on what unity in the church looks like. Unity is not just about doing things together under the same roof happily. Unity not only needs relationships, but must also be grounded in theology and ministry philosophy – because eventually differences over these things will come to the surface and reveal a distinct lack of unity.
Here are some other short reflections. Starting with some negative personal experiences over the past five years:
- There are always going to be people who talk about you and not to you – and usually about issues they have. And it always hurts. I’m up the front a lot, and I have a lot of energy out there, but I’m also human – and so is my family. It hasn’t happened a lot, but it has happened. And it’s sucked each time. I don’t think this will change either – not because I’m a pessimist but because of the doctrine of the sinfulness of man. It’s a tough reality of pastoral ministry that you need to grow a thick skin while at the same time wearing your heart on your sleeve.
- The fear of man is real and utterly pernicious. It’s plagued my first five years – especially after the first round of criticism. It plagues me whenever I know I need to have a hard conversation. Those conversations I keep delaying, keep putting off, because I fear the confrontation. Coupled with this I have realised how much the sin and desire of having people like me hinders faithful ministry. This is something I still struggle with.
- Coupled with my fear has been a growing realisation of what insecurities I have as well. The gospel that I encourage others to keep wrapping their security and significance around is something I desperately need as well. The past few years of ministry have made that clear time and again.
- I need to constantly remind myself that even redeemed people are sinful and will act in sinful ways. I’m still surprised when I see this happen, but I should not be – for if we truly believe the battle that is being waged within us between the Spirit and the flesh we need to recognise that sometimes, sadly, the flesh will win.
- There’s probably few pains in ministry like the pain of shepherding someone, even a close friend, who doesn’t listen to your counsel and drifts away – either from your church or from the faith. It’s utterly heartbreaking to watch.
- When Paul says in Romans 12 to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep’ it seems like such a wild contrast – but ministry is exactly that. The past 12 months have been filled with wonderful moments of rejoicing: weddings I’ve been a part of; celebrations of new births; tears of joy at the conversion of someone after one of my sermons. And there have been many moments of weeping: crying with someone who has unexpectedly lost a loved one, feeling the emptiness and sadness that comes with job loss or unemployment; sharing the anxiety and burden some have over their loved ones who have turned from Jesus. Lately this emotional roller coaster has been experienced in quick succession of a few days. It’s quite emotionally taxing to ride this wave.
- It’s hard to keep self-learning. I have heaps of books now in a massive bookshelf waiting to be read. Unfortunately I have allowed the busyness of ministry to chew into personal reading time. I’ve been convicted of making time for personal growth, and the need to feed myself as much as I am feeding others. Let’s see how 2017 goes with regards to that.
There’s quite a few negatives and challenges listed there. I find it easy to remember and repeat these things. But over the past five years there has also been immense joys:
- Watching people convert under your bible teaching is an immense privilege. I’ve seen some converted who have been around for a long time, and then something in one of your sermons or bible studies just makes things click. I’ve seen some converted only after a few weeks of getting to know them. Truly my task has only been to plant and water. To be a witness to God growing faith in someone is remarkably awesome.
I’ve shed the tears of joy as I sat with someone who finally saw how beautiful the gospel is. I can remember those excited moments shared with a team of leaders who have seen a group converted after a camp talk. There’s just nothing like it.
- Watching people respond to the Bible when it becomes clearly unwrapped before them never gets old. Those light bulb moments when someone connects the dots for the first time, and you can see the awe and excitement in their faces is just a brilliant moment in ministry. It’s massively encouraging – especially when you hear someone repeating those same truths enthusiastically later. And it’s not just the light bulb moments, but I’ve also had the joy of walking with some whose theology had previously been all over the place – and seeing them not only come to a much more grounded and clear understanding of the gospel, but also to see them putting that into practice in their own ministry.
- Watching people grow in their walk has given me a wonderful and godly sense of pride and joy in them. I’m a father to three young children, but I feel like a father figure and older brother to many others as well. One younger sister once approached me, seeking my advice, because she felt like I was her older brother who was always looking out for her best interests. Yup, right into the heart that went! Pastoring must never be reduced to a mere job.
- I count it a massive blessing to know that there are many who not only call me their Pastor but also their friend. My friendships in ministry have been invaluable for their encouragement and spurring me on just as much as I have been involved in spurring others on.
In the first five years there have been some hard and discouraging moments. And there have been wonderful joys. I’m glad that the joys have far outweighed the negatives. Here’s to another 45 years.
And I know for some of my readers: I’m really looking forward to those 45 with you.