connecting theology and life in gospel-centred ways to the glory of God and our joy in Him
It’s nearing the end of January and the start of my long service leave – marking not only 10 years of service with SLE Church/CCCB St Lucia English Congregation, but also marking 20 years of being a Christian and 40 years of life. 40, 20, 10.
As I head into this six weeks of long service leave and writing I’m excited by the coming weeks while also reflective on what has been. Milestones should be like that – they should cause us to pause, reflect, give thanks for what God has done and push us to prayerfully dependent change.
In this post, I wanted to particularly reflect upon 10 years in ministry. 5 years ago I did a reflection post, but the 5 years since have included some of the most tumultuous times we’ve ever lived in. So what have been some of the things I’ve been learning?
In no particular order…
I said it before and I’ll say it again: preaching doesn’t get any easier. I still miss things, I still feel the time pressures and how they impact the final message, and I sometimes scratch my head post-sermon wondering why I structured things the way that I did.
But while preaching hasn’t gotten any easier, it has become more personal. I’ve personally reflected on this as I had the chance in the past 12 months to revisit 6 sermons – ie re-preach 6 passages of scripture that I have preached before. On 3 occasions I wrote the sermons again from scratch and while my exegesis (how I interpreted the passages) hadn’t changed all that much I could definitely see big changes and progress in how I applied the passages. The other three sermons were mostly repeated but in doing so I ad-libbed quite a lot of application that was missing from the original.
Having gone through this, and seen some of my own personal progress, made me reflect back on a conversation I had in my early years of ministry. Someone in the congregation had noted (I don’t think it was a complaint… but I can’t help but feel the comment had an edge to it) that I preached like the Associate Pastor and Ben preached like the Senior Pastor. At that point, Ben hadn’t been appointed as the Senior – were both just ‘pastors’. Anyway, I take the comment to mean that my preaching was generically applied, whereas Ben’s preaching was more personal to the congregation.
And I see that, especially when I got to re-preach Revelation 12 and 14 and compared my sermons this year to the past ones.
But my primary aim in sharing this story is to encourage anyone reading this who has a new pastor – especially a new pastor who is relatively fresh out of Bible college: give them time. Preaching which impacts personally takes time to develop, so stick with them and keep encouraging them.
And tune your heart to theirs. Preaching with heart, from the heart, to connect with the hearts of those who listen is incredibly difficult and takes time to develop. We can speed that process along by tuning our hearts to theirs as they preach to us.
On difficulties in ministry…
So much could be said here, and I don’t want for a moment to sound as though ministry was incredibly difficult the past 10 years, nor do I want to be seen as complaining – for I know others who are in far more difficult situations. I want to be super clear as I reflect on this point: SLE Church has been an incredible place to minister, and the blessings have exceeded any difficulties – and any difficulties have been of such a kind that they have been able to – or are able to – be worked through.
These reflections are more general and include wider ministry experiences outside of church as well.
With that out of the way, let me share a few difficulties I’ve encountered in ministry.
One – sometimes one of the hardest things in ministry is that you don’t get an opportunity to explain yourself, to share your side or thinking. This is partly because in some circumstances you have to properly sift the information you can and cannot share. Meaning some things will inevitably fall on your shoulders when they could have been otherwise.
This is also partly because some people just assume your motives and don’t end up speaking with you, making the situation harder because you don’t even know who might have an issue with you that could be resolved with an honest discussion.
Two – not everyone will like you. A few years ago I had someone apologise to me because they were spreading untrue rumours about me. I asked him why – he said he thought I was fake, putting it all on. And this wasn’t anyone in my own church! Hard to know exactly what to do with that other than to say that some people will just not like you. I can only say that I have to do my best to reconcile and be civil, take any criticism as coaching advice for personal growth, and pray for them in love. But you can’t make everyone like you – and trying to do so will harm your ministry more than help.
Three – One of the hardest and most loving things I’ve had to do on occasion is telling people that I believed they were not Christians. It wasn’t done lightly, and I did my best to ask probing questions to get to that ultimate conclusion.
Is that my judgement to make? I’ll say that as a pastor, an under-shepherd of God’s flock, it’s my duty to ensure that everyone in my care is not only hearing the gospel clearly but also responding to it in faith and repentance. It matters not that someone has made a decision for Christ some time ago, nor even that they’ve been baptised as an adult – if I see a life which has no joy in the Father, no wrestle with sin, no commitment to gathering with His people, and no love for the gospel, then I don’t want to leave this person with a false sense of security or false assurance.
Four – watching friends walk away from Jesus and His people is… yeah, this is probably the toughest thing I’ve seen. The more I go along in ministry the more the parable of the four soils plays itself out in devastating ways. The first soil is fair enough – I’ve seen them heaps and I tend to know these people the least. They hear the gospel for a bit but leave quickly.
It’s those two middle soils that hurt the most. The believer who fades because of persecution from family, or just the hardness and difficulty of life. The believer who falls in love with work, or whose life becomes consumed with family and experiences.
When it’s someone you read about, that’s one thing. When it’s a friend who you have ministered alongside with – I cannot think about these people without a deep ache in my heart.
They often come to my mind, and I often pray for them. I trust that God has him in his sovereign hands and continue to pray that Jesus becomes bigger to them than anything else once again and that they would love His people and return to the fold.
On oddities in ministry…
There are also things I’ve learned over the past 10 years that Bible College couldn’t have prepared me for.
It’s sometimes odd that I’m more than a Bible teacher. I’m also a counsellor: a career counsellor, a marriage counsellor, a parenting counsellor, and an all-around relationship guru. All of this is done with a keen eye to keeping a gospel-centred mindset – ie I’m not telling you to do something purely because I think it’s good, but because I think it will best promote the gospel in your life. It’s a weighty responsibility and an odd one that is difficult to prepare for.
It’s sometimes odd that I’m not always listened to – despite how brilliant my advice may be :P Ah, the human heart. Sometimes when my advice goes unheeded I need to then avoid the inevitable temptation of saying, “I told you so…”
At the same time, my own heart has been humbled when my advice wasn’t taken for the good. At those points, I’ve had to be open about how wrong I was – and do my best to keep growing in wisdom. I can only be as wise as I presently am, and that too is limited.
It’s odd that I’m learning that I don’t always have to defend myself, especially to those who know me less than the flock I’ve been called to pastor. I’ve been called arrogant, wrongheaded for calling out wolves, and a whole bunch of other stuff but those who do not know me – or only know me through my online presence. Maybe it’s because in my older age I’m getting tired of fighting, or because I’m mellowing out – or because as I’m getting older I’m valuing the feedback and constructive criticism of those in closer relationship to me more than others. It’s those who share the arena with me, who are getting down and dirty in ministry, and those who have ‘skin in the game’ to whom I owe the greatest respect of their opinion. 30 year old me wouldn’t have been this chill.
The past 10 years of ministry, and 20 years of Christian life, have given me more and more to be thankful for.
As I mentioned earlier, the past few years I got the chance to revisit some familiar passages to re-preach. Revelation, the book of Ruth and Job, parables of Jesus – and each time I got to redo those sermons those passages were bigger and more incredible than the last time I spoke from them. Sometimes in ways my present words could still not convey. I’m so thankful that God and the gospel grow in profoundness the more you dig into God’s word. I’m so thankful the past 10 years in personal growth in the Word that has reflected in my deepening joy of it.
I’ve been so thankful for those who have heeded my words and responded. The weighty responsibility of speaking wisely and in ways to honour the gospel has been blessed by the love and joy of those who have responded faithfully.
I’ve been so thankful for the encouragements – often in words, letters, or cards – that have been timely and spurred me on. My personal love language is ‘words of affirmation’ and those timely words have been so dear. So, thank you friends :)
I’ve been so thankful that God continues to use me in my imperfections and use my imperfect words and sermons to continue to impact and change lives. That is the power of the gospel – which I have prayed and worked hard to make clear from every passage of the Bible. I’m amazed and deeply humbled when I hear how some have responded at times.
I’m so thankful for CURE: Connect, Understand, Respond, Engage; and the three trees model from CCEF – and especially thankful for how that has grown and helped my counselling of others. These two ideas have been paradigm-shifting.
I’m so thankful for my wife who has been a blessing, support, and a partner through all of the past 10 years of ministry. We truly have been doing it together and learning together as well. She has been the best person to have bounced thoughts off, she was there to help me walk through my own personal mental struggles and has been a wise counsel on many occasions.
Final (brief) thoughts
As I mentioned in my previous reflections, John Chapman used to say that the first 50 years of ministry are the hardest. Well, 10 down, 40 to go before it gets easy.
Again, I find myself in this place deeply thankful for those who have journeyed along with me. So, to my many friends, I say thanks again for being here. I look forward to seeing what our God and Father of our Lord Jesus has in store for us.
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