The “Sweetest Agony” of Ministry

Somebody has said that preaching is the sweetest agony.  It is sweet when lives are changed.  And it is agony the rest of the time! 

That is probably unfair, but whatever ministry we are involved in, it is good to pause and reflect on the sweeter parts of it.  After all, there is plenty to find discouraging!

There is nothing as rewarding as seeing lives changed.  Sometimes you preach a message or have a conversation and a life is changed completely.  More often, change occurs over a longer time frame.  It can be hard to measure when change occurs.  But occasionally, people may write a note that specifically lists the impact of your ministry. 

Since there is always a long list of reasons to become discouraged in ministry, it is a good idea to keep a log of some of these encouragements.  Keep a collection of those notes and let them sit there, ready for a day when you really need to be reminded of the sweeter aspects of ministry.  Keep an email folder of encouragements that you can go back to when the inbox is overwhelming and discouraging.

With all that is going on, and all the reasons for discouragement, why not take a moment to look back and list some of the lives that you have seen changed by the grace of God?  If you have some encouraging notes already collected, why not read a few and give God thanks for how he has worked in the lives of those you serve?

There is nothing as rewarding as seeing lives changed, but there is one other person to remember.  If the sweetness of ministry is changed lives, then don’t forget the one life that hears every sermon you preach, every conversation you participate in, etc.  By this, I mean you. 

Every time you prepare a sermon, you are involved.  Every time you plan a workshop, prepare a talk, anticipate a conversation, or schedule a one-on-one meeting, you are part of it.  This means that you get to go through the times of prayer, the low points, the spiritual highs, the wrestling with the biblical text, the struggle to figure out how to lead a session, the grappling with formulating your main idea, the prayerful decisions to omit material, and the practice runs of a sermon or speech with only you and the Lord listening.  You are there.

Much of ministry can feel like the agony of labour, striving to work through all that it takes to eventually bring to fruition something helpful for others.  It can seem like thankless toil.  People don’t understand the time you invest, nor the stress you often carry.  But let’s remember the good times too.  The times of sweet fellowship with the Lord.  Those moments where your desperate prayers give way to clarity on a way forward.  The times when study leads to deeper understanding of a text and greater worship in your heart.  These are times of blessing and encouragement in ministry.  Sweet times. 

Let’s find ways to mark these moments.  Maybe write a thank-you note to God and put it in your files.  Maybe a journal entry, highlighted to help you find it again.  Perhaps you have a collection of visual “memorial stones” on a shelf – markers of moments to help your memory.  You need some way to remind yourself of the sweetness of ministry: how good it has been, how good it can be, and how good it will be again.

Most ministries that are worth doing entail a whole lot of agony.  But there is a sweetness in serving God and his mission in this world.  There is a sweetness in the blessing that we receive as well as the blessing we offer to others.  And when ministry feels overwhelming and difficult, we need a way to remind ourselves of the sweeter parts of ministry, of the lives changed and blessed, including ours.

This year has started with all sorts of complexities and does not promise to be easy for any of us.  But God has promised to be with us through it all.  Let’s find ways to not let ministry drain play a decisive role in our life stories.  Yes, there will be agony in what we do, but let’s be sure we don’t miss the sweet moments too!

Preaching in Troubled Times

“The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” (Psalm 9:9)

Troubled times can be caused by global pandemics, national disasters, or more local challenges on a city or church level. In this world we will have trouble. And when trouble comes, the preacher gets to point people to God’s Word to find the comfort and to stir the response of faith that is needed. The problem is, we don’t do ministry in a case study. People don’t tend to respond in a textbook fashion when problems come. Just a few verses after the one above comes Psalm 10:1 – “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” By definition, these seasons of ministry are not easy, but here are five important things to keep in mind:

1. The Preacher’s Relationship with God – Be Healthy. Maybe it is obvious, but it bears stating. You need to be in a healthy place to have the reserves to serve others effectively. Remember Martha. She was trying to do the right thing, but somehow she had gotten the two great commandments out of order. She was doing the classic evangelical mistake – “loving God by loving others.” It is unsustainable. Be sure to sit at Jesus’ feet and let him minister to you before you continue to minister to others. (And remember that being healthy is not just spiritual . . . what about sleep, exercise, diet? What about emotionally and relationally?)

2. The Preacher’s Relationship with Listeners – Be Sensitive. Remember that different people react in different ways to the same crisis. Listening to our culture it would be easy to only address the fear of dying in the current pandemic. But for some their concern is finance, employment, other vulnerable people, loneliness, mental health, etc. We need to know what is really going on with the people we preach to, and they need to know that we are real too. Be appropriately transparent. A crisis is a time to offer strength and stability, but don’t come across as Superman. You are allowed to struggle too, just invite others into a faithful response and share the journey together. When troubles hit, people tend to pull back. Be sure to pursue connections with people in your church. You may not see them on Sunday (or may not be allowed to meet in some strange circumstances), but you still have a phone. There are ways to stay connected. We need to do that if we are to preach effectively.

3. The Listener’s Relationship with Circumstances – Be Hopeful. In the midst of crisis people need to have perspective. It is not helpful to dismiss a crisis. I remember a lecturer on 9/11 being dismissive of the situation (it didn’t help!) But do offer perspective with gentleness. Remember also that people have troubles that are not “the trouble” too. I am waiting for someone to fix our hot water boiler right now . . . that is not a Covid-19 issue, but it is today’s issue in our house! People still have other health concerns during a pandemic, people still have marital struggles during a war, people still struggle with parenting during a natural disaster. In the midst of it all, cast a vision. Could God be teaching us to pray like we have never prayed before? Is God growing greater depth and dependence on him in our church? Maybe God is shaking the culture to wake it up to spiritual realities? (Don’t make prophetic pronouncements, just help people to look on their circumstances in light of Scripture.)

4. The Listener’s Relationship with God – Be “Evangelistic.” There will be people who are not yet believers and the crisis might be the perfect moment . . . point them to Jesus. There will be people who have been believers for years and they too need to be pointed to Jesus. Help people to know that God is who they need and he can be accessed through the Bible. That is, be biblical. Don’t jettison your biblical preaching in order to offer personal wisdom, or to drift into political proclamation, or to distract people with empty entertainment. You may need to preach from somewhere else in the Bible, but do preach the Bible.

5. The Preacher and Preaching – Be Adaptable. Your eight month series in Ezekiel may not be appropriate when a crisis hits. It is ok to suspend a series and be a bit more targeted when necessary. After 9/11 a significant proportion of preachers just continued their series. That was a big missed opportunity to show love, care and a word from God in a key moment. So you may need to adapt your content, and you may also need to adapt your approach. In the last year many of us have learned to use new technology, to preach to camera, to shift to a mixed setting with some people present and others watching at home. Crises, big and small, tend to invite adaptability. By all means do things differently, just don’t disappear.

What would you add? What things are helpful to ponder during challenging times?

How Long to Prepare a Sermon?

A good sermon should leave people thinking about God rather than how long it took you to prepare it, but still, the question does arise. Some people have a very definite view on how long sermon preparation should take: a certain number of hours for a certain length of sermon. In reality, life is not so simple. Here are several factors to keep in mind:

A. A shorter sermon may take longer to prepare. We can’t just say it takes an hour for every minute of sermon, or whatever. In reality I can preach an hour long sermon fairly easily, but a twelve minute sermon takes much more effort to craft.

B. Every sermon is different. One passage may be effectively new ground for me to study, while another passage may be very familiar from previous teaching and preaching ministry. One congregation may feel straightforward, while another, or the same one on another week, may feel like a minefield of potential traps to carefully navigate.

C. It is impossible to measure the pre-study. I might take however many hours to work on a message for this Sunday. But what about the time I took on the same passage some years ago? What about the years of life experience and study of other related passages? What about the years I spent in the classroom laying a foundation of understanding? There really is a lifetime feeding into any sermon.

D. No preacher lives in a vacuum. Real life happens, which means preparation is never predictable. Even if you plan well, the realities and crises of church, family and home have a habit of crowding in anyway. There will be times when we all have to stand and preach with a profound sense of preparation deficit (and that is not something that it generally helps to broadcast in your introduction).

I suppose it is worth asking the question: who is asking the question?

If a listener has appreciated the sermon and is interested, figure out how to accept the encouragement of their appreciation and turn the focus back onto the object of your sermon. Don’t let your ego jump into the conversation and hold centre stage. It really isn’t about you, is it?

If a church is asking the question because they want to know what is appropriate to give by way of reimbursement for time invested, then perhaps ponder these quick thoughts: (1) Preaching has cost the preacher, so reimburse generously. (2) If you are unable to reimburse generously, rest assured that all good preachers are motivated by serving God rather than gaining income (but it might be kind to be honest with them ahead of time – they do have bills to pay too). (3) If the preacher is asking about how much they will receive, or setting a fee, usually this indicates something is not right. Be wary. (4) If you are worried about being too generous, remember that the preacher can always give excess funds away (and if you don’t trust them to be good stewards of money, why are you letting them near the pulpit anyway?) You probably don’t withhold business from an optometrist, a plumber, or a surgeon in case they end up with too much, so why hesitate to be generous with a preacher?

If a preacher is asking the question about time, then I am hesitant to give a definitive answer. What if he simply can’t dedicate the time that I can? What if he needs to dedicate longer to be ready? Here is a simple two-part answer:

1. As much time as it takes – to prayerfully select a passage, study the passage in context, determine passage purpose and idea, then evaluate congregation, define message purpose, craft the message idea, design the preaching strategy (outline) and fill in the details, then also prayerfully preach through the message a few times.  Realistically that could add up to quite a bit of time.

2. As much time as you have – You must take into account the reality of life: ministry pressures, other responsibilities, leaking pipes, family illnesses, hospital visits with your injured child, late night crisis counseling with dear friends in marital meltdown, and so on.  God knows about these things and perhaps sometimes allows them to keep us from trusting in our preparation routine.  If you procrastinate preparation and only take a couple of hours, that’s between you and the Lord (in which case, repent and get things right before moving forward!)  But if life hits and you honestly only have limited time, God surely knows and will carry you through.

One thing that I know from many thousands of hours of sermon preparation over the years. It may be a struggle, even a battle at times, but every moment is a privilege.

8 Variations of Selfish Preaching

We all minister with mixed motives.  It is important to be aware of that, and to prayerfully stay before the only One who can really know what is going on inside of us.  Sometimes it can be helpful to delineate some of the unhelpful or sinful motivations that can sabotage a ministry.  It is not possible to avoid every negative motive all the time, but we must beware lest any of these start to fester within and then characterise our ministry.

1. Preaching to impress.  The inner child may not be as gone as we think, and it can so easily creep out and we then start to show off.

Selfish

2. Preaching to be liked.  The insecure self can manifest in public ministry and we can start to crave affirmation.

3. Preaching to be needed.  The shepherds of a flock do make a difference to the lives of the sheep, but something is off if the need to be needed starts to grow.  You are replaceable.

4. Preaching to validate our worth.  The unsettled soul can seek validation for our education, our calling, our sense of identity, etc., through the medium of ministry.  If your worth is not firmly rooted in Christ (as just you, minus all trappings of ministry position), then you have a problem and you may well become a problem.

5. Preaching to control behaviour.  This may be more common than we think.  Instead of patient ministry trusting God’s Word and God’s Spirit, we can shortcut the process and start to pressure conformity in our listeners.  Quite simply, our life is easier if they will just behave like Christians.

6. Preaching to build a mini-kingdom.  Again, too common to count, and probably involves a combination of the above issues … but it happens when we preach in order to have a little empire where our influence, our voice, our significance, and our ego get propped up.

7. Preaching to be paid.  It is absolutely appropriate that churches recompense preachers and do so properly.  It is shocking the way some churches do not care for their preachers.  However, if I am preaching in order to get the paycheck, then my ministry motivation is broken.

8. Preaching because it is all I can do.  The fires within will not always burn bright in perpetual personal revival.  At the same time, if the fire has really gone out, please don’t just preach because you have no option.  You do.  Trust God, ask others for help, and choose not to preach until you can stand with a fire for Him again.  By faith hold back from doing damage and trust God to carry you through it.

There are plenty of other mis-motives that could be listed.  What have you seen in others (no names please), or in yourself?

Neil Todman on Psalms and Grief

This Friday we will be releasing an interview with Neil Todman, pastor of Headley Park Church in Bristol. Neil’s first wife, Elaine, died a few years ago and in the full interview Neil tells the story of those years, of God’s faithfulness, and of navigating such challenging years as a pastor. Along the way he also talks about the book of Psalms including the challenges and blessings of preaching from Psalms every year. In this post I want to give you a taste of the interview by sharing two clips with you.

The full interview will be available from Friday afternoon for everyone on the Cor Deo Online mailing list (we send typically one email per month with exclusive free resources). Here is the link to join the mailing list.

And one more clip for you. Neil talks about how to help someone who is grieving – such helpful pastoral insight:

The Pastor’s Job – Jonathan Thomas

Last week I interviewed Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny (Wales).  I’m linking to a clip from this interview because I think you will really appreciate what he has to say.

Jonathan talks about how easy it is to reduce ministry down to a litmus test for evangelical orthodoxy, but then tells his own story of growing into a fuller appreciation of the magnificence of Jesus.

To see the full interview, you just need to sign-up to the Cor Deo mailing list and we will make the full interview available to you!  Click here to sign-up – http://eepurl.com/drPqj1

A Contagious Pulpit

I remember Haddon Robinson saying that a mist in the pulpit will result in a fog in the pew.  It seems so obvious to say it, but there is a strong connection between what is going on in the preacher and what will go on in the listeners.  This is true both positively and negatively.  Here are some examples with brief comment:

Negatively

1. Nerves & Stress.  If you are nervous, they will join you in that.  If you seem stressed, you will put them on edge.  Whatever your preparation has or has not been like, make sure you go into preaching by faith rather than self-reliance, or self-concerned stress.

2. Coldness & Distance.  A congregation is like a dog in this regard: they can always sense if you don’t care for them.  Pray until your heart beats with God’s heart for these people, especially when you sense that indifference and lack of love that so easily creeps in for all of us.

3. Boredom & Disinterest.  Nobody wants to listen to someone who is not particularly interested in the passage they are preaching or the God they are speaking about.  In fact, they won’t listen.  Your disinterest will transmit so that they mentally leave the venue long before you leave the pulpit.

Positively

4. Warmth & Connection.  Maybe you have met somebody so warm and congenial that you found yourself warming to them as the conversation progressed.  The same is true in preaching: your love for them and enthusiasm for the God you speak about will increase their temperature toward you and Him!

5. Clarity of Image.  Whether it is an illustration or the retelling of a narrative, this principle applies: if you can see it, so will they.  Be prepared enough to be able to see what you are describing and you will be surprised how much more your listeners feel like they are immersed in the movie, not just enduring a monologue.  Blow the fog away, describe what is vivid to your mind and it will be clear to theirs, and engaging to their hearts too.

6. Responsiveness & Worship.  This goes way beyond enthusiasm and even interpersonal warmth.  This is about response to God.  If you are moved by the passage and the message to worship and obedience birthed from stirred affection, then that will increasingly be the response of your listeners too.

There are many ways in which we  will infect our listeners as we preach.  What “diseases” do we want to carry to them?

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.4

Here is the fourth in our series of things preachers tend not to say:

4. I feel the force of real temptation, and I am not always victorious.

This is a tricky one, isn’t it?  We are told that people love to hear a preacher being vulnerable and authentic.  At the same time if the preacher simply lays it all out there, then credibility tends to fade through the floor.  One person suggested on this site that it is not good to be vulnerable about sin that is currently still in process.  Work it out and then share appropriately.  That is probably wise.

But whether we tell recent stories or not, there is a struggle with temptation that is current and that is real.  Some preachers may be struggling with their fleshly reaction to others.  Some preachers may feel like lust is in full attack mode.  Some preachers may feel like their victory over some private temptation is less than all-conquering.  That is not to say that the preacher is therefore living in sin.  They may be living in victory and yet still feel worn down by the constant temptation.

We tend to focus talk on sin in areas of overt misconduct – lust or theft or whatever.  But what about the more “sanctified” sins … the popular churchy ones.  It is not easy to talk about ongoing struggles with pride, or poor self-worth, or unresolved conflict, or temptation to gossip, or whatever.

The truth is that while there may be no disqualifying disaster sin lingering like a skeleton in your preacher’s closet, there is a daily and weekly battle with temptation that is wearying and real.  We may not be losing control and assaulting others in fits of drunken rage, but there may be some self-protective habits in life, and there may be some tensions in the home or the church that tempt us to lash out, or numb the pain, or escape, or whatever.

Sometimes people treat the preacher in such a way that the preacher is the only person in the church who feels unable to share their struggles.  After all, not only is the preacher potentially not being vulnerable, but in some churches there is nobody else creating hope of grace and love if the preacher were to express their own struggle or failure.

Preachers struggle with temptation too, and preachers sin too, and it would be really helpful to get some real conversations going.

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.3

What do preachers feel unable to say?  We’ve mentioned the burden of expectation, and the pain that can come from responses of criticism and apathy.  Here’s another to throw into the discussion:

3.  My family is not the picture perfect family you think it is or wish it were.

Real families have real struggles.  Preachers have real families.  Therefore our families struggle.  That means that sometimes there are real challenges in a preacher’s marriage.  I am not talking about the petty disputes over toilet seats that are easy to reference in the pulpit.  I am talking about the incredibly tense interchanges that you don’t mention in a sermon.  Husbands and wives can really clash, or really drift, or really struggle, and that is really true for preachers too.  It is easy to assume that a preacher’s marriage is healthy and easy, but healthy marriages are not usually easy.  If there is a healthy marriage then that is the fruit of God’s grace to overcome lots of sin, and it is the result of lots of difficult decisions along the way, including lots of forgiveness in both directions.  Only the most naïve can say, “you’re lucky, you have a good marriage.”  And sometimes they will say it.

And then there is parenting, another great arena for luck!  “You are lucky, you have easy children.”  Guess again.  Some children may be more compliant than others, but every child needs parenting.  And parenting involves heartache.  The preacher’s children throw tantrums, sin foolishly, and sometimes rebel along the way.  I think there are times when a preacher would do well to pull back from preaching ministry to give their energy to parenting ministry, but there is never a time when a preacher has an easy life as a parent.  Parenting includes heartache, and real fear, disappointments, concern, sleepless nights, and so on.

And it needs saying that the “problem” is not always with the non-preaching spouse or the children.  It could be, but it could also be the other way around too.  Sometimes a preacher may not be a good spouse or a good parent.  There may be times when the preacher vulnerably acknowledges their personal weakness or the challenges at home, but no congregation wants a weekly update on the preacher’s family soap opera.  And typically no preacher wants to expose their family so that everyone knows the struggles they face at home.

Am I saying that all you see is false?  Not at all.  What I am saying is that the preacher’s family is a real family, with real sin, real tension, real disagreements, real weaknesses, real discussions, real disciplining, real parenting and real inadequacy.  If the fruit that is visible is good, then praise God, not luck.  (If the fruit is obviously not good, maybe the preacher needs releasing from some burdens to be able to prioritise their ministry at home.  I can never fathom churches watching helplessly as their pastor’s marriage collapses or their child goes off the rails!)

The preacher’s family life is real, whether you get to see the inner workings or not!

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.2

This series looks at seven things preachers never say.  Last time we thought about the burden of expectation.  How about this for another:

2. Both sides of negative response can really sting, that is, both criticism and apathy.

As a preacher, there are hosts of factors at play in my ministry.  There are tangible and intangible costs to what I do.  There is the immediate and the long-term.  As a preacher, I may spend hours during the week praying for the people and preparing to preach to them.  As a preacher, I may be forfeiting a number of other paths I could have walked down in life.  At times I will see the positives that come from being in a preaching ministry.  Believe me when I say it is one of the greatest privileges imaginable.  At the same time, some negative responses really can sting.

It hurts to be criticized.  It hurts when people criticize your motives or lie about you to others.  It hurts when the preacher is being roasted more than the joint of beef during Sunday lunch in every household of a congregation.  It hurts when people throw stones and storm out of the door.  It hurts when people’s grievances seem to inevitably hit the most visible targets in the church, which tends to be those who lead and preach.

Sometimes criticism is justified.  But it still hurts when instead of coming to you, those with grievances decide to broadcast their complaints to others instead.  It hurts to have to always be the mature one when others are being profoundly immature.  When sheep go on the attack it can really hurt!

But there is another side to negative response:

Apathy also hurts.  When you pour out your heart in prayer and burn the candle at both ends in preparation, only to be met with polite apathy, it stings.  The polite comments that amount to “nice sermon” when you have just given everything you had to preach it can really sting.  When year after year of preaching is met with the expectation that you will just be ready to do it again next week, but without much gratitude or apparent responsiveness, that stings.

We don’t preach for human affirmation.  Preachers tend to be like parents – our goal is not to be liked, it is to lovingly give what is needed by the people we love.  But preachers are also like parents in that both criticism and apathy can really hurt.  We preach for our audience of One, but that doesn’t give us infinitely thick skin.