Ministry: A Commitment to Priority Living
“Pastor, I think there may be a call for a vote of confidence at the membership meeting tomorrow night. If so, I don’t think you’ll make it. It seemed wise for me to give you some warning of that possibility.”
The night that followed was sleepless and long. I felt alone, hurt, discouraged, and embarrassed.
In the morning, I asked my wife to read the appropriate section from the devotional book that lay on the lampstand. Of course, I expected to hear some special word of assurance that would lift my spirits. Instead, Elnora read these words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3*).
It was a shocking word of admonition. I could not believe the Lord would allow such correction in the wake of the distressing news of the previous night. What about the people who even then might be plotting in their hearts to send me looking for another place to serve? “Lord, where is fairness in it all?”
I was greatly relieved when the membership meeting concluded without a vote of confidence on the pastor. Now, in retrospect, I realize the entire event was an occasion for a deep work of God’s grace in my life. Interestingly, as I write this, we will soon celebrate 25 years of wonderful ministry in that very church. This is the road pastors travel — sometimes smooth, frequently bumpy, and occasionally almost impossible. I remember another moment. As a congregation we huddled at the graveside of a beautiful 16-year-old girl whose life had been taken in a terrible act of violence. She joined three other girls from our youth group who only months before had also been buried just a few feet away — one by cancer and two from an automobile accident. Our hearts were sad beyond description. How? Why? Our questions were unanswered, and our hearts flooded with sorrow.
Again, this is typical of the environment in which we do our work as pastors. I have compared our work often to an emotional roller coaster — from the ecstasy of having brought the message of hope to hurting people to the feelings of regret and shame that accompany failure — a wide swing of emotions that accompanies the task of ministry.
To survive in this work calls for a strict adherence to priority — the intentional planning of our lives to enable us consistently to give ourselves to effective ministry. I have yet to meet a pastor who has been successful in the Lord’s work who has not had a commitment to priority living.
What are these priorities? What are the parameters that will provide guidance and focus? What are the principles to which we must fix ourselves in meeting the challenge of ministry?
Fire on the Altar of Our Hearts
Here is the first and most essential priority — tending the fire on the altar of our hearts. It is the directive to the sanctuary priests that now speaks powerfully to us: “The fire on the altar must be kept burning; it must not go out” (Leviticus 6:12). That is, the inner presence of God must be perpetually nurtured. Without this priority, all pastoral work is doomed to failure.
Indeed, the inner flow of God’s Spirit must be commensurate with the outward demands of ministry. Imbalance here is a sure path to aborted ministry and ruined influence. We cannot give out what we have not taken in. The reservoir from which we draw must be well supplied. It is impossible to impart life to others if we are inwardly barren.
How? Surveys show that the average American pastor spends less than 15 minutes per day in a devotional relationship with God. Rarely do I meet a pastor who is satisfied that his inner life is being sufficiently nurtured. Why? The answer is obvious. The press of ministry crowds out the time we need to be with God. Only one response to this neglect is appropriate — the intentional tending of the fire on the altar of our hearts. Each one must singularly make that determination.
While we are individually unique in calling and giftedness, we must take time to allow God’s Spirit to indwell our hearts through His Word. There is no option. Difficult? Yes. Seemingly impossible? Sometimes. But this priority dare not be met with negligence.
If an influential member of your congregation requested your time, it would be granted. Why not do the same for God? Make an appointment with Him. Let it be a regular block of time intentionally set aside just to be with Him. This will be a meaningful supplement to your present daily devotional time.
The Disciplines of the Spirit
While the Beatitudes might at first glance seem to be polite platitudes for pious-minded people, they are in reality stern statements of discipline that dominate and control the inner life of every faithful servant of the Lord. These disciplines provide the criteria by which I measure my inner life. They must be priority.
The Best From Among the Good
Choosing the best from among the good is the next priority. The options in pastoral work are myriad: service clubs, ministerial associations, continuing education, reading, traveling, outside ministry, talent development, recreation, family time, church administration — the list is almost endless. All are good.
We must choose, but where do we begin? First, ask: What can only I do? For example, if you are a senior pastor, there really is no one else who can cast vision and nurture the people of God. These kinds of tasks cannot be delegated. Wise is the pastor who concentrates on these responsibilities and devotes the needed time and energy to bring them to completion.
Do not live by default. Do not allow others to set the agenda for your life. Be intentional about your choices. Evaluate every task as to its relative importance to the overall task of ministry.
I admit it. I would like to do many good and nice things, but established priorities have set parameters of limitation. For example, I have had to limit the time given to pastoral counseling. Of course, counseling is good and needed — but in my situation, the importance of other tasks compels me to place a limitation on this part of my pastoral work. Each pastor must choose wisely among all the options. If you do not, someone else will — much to the discredit of an otherwise effective ministry.
Relationships That Authenticate Ministry
Years ago an associate pastor, fresh out of seminary, made this brief but powerful declaration: “Ministry flows out of relationship.” The hard truth is, without a relational base, effective ministry is impossible. Relational debris will taint any pastor’s influence. If you cannot get along with people, you will not be given their attention or their support. Building strong relational bridges is essential — with no shortcuts.
It also reaches into the pastor’s home. A pastor who fails to care for his own family will soon lose the privilege of caring for the people of God. Put God first, your family second, yourself third, and the work of God fourth. Misdirection will hurt everyone. If you put the church ahead of your family and yourself, you will soon find that you have destroyed the authority base for your ministry to others.
The most authenticating factor in a pastor’s influence is his family. Take the time needed and expend the required energy to cultivate the kinds of relationships with your family that in turn will preach the most powerful sermons your people will ever hear.
You must build a relational base upon which fruitful ministry can rest, be it staff, the official board, the next-door neighbor, a cantankerous member, or a fellow pastor. Ministry flows out of relationship. This must be priority.
Good Management Systems
Pastors do not typically fail because they are insincere, ungifted, or inept at preaching. They fail because they fail to manage — their time, inner life, resources, thought life, emotions, the people they serve, or the church’s finance.
The ticket to the pulpit is bought with management dollars. You fail to manage, and you soon fail to preach. We can all compile lists of pastors who tragically have become examples of this sad neglect.
Every task calls for a management system. A member makes a request as he passes you at the door following a service. Do you have a system to ensure you will remember that request? Consider the flow of the worship service — do you have a system to ensure that people involved know how their parts fit into the whole? In working with the official board, do you have a system to ensure that members are prepared to participate in board decisions?
A little forethought and planning will save time, earn respect from those with whom we work, build credibility, diminish conflict, facilitate workflow, and enhance the message we proclaim.
Check out your management systems. Be sure they are well placed and working effectively. This, too, is a high priority.
Yes, the task is great, the pitfalls many, the rewards wonderful, and nothing will assure success like a commitment to priority.
Richard L. Dresselhaus, D.Min., is an executive presbyter and former senior pastor, First Assembly of God, San Diego, California.
*Scripture quotations are NIV.