Toward Excellence in Life and Ministry

Interview with Richard Dresselhaus, Dick Foth and John Lindell

by Richard Dresselhaus, Dick Foth, John Lindell

Upon entering ministry we do so with the hope it will be long lasting and dynamic. The reality, however, is that life and ministry do not always go as planned. Sometimes unexpected and unwanted circumstances bring brokenness and disillusionment that lead to short-lived pastorates and ministries. Achieving and sustaining excellence in life and ministry often depends on how we choose to respond to the day-to-day rigors of ministry life.

Enrichment journal’s managing editor, Rick Knoth, spoke to Richard Dresselhaus, Dick Foth, and John Lindell. These purposeful and determined leaders discuss the lessons they have learned about how the blessing and grace of God that originates out of weakness and brokenness lead to long-lasting, dynamic, and fruitful ministry.

Dick Foth pastored the campus congregation at University of Illinois in Urbana for 12 years; was president of Bethany College in Santa Cruz, California, from 1978 to 1992; was minister at large in Washington, D.C., from 1993 to 2008; and is currently on the pastoral preaching team at Timberline Church, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Richard Dresselhaus has pastored two churches spanning 40 years (Summit Avenue Assemblies of God, St. Paul, Minnesota; First Assembly of God, San Diego, California). He currently serves as executive presbyter for the Southwest Region of the Assemblies of God, and as interim pastor at Calvary Temple in Concord, California.

With two prior pastorates in Kansas, John Lindell has served the last 19 years as lead pastor at James River Assembly, in Ozark, Missouri, a congregation that has grown to over 12,000 people in weekly attendance.

Almost 20,000 ministers in the United States leave the ministry every year disillusioned. Talk about a time when you were disillusioned with the ministry and felt like giving up. What helped you stay the course?

Foth: Probably the greatest challenge for me was when I moved from the pastorate to the presidency of a college. There was a very profound moment where I was anxious before the Lord, saying, “I think I can pastor, but I’m not sure I can be a president.” It’s almost like He turned me to Philippians 2, where it says that He let go of His glory, took on the shape of a man, died a criminal’s death. In essence, I felt God said to me, “Your problem is you’re afraid to fail, and aren’t you glad I wasn’t?”

Years later, things were challenging at the college, as they are for many small colleges. We were trying to raise millions of dollars, and the pressure was intense. I wanted to run from it all. But it was the call. It was that moment that I could look back to and say that the Lord has helped me thus far, and that’s the thing that held me.

Dresselhaus: There are so many times that come to mind. In one incident we were making plans to develop a new campus in San Diego. I wanted to solicit the support of one of the stalwarts of the church, a man of influence. I was hoping I could get his support for this incredible project, way beyond anything I could get my hands around financially and every other way. I talked to him about the program, and he looked at me with a sober face and said, “You don’t realize, but you have a church split on your hands. If you didn’t like this church in San Diego, why did you come? Why didn’t you stay in St. Paul where you were?”

Those were not good comments. I still remember going east on Highway 8 after that meeting, thinking, Oh, God, what do we do now? We were into the project and couldn’t get out. This was a low time in my life. The question is, what did I do? I just kept on keeping on.

I think we have to push that “keep going” button, that “hold on, stay with it” button, from time to time when we feel disillusioned and depressed and say, “I’m just going to weather this storm.”

One of the humbling and “dawning of truth” moments comes when you leave the pulpit and you feel you have not delivered the Word of the Lord very effectively. You are angry with yourself for not having prepared more adequately. It’s just one of those times when you feel you just did everything but hit the ball out of the park. Then someone walks up and says, “Pastor, what you said was exactly what I needed to hear today.” As a matter of fact, you don’t recall ever having said such a thing. It shows the work of the Spirit.

At our time of greatest weakness, when we feel like we have fallen on our face, the Lord rescues us in wonderful ways. We realize in these moments, after all, it is the work of the Spirit. We’ve been talking about what it means to be Pentecostal. I think we of all people rejoice in what we receive from the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

Lindell: Whether it is unmet expectations, hoping for one thing, and winding up — after you have done everything you know to do — with something else, can be demoralizing. Or you just come to a place of absolute fatigue, where you are emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausted.

I think the worst disillusionment is betrayal by people you love. But in each one of those seasons, there comes a point where you get up and minister by faith. You keep going by faith. You say, “I’m going to do what I know is the right thing to do. I’m going to try to deal with these things, to work through them emotionally, spiritually, to release them.” But as Richard said, sometimes you just have to keep on keeping on.

It is true that time can heal a number of things. By that, I’m not suggesting we don’t take appropriate steps to deal with the source or the issues that we created, or to honestly look in the mirror and say, “Okay, I was not wise in how I did this.” A lot of times, we want God to touch us, show up, heal us, so we can keep on breaking the rules. That’s not how it works.

This is where a lot of pastors get into trouble. We have a problem that didn’t get there overnight, but we want God to fix it overnight. Sometimes by His grace, He does fix it. Often, I think He wants to teach us. One of the great lessons is His strength in our weakness. I’m continually amazed at how God can bring blessing out of weakness. It’s a truth, but when you see it, nobody wants to go through it. But when you watch what God does in response to it, it makes you that much more a debtor of His love and work in your life.

Have there been any missteps along the way that have hindered the health of your ministry?

Foth: Sometimes I expect myself to be good at everything. And you cannot be good at everything. And you cannot always be good, even if you are a good communicator, preacher, or teacher, you can’t always be good at it.

This idea that I am responsible to God is a huge burden, if it is misunderstood. Hal Lehmann, missionary to Africa for many years, really encouraged me one day when he said, “I woke up in Africa and realized that I wasn’t working for God; I was working with Him.” My greatest missteps come when I somehow appropriate to myself something that is only for God.

Dresselhaus: I remember at San Diego First Assembly there were some rumblings about various things. I don’t even remember what it was at this point. I thought it was time for me to preach a sermon on murmuring, using the Israelites in their wilderness experience. So I went to work on murmuring. I look back and think that was so stupid.

I’ve learned the wonderful lesson that it’s not good to use the pulpit to get at vendettas we might have. Just preach the Word of God, and the chips will fall where they may.

If relationships are so important, why do many ministers live in relative isolation?

Dresselhaus: Part of it is the environment we create. When we go to conferences, we tend to create an atmosphere of prosperity, success, good attendance, and great victories. That’s fine. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do that. But we need to keep in mind that there are pastors present at these events that are in the doldrums and are struggling to get through the day. We need to be sensitive to that. We need to balance our statements of great victory with some exposure of the struggles we may have. We have to be careful about the environment we create so we are welcoming in pastors who are going through a hard place.

Lindell: What Richard has said is true. Most pastors I have visited with have people who can be rightfully critical or, with no merit, criticize in way that can hurt you. You get in ministry, you’re working hard together, and then you have people that turn on you, you have people who, for whatever reasons — good or not good —go to another church or pull back.

Pastors become wounded, and one of the ways you protect yourself is you just don’t get close to anybody. So you create this distance.

I hear pastors say, “You can’t have close friends, you can’t have this, you can’t do that.” To me, that’s a wounded spirit that’s talking. I think there is wisdom we must have in our relationships and realize there are people close to us and people a little farther out. But if we don’t deal with our hurts, if we don’t deal with what we have felt from what people have done to us, then we start building walls and wearing armor to protect ourselves. When we do that, ultimately we wall everybody out and imprison ourselves.

Many pastors, if they are honest, will admit they have little life outside the church, and wonder why they are bored with ministry, why their sermons are dull. The way out of this boredom may be to create a life-vision for one’s personal life and ministry. First, if you have a life vision, can you describe that? Second, how does creating and maintaining that vision help you to keep your life and ministry on the cutting edge?

Lindell: One thing that’s important is to be able to sense in our lives where the grace of the Lord is. Not just in ministry, but where it is in life. We know when we are being recreated. We know when we’re being renewed and refreshed. It is important to be able to understand what those things are, who those people are, when those times are, and to be able to make room in our life for those things to happen. There’s a grace for ministry, there’s a grace for life, there’s a grace for renewal and recreation. We have to make sure that in our life we’re sensitive enough to the Lord to understand what He is doing, when He is working, where His pleasure is in our life, and make sure that we align our life with that.

Foth: I had an experience on an airplane years ago flying into Memphis, sitting next to a businessman. I asked him what were his top three goals in life. He said, “Why don’t you tell me your top three, and I’ll tell you mine.” Off the top I said, “I always want to find myself in the kingdom of God. I always want to have tight relationships with people. Third, I never want to stop adventuring all of my life.”

Looking back on that, I think those three themes of the life vision still are in place. I would agree with John, that the closest relationships you have — your familial relationships — are the ones that bring you the most joy.

Dresselhaus: I appreciate what has been said. I’m going to be a bit more spiritual in answer. To try to live a life of obedience, to try to somehow listen to a deep inner voice, to follow the Lord as best I can, to be living a life consistent with the Word of God — these kinds of challenges are always before me. So I just trust the Lord to help me keep the right kind of focus as I move through the journey of life.

Excellence has become the “holy grail” of our culture. What is the benchmark by which you gauge excellence in your life and ministry?

Lindell: For me, it is a matter of knowing I tried my hardest. Our responsibility is to do all we can, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. With that, Paul is calling us to try our hardest, to give our best shot. Excellence is also a moving target. At James River, we do not try so much to talk in terms of excellence as we do a culture of improvement.

In my life, I am constantly evaluating if there is a way to do better. But if I know I have done my best, I can live with the results. If I feel I cheated the process, didn’t do my best, even if others thought it was good, for me it’s a disappointment.

Dresselhaus: As I think about excellence in ministry, I think in terms of bringing a measure of wholeness and health. How healthy am I as a person? Am I healthy mentally, spiritually, and physically? The greatest gift I can give is a measure of wholeness, by the grace of God.

Foth: It is easy to gauge excellence by how others see you. Early on, I weighted too much that direction. In terms of finding the place where one knows he has tried his hardest, as John mentioned, and being whole, as Richard mentioned, the business of playing to an audience of one really strikes a note to me — the idea that I am doing this with and for Jesus, and what it looks like at the end of the day, is His call.

Every Christian leader knows the pain of feeling disconnected from God and going through the motions while leading and serving the church. How do you stay emotionally healthy while living under the intense pressure of public ministry?

Foth: Getting truth telling from my wife, Ruth, is a way of staying fresh. She will cut through the bologna, the excuses, or the reasons I have to be tired. Or she might say, “Have you thought about this?”; or, “Let me pray for you.”; or, whatever it is. Part of freshness for me comes from this relationship.

Lindell: I can tell when I am going through the motions. When that starts to happen, I need to step back. It would be better not to have that feeling, but I don’t know if that’s reasonable. When I sense that’s starting to happen, I schedule time to renew myself.

Dresselhaus: Something that has been helpful to me over the years is to remind myself of the significance of the call of God on my life and the privilege I have to be involved in ministry. To realize that I can stand in busy intersections of people’s lives, to know that they will turn to me as a minister in times of great crisis, to keep in focus the great privilege it is to be involved in ministry, this has a kind of renewing to it.

Professionally and personally, what activities have you found to be good, but not the best use of your time and energy?

Dresselhaus: One activity that has been incredibly counterproductive over the years is to be too preoccupied with my own personal concerns. I have given far more time to worrying than I should have. If I had life to live over, I would spend more time smelling the roses along the pathway, and I would not take myself nearly so seriously.

Lindell: If we have an incorrect paradigm or understanding of what ministry is, ministry can be draining. Early in my ministry I had a concept of the pastor as being responsible in a way that is not practical. We can find ourselves living with trying to meet expectations that are not reasonable, practical, or life giving. That is not beneficial to the church because we’re creating a codependent relationship.

It’s been a real challenge to adjust my ministry to the seasons of my life and the seasons of the church. I’ll confess that when I drive by the hospital, I feel guilty if I don’t stop. You want to be up there, you want to be with people, but you cannot let unreasonable expectations govern your life, and that’s been a real weight and a burden for me. One of the difficulties in ministry is trying to figure out where is the “sweet spot.”

Also, I find that meetings are not always the best use of my time and energy. Sometimes meetings do not do as much for us as just being able to interact in a more personal, conversational type of setting. For me, I keep meetings to a bare minimum.

When it’s an interactive conversation, it’s fairly life giving to me. When it’s a meeting, if it doesn’t have a huge relational component to it, it is draining.

Dresselhaus: Along with what you said, John, meetings ought to have a relational component. Working with staff ought to be relational. Ministry flows out of relationship. If relationships fall apart, ministry ceases.

As leaders we chart the way to the depth of those relationships. If we’re in a meeting, we have the opportunity of self disclosure that will move the tenor of that meeting to a deeper level and give people the freedom to be more self disclosing and to express themselves at a deeper level, which becomes the essence of good relationships.

Foth: I would echo what John and Richard have both said about expectations both internal and external. There are expectations I have of myself that are unreasonable, that I think the enemy fuels. He wants me to wear myself out. That has been a big thing for me.

Dallas Willard said, “Allowing service for Christ to steal our devotion to Him is a radical failure in personal soul care. But it is one from which the practice of communing with Christ in times of solitude and silence can deliver us.” How do you exercise solitude and silence in your busy life and ministry?

Lindell: There is no substitute for your daily time with God. So to be in His presence every day and to be able to spend that time with Him is the most renewing thing I do on any given day.

Dresselhaus: Certainly, my alone, private times on a daily basis with the Lord are critical and essential. The idea of praying without ceasing can work, even though we have busy schedules, if we live with a sort of God consciousness, prayer on our breath moment by moment — “Lord, help me, be with me, guide me, lead me.”

There are also those serendipitous times with the Lord. I remember a life-changing experience that occurred about 3 or 4 years ago. I was flying back from Europe. I was meditating on the Cross and thinking about a message I was planning on preaching. I was overwhelmed and was profoundly moved by the Spirit of God. For maybe 30 minutes I just wept before the Lord. It was an unplanned, unexpected, incredible moment when God just opened His heart and my heart.

Foth: Over the last 17 years, I have spent much of my time driving. People ask me, “Where’s your office?” I say, “In my car.” I’m sure as I stopped at stoplights and people saw me singing or talking, they probably thought I had a screw loose. But there is something about being by yourself in a private environment that shuts out other things.

I especially enjoy early morning walks, when the sun is on the horizon and the moon is coming down over the Rockies. It helps me to think deep thoughts. We need to capture those times where it’s just us by ourselves in a moment when the phone can’t ring.

General Superintendent Ralph Riggs spent a lifetime championing a Pentecostal perspective that affirms caring for one’s intellect. How do you intentionally grow your intellect?

Foth: Years ago, I wrote several friends and said, “Give me the 10 books that have stimulated you the most in the last year or two.” I love to read in arenas beyond what I am used to or what I would ordinarily read, because this stretches my capacities. It’s like exercising muscles.

The other part of this came a few years ago when Francis Schaeffer spoke at Bethany College 7 weeks before he died. I asked him, “What is it that has allowed you to know so much or learn so much?” He said, “My first 20 or 30 years in ministry, I got my doctorate, and I did all the reading and so forth, but the last 20 years, I have just spoken to people.”

You can be stimulated intellectually when you ask people questions like, “What is it that makes you want to get up in the morning?” “What are the things that have framed your life?”

Lindell: There are books on the one hand, and there are people on the other. There are times when I am around people who are intellectually engaging in a way different from what the typical week brings. That is not to say I cannot learn from people in a regular week, but it is wonderful to have relational time with people who are smarter than you and who have an insight on things that go beyond where you are.

Everybody ought to read outside of his or her vocation. But people for me have actually motivated me to do reading that has subsequently enriched my life.

Dresselhaus: Some years ago, the church in San Diego gave Eleanor and me a sabbatical. Part of that sabbatical was to have an educational component. Cambridge University opened their doors to us, and I spent a month in the School of Theology at Cambridge. I could select any courses or classes that I chose day by day. So I visited different lectures. Granted, the school is, from our perspective, liberally oriented, but to follow how they are thinking, what is motivating them, was stimulating to me. Sometimes there are these education components that come along that can help us stretch ourselves mentally.

Share a final thought with our readers concerning excellence in ministry.

Foth: Years ago I was telling people what to do and trying to get them to do it, and it didn’t work. I felt the Lord saying to me, “Why don’t you stop telling people what to do and tell them who I am? Let me tell them what to do.” That has helped me greatly.

Second, pursuing noble objectives is key. I have a friend who describes leadership this way: “A leader is a person who selects noble objectives and pursues them with such intensity and sacrifice that he carries other people with him.”

Dresselhaus: I think of pastors who are in very inconspicuous places — they pastor 40 to 50 people. They have been there a number of years, and have been praying every day. I just want to say to that pastor that if you are where God has called you to serve, and if you are listening to His voice and doing your best in obedience to Him, your place in ministry is as great and as fruitful as ministry in any other place. You should be thinking in terms of excellence in ministry in the context in which you serve.

Lindell: We’ve been studying Ephesians. Last week we talked about Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s workmanship, to be a masterpiece,” that every believer in Christ is a work in progress. I think to see ourselves in some way and to rest in who we are in Christ is really what brings us value. So many times we seek significance from what we do or what we have accomplished. But our true significance is found in how much God loves us, the fact we are in Him and with Him.

Sometimes we think of good works as being the big things, the noticed things. But most of Jesus’ adult life was lived being a good stonemason, being a good son, being a good brother, and being a good friend. And there was great glory in that.