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With his retirement on the horizon, my mentor/friend, Steve McLean, was asked to speak to a group of a missionaries on the topic “Three Verses That Kept Me in the Ministry.” As you can tell, the topic spurred me to consider the same question for myself. After some prayer and reflection, I selected the following verses and ruminated on them a bit. The result is this blog.

While you may not serve in vocational ministry, I’d love to hear what verses or passages in the Bible have meant a lot to you in your life. As for me, here are some verses to which I return quite often.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

Ministerial life is a combination of exceeding joy and inescapable sorrow (“sorrowful yet always rejoicing,” to quote Paul [2 Cor. 6:10]). Far from a holiday at the sea, it implants one squarely within the throws of the perennial war between God and the devil. Such tension makes for an adventurous earthly trek, to say the least.

One moment we’re pulsating with resurrection life; the next we’re pining within due to death and disappointment—and a veritable host of other tragedies that make up one’s life east of Eden.

Eugene Peterson was right: pastoral work “specializes in the ordinary”[1]—small talk, forays into a congregant’s quotidian existence of parenting, diaper changing, unruly bosses, etc.—but it also involves placarding the splendid truths of the gospel—Christ’s life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement at the Father’s right hand, and the marvelous gifts purchased for his people as a result—“the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). Moreover, the complexities of soul care usher a minister into the joys and sorrows of his fellow sojourners, lifting one either to the heights of praise or the depths of Sheol.

Perhaps you’re wondering at this point: “Why does this verse keep you in the fight?”

They keep me in the fight because they reveal that the shape of my life is par for the course. Say what you will, but Calvin Miller was right: “Ministry is not for sissies.”[2]

The level of spiritual attack is heightened for those on the frontlines of ministry. An onslaught of accusations from Satan is inevitable; coping with feelings of discouragement is normal; jousting with the inner taskmaster of workaholism is expected; enduring the Dark Night of the Soul is almost a rite of passage. Mini-deaths, intractable people and circumstances, sleepless nights, feelings of worthlessness, tearful goodbyes—such is our lot. Paul’s words plant us firmly in the real world. They winnow me off any notion that ministry will be a life of ease and safety. For this, I am thankful.

“Central to what it means to be ordained is to open the doors of one’s soul to the complexities, pathos, longings, and even sins of those the pastor has vowed to serve.”[3]

From the ominous words of Ephesians 6:12, we move to a life-giving exhortation from the same apostle.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Pastoral ministry requires disciplined rather than desultory living. The rhythm of work and rest notwithstanding, we are to “throw ourselves into our ministry tasks” (to paraphrase Paul’s charge to Timothy [1 Tim. 4:15]). Such a call precludes me from having a medley of interests pulling me in varied directions. Rather, I must focus all my energy on fulfilling God’s call on my life.

Nevertheless, it’s at this point that 1 Corinthians 15:58 serves as a ballast for the rough seas of ministry. You see, Satan often tells me that my labor is in vain. And it’s a fight not to believe him. Hence, my deceitful heart needs such a delectable promise!

In a world replete with traps, opportunities to fall, and a ministerial culture brimming with obsessive strivers, we need to rub the scent of Paul’s words deep into our psyches.

My work is not in vain. Brother pastor, your work is not in vain.

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (2 Timothy 4:1–2)

God summoned me into the ministry during one of my pastor’s Sunday evening sermons. Out of nowhere the thought gripped me, “That’s what I want to do. I want to preach.” Through many twists and turns, detours and roundabouts, the passion to preach has never left me.

For this reason, when I drift into ministerial malfunction, Paul’s simple yet profound words to Timothy latch on to my heart like a vice grip. As one who plays a primary role in the mind renewal process (Rom. 12:2), I’m charged with delivering up nutritious meals (sermons) to God’s people. This is both my greatest joy and my greatest burden—my greatest joy because I serve as a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1); my greatest burden due to the relentless return of Sundays. Therefore, I must rightly handle the Word of God and study to show myself approved (2 Tim. 2:15). This entails drenching myself in the text, kneading it into my own heart and life, so that as a well-trained scribe in the kingdom (Matt. 13:52), I can make the truth glisten, showcasing all of its richness, power, and applicability.

“Let most of what you do be dominated by the demands of the sermon as if your whole life and reason for being is to preach Christ, because it is.”[4]

Conclusion

When it’s all said and done, ministry is pure gift. It’s the privilege itself that keeps me in the fight. Meandering through life with the same group of people, in a specific location, for a lifetime is the greatest privilege imaginable. We live together. We rejoice together. We weep together. We listen together. We pray together. We sing together.

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[1] Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 112.

[2] Calvin Miller, Letters to a Young Pastor (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2011), 23.

[3] M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 22.

[4] Andrew Purves, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 44.