John Piper once wrote, “Books don’t change people; paragraphs do. Sometimes even sentences.” Though true in every dimension of my life, three sentences related to pastoral ministry have been meaningful to me that I would like to share with you.
The first morsel comes from Andrew Purves: “Ministry kills us with regard to our ego needs, desire for power and success and the persistent wish to feel competent and in control.”
Here’s the backstory.
In 2013, my family and I sold our home in Florida and moved to a small, rural community in northern Iowa, where I began my first pastorate. Though once a thriving church, by the time we arrived it had been in decline for more than a decade. On a good Sunday, we had forty people.
In the weeks leading up to the move, we attended church like we always do. I don’t remember much of the pastor’s sermon that morning, but I know that toward the end of his message he invited the congregation to write down one prayer request, and trust God to answer it in the upcoming year. I wrote down, “I want to feel competent as a pastor.” (Cue laughter track.)
Feelings of inadequacy plagued me even after four years of Bible College and three years of seminary. If anything, the long season of preparation made it worse. I felt pressure to justify my seven-year investment and didn’t want to disappoint my family, friends, mentors, and those who had supported us financially. To top it all off, I had serious doubts about my ability to revitalize a dying church—to bring it back to its glory days, when “it was a race to the back pew,” as one member jokingly put it. It felt like the future of the church was riding on my ability to increase attendance and expand the budget.
Well, that didn’t happen. I soon realized that I was unprepared for the task and had no idea what I was doing. (The members caught on to this quickly.)
Truth be told, I didn’t just feel incompetent. I was (am?) incompetent. But Andrew Purves’s quote helped me see that God was providing me with an opportunity to forsake self-reliance and role my cares on to the resurrected Christ (Ps. 55:22; 2 Cor. 1:8–9).
I now see that my plea for competence was really a desire for control. But I’m not in control. I can’t control results. I can’t control what others say. I can’t control people’s responses. There’s a whole bunch of things I can’t control! Thankfully, grace flows downhill (nod to Jack Miller).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) penned my second ministry-shaping sentence. In the course of outlining how a pastor should relate to his congregation, he wrote, “When a [pastor] becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament.”
You’ll need to replace Bonhoeffer’s phrase wish dream with today’s concept of visionary leadership to appreciate his counsel. Contrary to nearly all pastoral leadership books currently on offer, Bonhoeffer urged pastors to receive their congregations, not envision one. Yes, pastors should have a biblical vision for their church. And no, Bonhoeffer’s admonition doesn’t preclude pastors from praying that a gospel culture would flourish in their midst. But it does mean that pastors should love the people in their congregation more than their vision for the congregation.
This rang true with me when I first read it, and still does to this day. Yet many of the books that I’ve read on leadership gave the impression that I should be willing to sacrifice the people currently in my church for the sake of “the vision.” But that counsel never sat well with me. Further, in talking with congregants led by “visionary leaders,” I’ve discovered that most of them feel like they’re just along for the ride. They don’t feel served by their pastors; they feel used by them. And usually the pastor’s “visionary leadership” just leaves congregations busier and more tired.
Bonhoeffer’s quote reminds me that my calling is to lead God’s people to love him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love their neighbors as themselves. That’s the biblical vision. That’s what we work and pray toward. But I have no power to make it happen (see sentence number 1!). My calling is to plant the seeds of the gospel and then stick around long enough to see if anything happens.
My third ministry-shaping sentence comes from Eugene Peterson: “Pastoral work . . . is that aspect of Christian ministry that specializes in the ordinary.”
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I was resistant to this idea initially. It felt like such a letdown. It seemed too . . . well . . . ordinary. What about all the glitz and the glam? All the pastors I followed on Facebook and Twitter couldn’t wait to get to church on Sunday for their “epic” and “extraordinary” services and preach their “life-changing” messages. These status updates included pictures of them standing on a platform preaching in front of hundreds and thousands of people—all eager to hear their pearls of wisdom. Let’s just say that was not my experience.
I know the comparison game is deadly, but it was hard to resist. If successful pastors lead large and extraordinary churches with countless conversions taking place each Sunday, then it was clear where I stood. For my own sanity, I needed to change my outlook—and delete my social media accounts. Peterson’s words helped me not become another statistic—quitting the ministry in my first five years.
I had to learn that ministry is made up mostly of ordinary days, working with ordinary people, who face ordinary struggles, work ordinary jobs, have ordinary marriages, ordinary kids, and ordinary struggles. They wash dishes, take out the trash, change diapers, and raise kids. That’s life. It’s filled with blessedly mundane moments. My calling is to help God’s people notice the subtext of their lives—to pay attention to how God’s fashioning them into Christ’s image in the midst of it all.
I like to say that ministry is meandering through life with people. I’m not qualified to lead them into the Promised Land, but I can walk with them through the wilderness years. And by God’s grace, it’s what I plan to give my life to.
In the swirl of a life always in motion, it’s hard to see how God is penciling his character into our souls. But when I reflect on how God dropped these three gems into my life right when I needed them, I can only say: God is generous beyond calculation. He is sovereign over all the details of our lives, including what we’re reading.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
 Andrew Purves, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 21.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christianity Community (New York: HarperOne, 1954), 29–30, emphasis mine.
 Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 112.