Select Page

BLOG

I Recently Threw Away My Ministry Bucket List

Introduction
The well-known Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde (1927–2005) once observed, “The self seeks its own self in all things, even in its piety.”[1]

I became painfully aware of this several weeks ago while thumbing through some old prayer cards of mine. (For context, I record my prayer requests on 3×5 cards to help me focus while praying.)

Scrawled on a badly misshapen prayer card were three bucket list prayer requests. These are the goals I had hoped to achieve before leaving full-time pastoral ministry. The three requests were: 1) Publish a book, 2) speak at a conference, and 3) make an impact.

Dead Theologians to the Rescue
Some readers might judge these requests harmless, assuming they reflect nothing more than youthful zeal. But after some prayerful discernment, combined with my reading of Jeremiah Burroughs (1599–1646), François Fénelon (1651–1715), and Henri Nouwen (1932–1996), I’m more inclined to say they reflect earthly-mindedness and a worldly heart.

Self-Love Masquerading as Service to God
According to Burroughs, “An earthly-minded man is one whose heart cleaves to the earth.”[2] With a heart “pressed down to earth,” self-preoccupation naturally slithers its way into the sacred: “An earthly-minded person is earthly in spiritual things . . . so that in the performance of spiritual things, his very ends are but earthly.”[3] In plain English, an earthly-minded person’s service to God is poisoned with self-love.

Wells of unease began to rise within me upon reading those words. Soon enough I felt a sense of anguish in my heart. My hidden abominations had been exposed. I realized what I had done. I had turned a sacred moment into a venue for vanity. Prompted by self-fascination and fueled by feelings of self-importance, I cloaked my desire for fame and recognition under the guise of a prayer request.

“We are strangely ingenious in perpetual self-seeking,” wrote François Fénelon, “and the things that worldly people do overtly, those who want to serve God sometimes do with more refinement, under some pretext that hides the faultiness of their conduct.”[4] The bucket list prayer card was a pretext. It did not reflect godly desires. It was simply a refined way of serving myself.

The Three Compulsions of the World
If Burroughs and Fénelon convinced me that I was earthly-minded, Henri Nouwen showed me that I had a worldly heart.

Nouwen claimed that while in the wilderness for forty days and nights, Satan tempted Jesus with the “three compulsions of the world.” These three compulsions are:

  • To be relevant (“turn stones into loaves”).
  • To be spectacular (“throw yourself down”).
  • To be powerful (“I will give you all these kingdoms”).[5]

The feelings of unease that washed over me when I read Burroughs returned, as did an aching sense of sorrow. While I agreed that each of these compulsions had no place in the ministry, I also knew that each one had taken root in my heart. After all, Jesus called me to feed his sheep, and I was trying to feed my ego.[6] Jesus tasked me with shepherding the souls of his people, while I was busy using them for my own self-validation.

Though painful, I’ve learned to hug these moments with a mighty embrace. Painful moments are key moments. They seize us, forcing us to contemplate the direction of our lives. They are turning points.

Once the pain receded, I grabbed a new 3×5 card and jotted down three new prayer requests that I believe are more in line with God’s Word. Instead of trying to publish a book, speak at a conference, or “make an impact”—an amorphous concept if there ever were one—or be relevant, spectacular, and powerful, I’m asking God for contentment, humility, and prayerfulness.  

Contentment
Author and pastor David Kaywood defines contentment as “an inward sense of peace and joy independent of circumstances.”[7] While I had prayed for contentment in the past, the mindset I brought with me into ministry—and the mindset reflected on the ministry bucket list prayer card—made finding contentment impossible. In fact, my entire outlook was circumstance dependent. My “inward sense of peace and joy” depended on whether I achieved my self-centered goals and, as a consequence, garnered human applause.

Like many young pastors, I entered the ministry with a lot of ambition. I wanted to revitalize the close-to-dying church I was pastoring. I wanted to get a PhD. I wanted to start a blog and build a readership that would eventually lead to a book deal. But despite my best efforts at bringing these goals to fruition, I simply could not achieve them. The result was discontentment, resentment, envy, and anger—along with shame at the realization that my goals centered on putting me in a place of prominence.

While I understand that Kaywood’s definition doesn’t require me to toss my bucket list prayer card, I trashed mine anyway. Going forward, I’m approaching my ministry goals with a posture of involved detachment. My aim is to be fully present and invested in my current ministry context, while releasing control of my desired outcomes.

Humility
As with contentment, I have regularly prayed for God to humble me. He began answering those prayers nearly a decade ago, but not in the way I envisioned. He blocked my goals and removed the words of affirmation I had come to rely on to build my identity and bolster my ego. In the process, he exposed my vices and unveiled the wounds that spawned my sinister attempts at trying to secure unconditional love. I learned that my incessant desire to achieve and my never-ending thirst for approval had more to do with unresolved issues of worth and was rooted in a fragile sense of self.

I realize that cultivating humility doesn’t demand that I ditch my bucket list prayer card. I know that. But I’m doing it anyway. I want to replace my hunger for approval with the spiritual discipline of secrecy—a term our forebears used to capture the beauty of engaging in acts of mercy anonymously. While this would be a healthy discipline to practice at any time in history, I think it’s even more crucial in our day, where all of life—including our spiritual devotion—has turned into a performance. Given my penchant for courting human applause, coupled with living in an age suffocating from visibility, I want to develop the stamina to serve in obscurity, in out-of-the-way places that push me toward a life of quiet constancy.

Prayerfulness
By “prayerfulness” I don’t just mean the act of prayer. I’m not talking about voicing my requests or expressing gratitude to God, though that’s included. Here I’m thinking about a continual posture of life that tilts in the direction of prayer as a reflex. Eugene Peterson captures my point when he refers to prayer as “the experienced practice of God’s presence in the entirety of your life.”[8]

This posture and mindset cancel out the bucket list prayer card view of ministry—at least for me. At a minimum, it requires that I re-envision those three requests. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

First, rather than praying to publish a book, I’m asking God to help me steward the gift of writing, along with viewing each article or blog I write as an offering to him.

Second, rather than praying for the opportunity to speak at a conference, I’m thanking God for the privilege he gives me each week of preaching his Word to the people of Crossroads Community Church.

Third, rather than trying to “make an impact,” I’m praying that God will work mightily in the church I shepherd. I’m just thankful that I have a front row seat in the process.

Conclusion
Here’s an equation that sums up my first decade-plus of ministry: An inordinate amount of ambition + an immoderate level of self-concern = a restless heart. That’s a recipe for exhaustion. For my own sanity and soul-health I needed to replace that approach to life and ministry with a healthier one. That’s what I want to do. I want an approach to life and ministry that is heart-calming and reflective.

To that end, I’m asking God to wean my affections from the earth and detox me from my addiction to approval; to remind me that ministry is gift, not gain;[9] to remind me that ministry is not primarily about self-fulfillment, but sacrificial service. I’m called to tend to the names, faces, and stories of those within my congregation. I’m called to be attentive to this place, to these people, at this time.

I feel freer already.

 __________________________________

[1] Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 54.

[2] Jeremiah Burroughs, A Treatise on Earthly-Mindedness (1649; repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Soli Deo Gloria, 2022), 10.

[3] Ibid., 17. The phrase “pressed down to earth,” comes from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 3. 20. 4.

[4] François Fénelon, “The Use of Time,” in The Complete Fènelon, trans. and ed. Robert J. Edmonson, CJ, & Hal M. Helms (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2018), 54.

[5] Cited in Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Day by Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 48.

[6] Lewis Allen, The Preacher’s Catechism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 62.

[7] David Kaywood, “Your Church Needs Contentment,” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/church-needs-contentment/ (accessed 24 April 2024).

[8] Eugene Peterson, “Interior Experts,” in On Living Well: Brief Reflections on Wisdom for Walking in the Way of Jesus, ed. Paul J. Pastor (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2021), 114.

[9] Language borrowed from David Gibson, Living Life Backwards: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 130.

Dear Lord and Father of Mankind

Let this cool blast of calmness wash over you today:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind;
In purer lives Your service find,
In deeper reverence praise.

Drop Your still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Your peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Your coolness and Your balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm!

In simple trust likes theirs who heard,
Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow Thee. – John G. Whittier, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”

Strength through Weakness: A Prayer from François Fénelon

Enjoy this wonderful prayer from The Complete Fénelon:

Lord, when I thought I could do everything, I could do nothing. And now that it seems to me I can no longer do anything, I am beginning to be able to do everything in you who strengthens me. How blessed is my lack of ability, because it makes me find in you everything that is lacking in me! I rejoice in my weakness, because it opens my eyes to what the world is—and to what I really am in myself. I count it a blessing to be laid low by your hand, because it is in your making me into nothing that I will be covered by your almighty power.

Some people feel pity for me because I have been brought low. You are blind, my friends! Do not feel sorry for this person who is loved by God, and on whom he brings suffering only out of love. It was in the past that I was to be pitied, when corrupt prosperity was poisoning my heart, and I was so far from God.

My “Educative Desolation”: A Testimony of God’s Faithfulness

Introduction
Scene One: I’m in the kitchen on my knees, clinging to my wife, my arms wrapped tightly around her waist, pleading with her to hold me. My sense of desperation is tangible.

Scene Two: A few hours later, I’m lying face down on my bed with my forehead perched on my forearms, envisioning reading my resignation letter before the congregation on Sunday morning. My sense of shame is palpable.

These two scenes from nearly a decade ago sit in my memory like a houseguest you hope will get the hint that you’re ready for them to leave. But just as proper decorum requires you to entertain them until their departure, so likewise we must entertain (that is, give attention to) our wounds in order to wrestle meaning from them.

For what it’s worth, here’s the meaning I’ve been able to wrestle from a time when I was “sore-dismayed in mind,” to quote George MacDonald.

Prelude
To set the stage, you should know that one of my prayers as I embarked on ministry back in May of 2013 went something like this: Lord, don’t let me be a statistic. Let me make it through the first five years of ministry without quitting.

Notwithstanding my earnest and frequent pleas, by September 2014 I was ready to quit. A combination of unrelenting criticism, poor church attendance, and a significant budget deficit—to say nothing of adjusting to rural life in a small town, few friends, and a non-stop sparring match with my Imposter Syndrome—made me feel like an underwater swimmer trying to reach the surface to come up for air. I needed air. I needed God.

The morning following the two scenes described above, I did what I always do. I brewed my coffee and headed to where I feel most at home—my study.

My appointed reading for that day was Psalm 119. While I had read this lengthy passage countless times, on this occasion my eyes were fixated on verse 75:

I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.

Illumination
Though I heard no audible voice, I clearly sensed that God was saying to me, “Joe, this is from me. I am doing this, and this is for your own good.” In his faithfulness, God was afflicting me.

But why, I wondered?

The heavens didn’t part with an answer. But since that time a handful of dead pastor-theologians have thrown me lifelines from their graves, and in turn have helped me make sense of a challenging season of life.

Diadochos of Photiki (400–486)
The first was Diadochos of Photiki—a fifth century Byzantine monk and theologian. He observed that God often takes his children through an “educative desolation.”[1] God brings us low to mature us. And maturity always hurts. But the hurt gets our attention, propelling us into self-reflection—a prerequisite for spiritual maturity. God had my attention.

Eugene Peterson (1932–2018)
Next, Eugene Peterson helped me see that my prayer life may have been to blame for this “educative desolation”:

“When we pray we have a more than average chance of ending up in a place that we quite definitely never wanted to be, angrily protesting, preferring death to the kind of life that God insists on recklessly throwing us into. . . . We want life on our conditions, not on God’s conditions. Praying puts us at risk of getting involved in God’s conditions. . . . Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests. And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back.”[2]

Prior to May 2013, I had been asking God to humble me. (Aren’t Christians supposed to pray for humility?) I had also been asking God to do with me as he pleased; to send me where he wanted to send me, and to use my life for his glory. But while I gave lip-service to wanting life on God’s conditions, once I realized what it entailed, I started having second thoughts. By that point, however, it was too late. My “educative desolation” was in full effect.

John Newton (1725–1807)
The third writer was John Newton. While reading his Letters in my study one morning, an audible yes! came rushing forth out of my mouth. Newton wrote to a young pastor:

“The Lord abhors pride and self-importance. The seeds of these evils are in the hearts of his own children; but rather than suffer that which he hates to remain in those he loves, he will in mercy pound them as in a mortar, to beat it out of them, or to prevent its growth.”[3]

I had no doubt about this. God was pounding me—in his mercy. He was beating pride and feelings of self-importance out of me.

Though I would not have verbalized it this way at the time, I know that in the subterranean parts of my heart I believed that God owed me a better life than the one I was living through. Putting my life on the line for God, I believed, warranted him giving me a growing church filled with people who loved, admired, and supported me.

I was wrong. I needed humbling.

The truth is that God calls all of his children (but especially pastors), to live with a broken will—a life marked by zero resistance to his call and direction.[4] But since no one signs up for this on their own, God often breaks our wills by breaking our hearts. Which is why Scott Hafeman was correct in saying, “A ‘pastor’s heart’ is a broken heart.”[5] Pastors can expect an extra measure of trials because they must excel others in humility, meekness, and self-denial.[6]

François Fénelon (1651–1715)
François Fénelon is the final author who helped me interpret my “educative desolation.” In a letter offering spiritual guidance to a friend, Fénelon urged:

“. . . you ought to give yourself up to his [God’s] just dealings, and accept his intention of nailing you to the cross in union with his beloved Son, Jesus.”[7]

Today we call this cruciformity—a term that captures the idea that the shape of our lives will mimic the shape of the cross. As theologian Michael Gorman notes, to be “in Christ” is to be a “living exegesis” of the drama of Christ’s life, where exaltation follows humiliation.[8] In order to know the power of Christ’s resurrection, we must first experience “becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:11). If we want “the life of Jesus” to be “manifested in our bodies,” then we must always carry “in the body the death of Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:10, 11). Hence, Paul’s conclusion: “So death is at work in us, but life in you” (v. 12).

Each “educative desolation” God brings into my life “must be interpreted as an opportunity to forsake self-reliance,” and “a reminder that there is nothing life-giving in this mortal body but only in Jesus risen from the dead.”[9]

Conclusion
If I had to choose a verse from Scripture to sum up that season of my life, I would pick Psalm 59:10:

“My God in his steadfast love will meet me.”

God showed up. God met me.

His Word connected to my life in a relevant way. His servants throughout history helped me understand what he was accomplishing in my life.

Let me ask you: What portion of Scripture has God used in your life in a significant way? How has God’s Word connected to your life recently? What authors have helped you make sense of the story God is telling with your life?

I’d love to hear your story.

______________________________________________________

[1] Cited in John Starke, The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020), 87.

[2] Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 44, emphasis mine.

[3] The Letters of John Newton (1986; repr. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), 377.

[4] For more on this topic, I recommend Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Brokenness: The Heart God Revives (Chicago: Moody, 2005).

[5] Scott Hafemann, “A Call to Pastoral Suffering: The Need for Recovering Paul’s Model of Ministry in 2 Corinthians,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 4:2 (2000): 22–36. See esp. 32.

[6] Countless pastor-theologians have made this point throughout church history. See, e.g., St. John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, trans. Graham Neville (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), 77, 94; Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (1656; repr. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2020), 33; Charles Spurgeon, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” in Lectures to My Students (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), or read it online here.

[7] François Fénelon, “False and Real Humility,” in The Complete Fènelon, trans. and ed. Robert J. Edmonson, CJ, & Hal M. Helms (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2018), 10.

[8] Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), kindle (loc. 1057).

[9] William R. Edwards, “Participants in What We Proclaim: Recovering Paul’s Narrative of Pastoral Ministry,” Themelios 39:3 (2014): 455–469. See esp. 463.

Top Ten Books of 2023

Here’s my top ten books of 2023 in no particular order. I hope you find something that piques your interest.

Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 2 Volumes.

Theologian Fred Sanders once said that reading Charnock’s Existence and Attributes has to become a way of life if you ever hope to finish it. Well, I made it a way of life and, after 14 months of reading, I finally finished. It was worth it. I invite others to make reading Charnock a way of life. You won’t regret it.

Abigail Favale, The Genesis of Gender.

Christians need to read this book. We need to understand the philosophical underpinnings of transgender ideology.

We need to understand how we got to this place as a society.

We need a refresher course on the Christian anthropological perspective on human nature and the human body—namely, that we view the human person as a body-soul unity and that sexual differentiation between men and women is purposeful. It is not an accident.

We need to know that transgenderism is a creation heresy because it denies the goodness of the human body and the goodness of creation. Trying to unshackle ourselves from our humanity leads only to degradation, not flourishing.

John Starke, The Secret Place of Thunder: Trading Our Need to Be Noticed for a Hidden Life in Christ.

Our performative culture has given rise to what some mental health professionals call “performancism.” This is the mindset that equates what you do or do not do, what you accomplish or fail to accomplish, with who you are as a person.

If I could give the younger generation (and older generation now, it seems) one piece of advice it would be: Permanently deactivate all of your social media accounts as soon as possible.

True, as Starke points out, the world will ignore those who “don’t participate in the systems of performance” (63). But I say get out anyway.

John Starke, The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World.

After you deactivate your social media accounts, pick up Starke’s book on prayer. Remember: “One of the great uses of Facebook and Twitter will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time” – John Piper

David Powlison, God’s Grace in Your Suffering.  

Powlison is a gifted writer whose beautiful prose, rich theological insights, and wise application of biblical truth implants within readers an empathetic disposition toward strugglers crippled with grief, disillusioned by chronic pain, and doubtful of God’s love.

Structured around the hymn “How Firm a Foundation,” each chapter orients readers to the chapter’s focus, applies a stanza to our real-life circumstances, and then concludes with a personal story from Powlison’s life. Finally, Powlison concludes with practical suggestions or questions for readers to answer—all designed to transform their lives in the present.

(Note: I read the following two books for my pastoral counseling course at Gordon Conwell)

Ray Ortlund, The Death of Porn: Men of Integrity Building a World of Nobility.

You don’t need me to tell you that pornography addiction is a huge problem. The evidence is everywhere: High divorce rates, listlessness among young men, sex trafficking, abuse, and the degradation of women—to name only a few. Ortlund aims to counteract the scourge of pornography by reminding men of their calling and nobility.

Michael John Cusick, Surfing for God: Discovering the Divine Desire Beneath Sexual Struggle.

As a former porn addict, Cusick writes with empathy and wisdom. He rightly notes that men who act out sexually must go “below the water-line” of their lives (42), and look beneath the surface of their actions, and unearth what is motivating their behavior.

After twenty-plus years of counseling sex addicts, Cusick delineates the seven core thirsts of every man: 1) Attention, 2) affection, 3) affirmation, 4) acceptance, 5) satisfaction, 6) significance, and 7) security (30–31). Sex addicts typically act out if these thirsts were not quenched by their childhood caregivers. While this does not excuse their behavior, it does explain it.

A second key insight was Cusick’s distinction between wounds of presence and wounds of absence. Cusick noted that sex addicts tend to suffer from wounds of absence—they were either neglected or abandoned as children.

One final insight that I will carry with me is his chapter on neuroscience. By showcasing what goes on in an addict’s brain, Cusick furnishes addicts with hope: Change is possible.

William R. Miller, Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding.

Read this book if you want to have better conversations with people.

(Note: The next two books are novels.)

Penelope Wilcock, The Wounds of God.

In the second installment of The Hawk and the Dove Series, the author transports readers into a thirteenth-century monastery, detailing their daily activities and interactions with one another. As I read, I found myself highlighting large swaths of conversations between the brothers. It’s a virtual show and tell of how to engage in meaningful conversations with humility, self-awareness, and empathy.

William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace.

Though not classified as such, this is essentially a whodunnit.

*Honorable Mention*

Leif Enger, Peace Like a River.

I spent a significant amount of time reading this novel, so I feel like it belongs here—if for no other reason than to justify the hours I put into it. Good storyline, interesting characters, and lots of memorable lines.

Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.

All in all, this is Classic Keller. Easy to read, excellent cultural analysis, and lots of insights to take with you into your daily life.

I do have a quibble, however. I found Keller to be uncharacteristically imprecise with regard to his treatment on divine impassibility. On more than a few occasions, Keller spoke about “God suffering,” or “the suffering of God,” without qualifying his statements.

As an ordained minister in the PCA, I know Keller affirms that “There is but one only living and true God, who is without . . . passions,” (WCF 2.1), which is why his language confused me. I would have expected Keller to specify that God the Son suffered, or that he would refer to the suffering of the Son of God. But he didn’t.

Forgive me if this seems overly scrupulous, but I can’t forget Nicholas Lash’s comment that “theology is the practice of learning to watch our words before God.”

Happy reading in 2024!