As I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and contemplate my first decade in ministry, my mind wanders back to the seventeen-year-old version of myself. I’m sitting in a folding chair in Heartland Community Church’s gymnasium listening to Pastor Scott Veroneau preach at the Sunday evening youth service. While I have no recollection of the sermon’s contents, the effects of what transpired during the message are still with me. God called me to pastoral ministry that night.
It’s been nearly twenty-three years. And here I am. The Lord has done great things for me, and I am glad (Psalm 126:3).
As I think about what I’ve learned during my time in ministry, two overarching lessons stand out to me.
Don’t Play It Safe
Here’s the first lesson: Don’t play it safe. I never thought I would live in either Iowa or Massachusetts. But more adventurous than packing up our lives and moving across country was the surprising way God moved my family and I in that direction. The adventure began in 2011.
While reading Matthew 4 in my morning devotions, verses 18–22 flew off the page and landed firmly in my heart:
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he [Jesus] saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him (emphasis mine).
Later that day, a sentence from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship unsettled me. As he commented on what the Apostles gave up in order to follow Christ, Bonhoeffer observed, “They have no security, no possessions to call their own, not even a foot of earth to call their home, no earthly society to claim their absolute allegiance. . . . For his sake they have lost all.”
The combination of these two moments filled me with determination. I’m done playing it safe. I want to give my life to serving God. I will go where he wants me to go and do what he wants me to do.
Prior to that moment, I would bring God my tailored list of acceptable locations that I’d be willing serve as a pastor. After my reading that morning, however, when it came time to fill out my denomination’s questionnaire regarding where I’d be willing to serve, I checked the box that said, “Willing to serve anywhere.” With a smirk on his face and hesitancy in his voice, the Regional Minister asked, “Does that include North Dakota?” With a smile on my face and hesitancy in my voice, I responded, “Yes.” (Let’s just say North Dakota was not every aspiring pastor’s preferred destination! As God would have it, I ended up in small town Iowa.)
And I’m glad I did.
The ministry has brought with it countless sacred moments. Visiting with, and praying for, the sick and dying; leading and sharing God’s Word at funerals; officiating at weddings. God, why did you choose me to serve you in this way?
Sublime moments are also part of life in ministry. There’s the euphoria of discovering the main point of a passage of Scripture; there’s the serendipitous moment of seeing how to apply a text; there’s the walk up to the pulpit each Sunday to deliver God’s Word. God, why did you grace me with this privilege?
And then, of course, there are sanctifying moments. Interpersonal conflict, profound disappointment with yourself and others, criticism—both constructive and destructive—hard conversations, self-doubt, feelings of inferiority, the unrealistic expectations of others, the long stretches where nothing significant seems to be happening, the dirty business of human love, the enduring. God, thank you for sanctifying me.
Ministry Has a Way of Humbling You
This brings me to my second lesson: Ministry has a way of humbling you—and it is good for you. Like most pastors just starting out, when I arrived at my first church, I assumed it would grow numerically under my preaching and leadership. Sure, the church had been in decline for decades, but I believed things would be different under my watch. (I’ll give you a couple of minutes to pick yourself up off the floor.)
The realization that I most likely would not be the exception to this rule came my way through a conversation with a veteran pastor. We’ll call him Ethan.
On our drive home from a denominational meeting, my usually talkative veteran pastor-friend was unusually quiet. Concerned, I ventured, “You’re awfully quiet. Is everything okay? Is something wrong?”
“Actually, no. Everything’s not okay,” he replied.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, treading carefully.
“Did you hear Jonathan’s reasoning for why we were going to see Pastor Henry’s new sanctuary?”
I chuckled under my breath, and said, “Yeah, he said Henry’s church was one of the success stories in our denomination.”
Ethan replied, “Well, Joe, if Henry’s church is one of the ‘success stories,’ then what does that say about the church’s we’re pastoring? Does the fact that our churches aren’t growing numerically mean we’re unsuccessful pastors?”
In a rare display of emotion, Ethan unloaded: “Sorry, Joe, but I’m just frustrated. I thought that by now I’d be pastoring a larger church. I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and I genuinely thought it would be easier by now. I thought I’d have some sense of what I was doing, some sense of accomplishment, but it still feels like I’m just treading water. I’m exhausted and have nothing to show for it.”
I wished I’d had some wise counsel to offer, but I didn’t. I was a newbie. To my shame, the main question in my mind was: Is this what’s in store for me? The odor of self-centeredness in that question was suffocating. I needed to pray.
More specifically, I needed to prayerfully contemplate that question—and many more: What if the church doesn’t grow? What if I serve a small church in a small, obscure town my entire ministry, and I’m criticized and virtually nit-picked to death until I’m seventy. What then?
I now believe that the main question God was posing to me was this: Are you willing to let me be your ultimate security? And my specific prayer requests became: God, give me a heart that rejoices in what you give—whatever that is. Help me learn to see life and ministry through the lens of Christ instead of through my own aspirations.
Aspirations—that word punctures my pride. I brought a lot of them with me into the ministry. But now that I’m ten years in, I think most of them were rooted in vanity and feelings of self-importance. They weren’t truly about God’s glory.
And therein is perhaps the most humbling lesson I think I’ve learned in my ten years of ministry: What I needed most was not to fulfill my aspirations; what I needed to cultivate was learned desperation.
But only the crucible of ministry could teach me this because learned desperation isn’t something we sign up for. It’s foisted upon us by a gracious God. He throws us into these seasons because he knows we need them.
We need seasons that feel spectacularly mundane. We need the husky arms of disappointment to envelop us. We need criticism. We need seasons where we do nothing but endure. Can I say it? We need to fail. Why? Because these seasons are the soil out of which growth springs.
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities
will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth
you will bring me up again (Psalm 71:20).
If I could rewind time and start my ministry preparation all over again, I think I would take Eugene Peterson’s advice: I would go into the wilderness for three months, not read my emails, stay off social media, attend no conferences or classes, and instead “take a deep, long, prayerful time of doing nothing.” And then as I arrived at my first church, I would tell myself what he told his son, Eric, as he began his first pastorate: “No trying to be successful.”
That sounds like good advice for my next decade in ministry.
Do you ever find that your Bible reading has become stale? Like nothing significant is happening as you’re reading? I have. And I know I’m not alone. In recent months, I’ve shared my Bible reading practices with several people from Crossroads. For what it’s worth, here are three strategies you might want to try.
The first is called the S. O. A. P method. It’s an acronym for Scripture, Observation, Application, and Prayer. Here’s how it works: As you’re reading through the Bible, look for a Scripture that stands out to you—perhaps it’s a word or phrase. Whatever it is, write it at the top of your journal. Then, move to make some observations about the surrounding context. What do you notice? What’s taking place? Third, make an application to your life. How might you put into practice what you are learning today—right now. Finally, take what you have learned and formulate it into a prayer. Here’s an example of what this might look like.
If that method doesn’t appeal to you, here’s a second one: After you’ve done your reading for the day, identify one major teaching point and summarize it in a sentence. Then do the following:
Thanksgiving – Pause and thank God for giving you that revelation.
Repentance – Spend some time repenting for your failure to live out that instruction.
Petition – Ask God to grant you the grace to live out that truth.
The third strategy consists of a bunch of ways to apply what you’ve read—all of which come from Tim Keller’s book on prayer. Ask yourself any combination of these questions.
Am I living in light of this? What difference does this make? Am I taking this seriously? If I believed and held to this, how would that change things? What does this teach me about God and his character? About human nature, character, and behavior? About church, or life in the people of God? What does this mean for my relationship with God? To myself? To this or that person or group? To this or that behavior or habit? To my friends, to the culture?
Be concrete—is there something you must stop doing because of it? Is there something you should start doing? Why might God be showing this to you today? What is going on now in your life to which this would be relevant?
Look within the passage: for any personal examples to emulate or avoid, for any commands to obey, for any promises to claim, and for any warnings to be heeded.
I hope these suggestions improve your time in Scripture! If you know of any other methods—especially one that has served you well—please share it with me.
I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me (Psalm 57:2).
When I think about God fulfilling his purpose for me, I naturally drift toward things like material comforts, freedom from inconveniences, and large doses of verbal affirmation. Regrettably, conformity to Christ doesn’t immediately come to mind. How different this is from the Scriptural portrait!
Paul repeatedly informs us that God purposes to sanctify his children, which involves bringing our heart-attitudes and character into alignment with Christ.
What does that look like?
Humility – “. . . doing nothing from selfish ambition or vain glory, but with humility of mind regarding one another as more important than yourselves, not merely looking out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this way of thinking in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although existing in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a slave, by being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:3–8, Legacy Standard Bible).
“The humble man feels no jealousy or envy. He can praise God when others are preferred and blessed before him. He can bear to hear others praised and himself forgotten, because in God’s presence he has learnt to say with Paul, ‘I am nothing.’” – Andrew Murray, Humility.
I need humility.
Fruit of the Spirit – “. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23, ESV).
“God, change me in the depths of my being! Fill me with Your holy presence until Your will is my chief delight. . . . Cleanse me of any unholy fire in my own heart! Teach me how to love others the way Jesus loves me!” – Jack Miller, The Heart of A Servant Leader.
I need the help of the Holy Spirit.
Service – “. . . whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26–27, ESV).
“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:3–5, ESV).
A hidden life of sacrificial service kills pride, self-importance, self-preoccupation, and self-fascination.
“In Thy will, O Lord, is my peace.
In Thy love is my rest.
In Thy service is my joy.
Thou art all my heart’s desire.” – John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer.
I need to run away from the spotlight and serve quietly in the shadows.
Childlike wonder – “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15, ESV).
This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas–
His hand the wonders wrought.
I need a childlike yet fully adult faith.
Speaking/Doing the truth in love – “. . . speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15, ESV).
“You are called to be patient and constructive in every relationship and every interaction” – David Powlison
I need to speak wisely and constructively to my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Brokenness – “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
“Brokenness is the shattering of my self-will—the absolute surrender of my will to the will of God. It is saying ‘Yes, Lord!’—no resistance, no chafing, no stubbornness—simply submitting myself to His direction and will in my life.” – Nancy Leigh DeMoss Brokenness: The Heart God Revives.
I need a broken will.
Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever (Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent)
They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15).
Read those words from the chief priests once more—slowly: “We have no king but Caesar.”
You remember the context: The Jewish leadership wants Jesus dead. But their zeal to carry out their plot must have aroused Pilate’s suspicion, so that he wondered: Why do these Jewish leaders, who would love nothing more than to get the Romans off their backs, now declare their allegiance to Caesar (see v. 15 above).
And why, when Pilate tried to free Jesus, did they reply, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend” (Jn. 19:12). As an unprincipled man himself, Pilate can spot deception when he sees it.
From one angle, of course, it might seem like the Jewish leaders have outmaneuvered Pilate. Their declarations in verses 12 and 15 force his hand. He must do something about Jesus. After all, if Jesus truly is the “King of the Jews” (Jn. 19:3), he must take action, or Caesar will. And Pilate will feel the repercussions.
But from the perspective of divine omniscience, as recorded in sacred Scripture, the Jewish leaders haven’t outwitted Pilate; they’ve revealed their calloused hearts—and ours.
Zooming in the Lens on Ourselves
As fallen human beings, we love to judge other people. It feels good. It’s energizing, enlivening, intoxicating. You can almost feel a burst of energy course through your bones as you breath a heavy sigh and say under your breath, “How could the Jewish leadership betray their own Messiah?” We love to imagine that we’re better.
But we’re not.
Jesus is the King of the universe. And as such, he has the right to rule our lives. He owns us.
But like the Jewish leaders in John 19, we foolishly declare our allegiance to insurrectionists. True, we weren’t physically present when the crowd demanded, “Give us Barabbas!” but the heart that gave rise to such a disgraceful demand lies within each of us. It sounds like this: Jesus, get out of the way. I want freedom. And by freedom, we mean our own definition of freedom.
But the problem is that our self-chosen paths of “freedom” enslave us to false gods. And since false gods are harsh taskmasters who detest their worshipers, those who worship them become just like them—ruthless, insatiable, and filled with hate.
And you can always tell when someone worships at the altar of a false god because the following characteristics show up with regularity:
Unrighteous anger – They’re often infuriated with people, circumstances, and/or inanimate objects.
Demandingness – They insist that other people make their life work.
Control – They have an obsessive need to know what’s going to happen in any and all circumstances. To use biblical language, they want to walk by sight, not by faith.
Narcissism – They assume that their exhaustion or frustration is a license to speak to, or treat people, however they want.
Skepticism – They pile up reasons for why they don’t believe in God, or the resurrection of Jesus, or the veracity of Scripture. But underneath all the technical jargon and pseudo-intellectual arguments is something quite sinister (and nearly always unbeknownst to the skeptic): They’ve decided in advance the kind of life they want to live and then reverse engineered a philosophy that fits their desires.
Dehumanization – They reduce people to objects who exist to satisfy their “needs.”
Autonomy – They crave personal autonomy, bodily autonomy, and intellectual autonomy—the golden calves of Adam’s posterity.
“I Find No Guilt in Him”
How can we get out from underneath the tyranny of these false gods and enjoy genuine and lasting freedom? Only by surrendering all of who we are—everything—to the Messiah-King. We need the Author of Life to rule our lives.
The dearest idol I have known / Whate’er that idol be/ Help me tear it from Thy throne/ And worship only Thee. – William Cowper, “O for A Closer Walk with Thee”
Here’s the astoundingly good news: Jesus has proven himself faithful, which is why even Pilate had to confess, “I find no guilt in him” (Jn. 18:38). Nevertheless, Jesus went to the Place of the Skull because he was on a mission. He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). In order to do this, he lived a sinless life. He bore our sins. He cried, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30). He conquered death. He ascended. He now intercedes.
The Posture of Genuine Worship
I ask you: What’s holding you back? What are you holding on to? What are you refusing to relinquish?
Name the insurrectionist(s) in your heart and hand them over to your faithful Savior. It won’t be easy. But it will be worth it.
In light of the fact that the posture of genuine worship is sacrifice, I’m making it my daily practice to pray the following prayer taken from this sermon by John Henry Newman (1801–1890):
I sacrifice to Thee this cherished wish, this lust, this weakness, this scheme, this opinion: Make me what Thou wouldest have me. I bargain for nothing; I make no terms; I seek no previous information whither Thou art taking me; I will be what Thou wilt make me, and all that Thou wilt make me. I say not, “I will follow Thee whither Thou goest,” for I am weak. But I give myself to Thee, to lead me any whither. I will follow Thee in the dark, only begging Thee to give strength according to my day.
I turned forty last Thursday. I know, whoopty do. But I’ve been contemplating some of the most significant lessons I’ve learned along the way. And so I wrote them down in no particular order. Here they are:
1. I am a sinner in need of a Savior.
2. Jesus is the only one in the Savior category.
3. My wife’s love for me reminds me of Jesus’s love for me.
4. My kids are awesome.
5. God knows me better than I know myself.
6. “We love those who know the worst of us yet don’t turn their faces away” (Walker Percy).
7. A people-pleasing kind of life is not fun.
8. Conviction of sin is not the same thing as repentance.
9. Read the Bible every day.
10. If you wait until you feel like praying to start praying, you’ll never pray.
11. Life is not a competition to be won.
12. “True friends stab you in the front” (Oscar Wilde).
13. I rarely lose my temper (seriously, ask my wife!) but when I do it’s because other people aren’t treating me like I’m the center of the universe.
14. You can’t beat a person who doesn’t care if he loses.
15. When someone criticizes you, resist the temptation to criticize them in return. Die to yourself. It shreds the ego. Get on the cross and stay there.
16. Love is not unconditional affirmation.
17. Passive-aggressive behavior is unbecoming.
18. If you ignore problems, they don’t go away.
19. Don’t let the sins you see in someone else’s life control you.
20. I’m 40 and basically still want my mom to hold me and tell me everything’s going to be okay.
21. God doesn’t make the hard things in life go away.
22. Spend time around people with a good sense of humor. Laughing is fun.
23. Listen to your parents. They’re smarter than you are.
24. “Make friends with books. They’ll never leave you nor forsake you” – HB Charles.
25. Don’t worship your heroes. “All of your heroes are frauds, just like you” (Andy Mineo).
26. Vulnerability invites intimacy.
27. Don’t read the church growth gurus. They’re mostly wrong. Pastoral ministry isn’t rocket science.
28. Spend time every day reading poetry. (Here is a good place to start)
29. Life is too short to drink bad coffee and read mediocre books.
30. Read novels (unless, of course, they’re mediocre. See lesson #29). Here’s one of my recent favorites.
31. Loving others when there’s nothing in it for you is incredibly sanctifying.
32. All genuine pastoral ministry is rooted in a feeling of desperation and the simultaneous abandonment to the promises of God’s Word. It sounds like, “If God doesn’t act, then this is doomed to fail.”
33. There are three kinds of conversations to have: 1) Competitive, where the goal is to win. 2) Informational, where the goal is to get your point across. 3) Connecting, where the goal is to connect at the heart-level with others. Make sure you do the third kind the most.
34. Cultivate childlike wonder and kill cynicism.
35. I should have deleted my social media account a long time ago. “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
36. Silence and solitude remind you that you have a soul.
37. The older I get, the more beautiful I find God’s ways.
38. “Complaining is usually a veiled lament about deeper issues of the soul” (Craig Barnes).
39. You can’t achieve your way into significance.
40. Ministering to people during times of grief and death makes me long for the new heavens and the new earth: “Your eyes will behold the King in his beauty. . . . there the LORD in majesty will be for us a place of broad rivers and streams . . . And no inhabitant will say, ‘I am sick’; the people who dwell there will be forgiven their iniquity” (Isaiah 33:17, 21, 24).