There is a crisis in pastoral ministry. Recently someone reported that an average of 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month. This constitutes a crisis of staggering proportions. Yet the crisis is found not merely in the leaving, but in the conditions in which many remain—and in the conditions which remain within themselves.
The issues are legion and the reasons manifold. It seems to me, however, that one powerful component of any answer comes in the matter of how we who are in the ministry view who we are and what we are called to do. What lenses are we to view the ministry through? From what vantage point will I be able to look accurately upon myself and my charges?
I suggest to you that we must being to view pastoral ministry through the lenses of personal sanctification. This is not the norm. It is far more common to view ministry through the lenses of success, organizational leadership, growth, responsibility, personal fulfillment and any number of other ways. We are taught in ways both formal and informal to gaze upon and evaluate ourselves and our ministries from these perspectives. It is not that there is no truth in these. It is not that there is no help in doing so. The problem lies in doing so exclusively—or very nearly so. This has left us in a crisis—a crisis in which a great many of us are not surviving, let alone thriving.
I suggest that we must go back to our theology—specifically our theology of sanctification. We must apply what we say we believe with regard to sanctification to how we view ourselves and our relationship to the people God has put under our care. Another way of saying this is that we must return to the cross. The cross must become real to us again—not just in an eternally saving way, but in a temporally and locally specific way.
The cross is a jewel—the greatest jewel! Three facets of the cross come before our view now. The first is the cross as a provision. It was on the cross that Jesus Christ uniquely, in a once-for-all act of substitution stood in my place, bore my sin and paid my sin-debt. “Christ died for sins once for all” (1 Pet. 3:18a). What He did there cannot be repeated, improved upon or paid back. When it comes to the cross as a provision it is unique and unrepeatable—all we can do is rest in it. The cross as a provision delivers from the penalty of sin. The second facet holds before us the cross as a pattern. Jesus announced, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). Jesus died for me, that I might never have to die eternally. But it is equally true that Jesus died that I too might die—to sin, to self, to the Law and to the world. The cross as a pattern must be embraced, it must be reproduced in us. The cross as a pattern delivers from the power of sin. But these two facets remain little more than fascinating doctrinal facts unless we shift to see the cross from a third angle—the cross as a participation. This is what Paul meant by his yearning after “the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Phil. 3:10). It is what he intended by “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24). There was, of course, nothing lacking with regards to Christ’s sufferings and death as a provision. But what Christ suffered to the point of death to fully and perfectly provide, we are now commissioned to take to all for whom He provided it—and to do so always involves suffering. The cross as a participation delivers us from the pointlessness of pain.
The great Apostle survived and thrived in ministry—despite obstacles and challenges that dwarf what most of us go through—precisely because he had come to view ministry through the lenses of sanctification. He embraced the ministry with the cross between him and it. His prize was not “the ministry,” nor even “ministry for Christ,” but Christ Himself! For this reason he could say, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20a). He could honestly claim, “I die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31). Thus he could demand: “count yourselves dead to sin” (Rom. 6:11a).
This we must do with all of life, but I am thinking at this moment of the fact that we must view the ministry through the lenses of sanctification. Not sanctification as doctrine or theology (though we must always be sure to get our doctrine and theology correct and it must then inform all our thinking); not sanctification as a proposition, postulation or line of reasoning to be tumbled about in the mind. I mean my own personal sanctification.
Pastor, could it be that God called you to the ministry not so you could do great works for Him, achieve great results in His Name, go down in the annals of history as “a great man of God” or so that many more might enter heaven through your service—but precisely and simply because He in His infinite wisdom knew that “the ministry” was the perfect tool by which He might produce your sanctification? Has He called you, not so you can produce for Him, but so that He might produce Christ in you?
Humbling thought, isn’t it?
Surely calling you to the ministry in order to make you like Christ is not the whole of God’s purpose, but it is never less than that purpose. The rest of God’s purpose in calling you to the ministry depends upon you cooperating with Him in this primary purpose of the whole of your Christian life and ministry.
What, may I ask, would change if we began today to view the ministry through the lenses of sanctification? I am sure this is not an exhaustive list and I’m confident some of them overlap one another, but let me suggest some thoughts that come to my mind. If I were to view ministry through the lenses of my personal sanctification . . .
- My focus would change from outward results achieved for Christ to my inward conformity to Christ.
- My focus would no longer be on contrarian-people as obstacles to my success, but as aides to my progress in Christlikeness.
- My interpretation of the difficulties of ministry would no longer upon the pain they create within me, but upon “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10) and upon “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24).
- My focus would not be on ministry methods or techniques, but on becoming a better man.
- My focus would be changed from primarily about doing to more and more about being.
- My definition of both success and failure in ministry would be radically altered.
- My goals would become more and more inward and upward rather than simply outward.
- My vision for ministry would be clarified and simplified.
- My ability to focus on the eternal rather than the temporal would be aided greatly.
- My enjoyment of ministry would increase dramatically, for now ministry (both the highs and the lows) could be seen as directly contributing to my greatest passion and desire—realizing in experience my union with Christ!
Gracious Father, thank you for calling me to your service. Thank you for doing so with larger and more personally beneficial purposes than I ever realized. Forgive me the pride of assuming my ministry is about what I will do for you and for others rather than what you will do in me, even through others. Grant me the grace to prize Christ above all things—even ministry in His Name. I gladly accept that the greatest grace I will receive in this life is conformity to the character of and sharing in the life of Christ Himself. In His Name I gladly pray, amen.