When Joy Returned to My Ministry

[This post first appeared on the Gospel Coalition website early 2014]. 

A few years ago my wife and I left the comfort of our Midwestern life to partner in gospel ministry on Boston’s South Shore.  I remember the moment I pulled our U-Haul into our new driveway.  We were greeted by several members of our new congregation.  The nerves quickly wore off as we received warm smiles and hugs, then moving help and loads of gift cards to local bistros.

Those first few months were wonderful: my ministry initiatives were generally successful; lots of energetic congregants flocked to my planning and training meetings; and boy did my wife and I eat well.  I became excited to dig in and partner with this church.  Rocky soil?  Please.

Then the honeymoon wore off.  Volunteer numbers dropped.   Work hours increased.  I grew tired, lacked motivation, and picked up some grumpiness that I couldn’t shake.  My Senior Pastor took a sabbatical which meant piling on more preaching and leadership responsibilities.

ne-featureDuring this rough patch God taught me several lessons, but one piercing question really stuck out:  do I really trust the Word through the Spirit to do the work of ministry?  As I pondered this question I slowly recognized that my weariness and discouragement were partly due to trusting things outside God’s Word.  But the Bible is crystal clear:  the Word through the Spirit is enough (Mk 4:26-29; Rom 1:16-17; 2 Tim 3:14-17).  This is a glorious and freeing truth.  And it means something profound for the difficult work of making disciples in New England.

Here are 7 ways I’m attempting to prioritize the distinctive work of the Word.  I humbly commend them to you…

  1. Ruthlessly guard the work of the Word in your life.  I wonder how many of us truly experience regular communion with God.  Personal fellowship with our God is essential for our daily well-being and perseverance over the long haul in New England.  There is nothing more important that we can do for our spiritual health, our marriages, and our ministries than deep, daily fellowship with God.  Do we believe that?
  2. Cultivate the work of the Word in family life.  If we believe that God’s Word through His spirit transforms, and if our families are more important than our churches, then we will prioritize reading the Bible and praying with our wives and children.  I’m not always great at this.  Pastors, let’s make time to read and pray with our spouses and children.  Let’s get just as excited about their spiritual transformation as we do our flock’s.
  3. Affirm the work of the Word in your congregation.  In a region that is admittedly “rocky,” it’s tempting as pastors to complain, control, or bail.  Instead consider the many evidences of grace that are undoubtedly in your congregation.  Perhaps your church has recently witnessed a conversion.  Maybe a prodigal son came home, a marriage was healed, a young man found victory over pornography, or Sunday worship was especially meaningful.  God is surely working through His word in your congregation.  Look for these evidences of grace, and then share them with others!
  4. Make time for the work of the Word in individuals.  There was a season when I neglected my call as a Pastor to be regularly in the Word with individuals.  I dedicated too much time to administration and planning.  Not surprisingly my joy and motivation grew when I redirected some energy to Word-centered people ministry.
  5. Be tender and bold in the public work of the Word.  In a challenging spiritual climate it’s tempting to either force things from the pulpit or pull too many punches.  As a young preacher, I’m learning that God’s people need a shepherd and a prophet behind the pulpit.  Cultural and personal idols must be confronted.  But God’s Word should also uniquely comfort the sheep.
  6. Be patient with the work of the Word.  New Englanders don’t mind telling you what they really think so I wasn’t surprised when the pushback came.  When this happens, pastors typically walk one of three paths.  Some lead by conviction – meaning, get ready for the fireworks.  These are the purist pastors: the idealist, impatient ones who want their churches to exemplify biblical church right now.  Others lead by consensus.  These are the people-pleasing pastors, the men with little backbone and limited passion.  Thankfully there is a third option.  The wise and careful pastor responds to pushback by teaching towards a consensus. They trust that God’s Word will bring unity in time.
  7. Rest in and pray for the work of the Word.  One of my favorite passages is Mark 4:26-29, which reminds ministers of the gospel to sow and sleep.  After the long day of draining conversations, unexpected phone calls, a host of other interruptions, and almost no sermon prep, it’s tempting to go home and do more.  But the efficacy of God’s Word and Spirit implore us to unplug, unwind, and pray big prayers for our churches and towns.  We sow and sleep; He builds the crop.  So take a few nights off each week.  Forget about your work email until the morning.  Don’t overwork the sermon.  Invite a friend to preach for you.  Meanwhile, rest and pray!  Rest and prayer are expressions of trust in the power of God’s Word.  Rest and prayer are demonstrations of gospel-wrought humility.

Jesus is the Word.  We are mere John the Baptists – humble voices in the dessert that display the beauty and majesty of the Word.  We are like Paul – sometimes fearful, trembling, and ineloquent as we come to our people.  Yet God somehow makes dead people live when we open our mouths with His words.  The Word through the Spirit is sufficient for this extraordinary work of salvation in New England.  Let’s preach, disciple, pray, labor, and rest like that’s true.