Pastoral ministry comes with the great delight of being set apart by the call of God to the cause of the Gospel. In this personal message, Alistair Begg reflects on the many other joys and challenges that accompany ministry in a local church over the long haul.
I think it’d be good if I just read a couple of brief passages of Scriptures, set something of a context for what I’m going to say. I want to read the opening verses of Nehemiah chapter 6 and then the opening verses of Acts chapter 6. And Nehemiah reads as follows:
“Now when Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies heard that I had built the wall and that there was no breach left in it (although up to that time I had not set up the doors in the gates), Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, ‘Come and let us meet together at Hakkephirim in the plain of Ono.’ But they intended to [harm me]. And I sent messengers to them, saying, ‘I[’m] doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?’ And they sent to me four times in this way, and I answered them in the same manner. In the same way Sanballat for the fifth time sent his servant to me with an open letter in his hand. In it was written, ‘It is reported among the nations, and Geshem also says it, that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall. And according to these reports you wish to become their king. And you[’ve] also set up prophets to proclaim concerning you in Jerusalem, “There is a king in Judah.” And now the king will hear … these reports. So now come and let us take counsel together.’ Then I sent to him, saying, ‘No such things as you say have been done, for you are inventing them out of your own mind.’”
And then in Acts, and familiar words in Acts chapter 6, where the confusion has emerged as a result of the way in which the distribution of benevolence has been taking place. And Luke records:
“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
“And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”
Well, we could expand the title to not simply “Dangers and Delights” but also “Disappointments and Duties and Difficulties”—and frankly, potential “Disasters”—that are part and parcel of a long ministry in one place. I want you to understand that what I have to share with you is essentially autobiographical. In other words, it’s not the product of research. It is the product, rather, just of my own personal reflection. Therefore, it may be flawed in a number of places. I’m happy to have that pointed out, and I can learn from that.
But there are a number of things that I might just say by way of introduction. First of all, that I’m starting from the premise that there is no ideal place to serve God except the place he sets you down—that we’re not out looking for the ideal spot with the ideal people and the ideal context and so on, and we shouldn’t, because obviously, we are not the ideal pastor. I’m also operating from an understanding that length of service need not necessarily be an indication of usefulness. So that here I am at this point in time; I could be commended for faithfulness. I suppose at the same time I could be criticized for having a dreadful lack of initiative. After all, I’m still here after all this time; don’t you think you would have found something better to do? At the same time, I want to acknowledge—I think you would agree—that a great deal can be accomplished in a short while, and one can take a very long while and achieve very little. And there are indications in church history and in our own orb of understanding of ministries that have been exercised over a short period of time that have proved, in the providence of God, to be particularly fruitful and effective. And if we had nowhere else to go then to St Peter’s in Dundee and to reflect upon the influence of the life of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who was twenty-nine when he died, then we would have sufficient for that thesis.
The only dipping into research I did—and did so very briefly—yielded these two observations. One, that the researchers tell us that between year five and year fourteen is the period of a pastor’s greatest impact. So, okay, fine. I don’t know how they determine that, but that’s what they say. The same research project, however, pointed out that the average length of a pastor in America is only four years. So just when a person, if he would stay around for another twelve months, he might be able to begin to hit his stride, and he heads out.
The other thing that I’m saying in saying what I’m about to say is that I’m regarding the focus in ministry as being primarily on the preaching and teaching of the Word of God—what John Owen referred to as the effective performance of our primary pastoral duty. And that is why I’ve read from Acts chapter 6: “We will [give] ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” These things are important; that’s why we’re engaging in them. But they are not of the importance that would take us away from the primary responsibility of preaching and teaching the Scriptures.
And the last thing I would say by way of introduction is that clearly, the delights and dangers to which I’m going to refer, they are obviously not unique to a certain time frame. We may be aware of these things from the very outset of our ministry, just in the same way as if you began to work as a chef, and you were cutting vegetables, and it was the first day of your job, you could cut your fingers off on the first day. You don’t need to stay there for fifteen years before you cut your fingers off. You could do it just as effectively on day one—if you weren’t being careful. So, that is just to make sure that we’re not sort of deifying the idea of longevity.
In terms of delights, or privileges, or the joys of pastoral ministry, I think you would concur, first of all, that being set apart to the cause of the gospel, being entrusted with the inestimable privilege of preaching the unsearchable riches of grace, is in itself the great delight. That is the great delight: that we have been, in all the things that we might have been, set apart to this task. Calvin says that it is requisite of anyone that was going to be “listened to in the Church”—and I think the verb is important, not just being there, but being “listened to in the Church”—that, says Calvin, one, “he must be called by God to [occupy this] office,” and two, “he must faithfully employ himself in the discharge of [his] duties.” So, the fact that we are present as a result of the call and initiative of God, and then, secondly, that with the help of God we’re seeking to be diligent.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, when he addressed the students and faculty at Westminster Seminary many years ago in a series of lectures which became the book Preaching and Preachers, said to them, “Ultimately, my reason for being … ready to give these lectures is that to me the [task] of preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone can ever be called.” And so we start by saying that although it may be at times difficult, although at times it may be disastrous, although at times it may be disappointing, nevertheless, it is a matter of great delight that gets us up in the morning and keeps us honest and keeps us on track, that God should have put his hand upon us and called us into this task. And that surely is the underlying delight of all.
Along with that, secondly, comes the delight of seeing our children walking in the truth. What John says: it is a delightful thing. “It is my joy,” he says, “to see my children walking in the truth.” Not simply coming to an understanding but actually growing in it—seeing the lights turn on for our people as they understand the gospel, as they become increasingly convinced of the truth and the power and the relevance of the gospel, as we have been able to teach them the story line of the Bible, as they begin to get an idea of God’s historical and redemptive purposes, as we learn how they are learning by listening to them pray, and in hearing them pray, we realize that the Spirit of God is at work amongst them. That surely is one of the great joys. Just in the same way as we love to hear our children and our grandchildren beginning to put their words and phrases together, so God is happy when he hears his children beginning to put their phraseology together. And we as the shepherds of those people enter into something of that joy.
Thirdly, it is a delightful thing if you stay long enough so as to not be completely unsettled by those who leave the church, those who decide for whatever reason to “slip out the back, Jack,” to “make a new plan, Stan,” and who are convinced there’s no need to “be coy, Roy; just get yourself free.” And they have determined that they must go, for whatever reason, and sometimes it is painful; sometimes it is actually a great relief when finally they drive away for the last time. And if you stay long enough, you can rest a little in this. I don’t mean to be cavalier about it. But there is a distinction between those who are wandering from the faith, who have fallen into a pit, who are in need of spiritual care and for whom our hearts yearn and whom we must pursue, and those people who, in the same way that they decide they don’t like a restaurant anymore, or they don’t like their tennis club anymore, or they don’t like the way librarian treats them in their particular place, they just up stakes, and they’re heading on to the next place. “We never thought that the thing would be like this. We thought it would be like that. And since that is the only thing that is acceptable to me, and we’re dealing with this, we must go in search of that.” Let them go. In fact, help them. And encourage them on their way. And tell them with all grace and kindness that you will be here, God willing, when they come back. And if you stay long enough, you will live long enough to see many of them coming. It’s the Little Bo Peep syndrome: leave them alone, and they will come home, dragging their tails behind them.
And if you have the courage to tell your congregation, then I encourage you to do so—if you really believe this, and you’re serious about it, and you’re not being silly or unduly forthright… I haven’t done this often. I think I may only have ever done it once, and probably in passing. But I can still hear myself looking out on this congregation and saying to them, “You know, I’ve seen how things work here in America. If things get a little bit rocky, they get unsettled, there’s some changes put in place, there may be things that are disconcerting for the church family. And what almost inevitably happens is that the pastor leaves. He goes.” I said, “I got news for you: I’m not going. I’m staying. And if you want to go, you go. And I’ll be here when you get back.” And I know the people looked at me like, “He has completely now lost control of his mind,” but in actual fact, no. Here I am, under the grace and goodness of God, still here.
And I could actually have members of my congregation come up here tonight in our session. I’d bring them up one at a time, and I’d say, “And this is Mr. So-and-So. Tell the people when you left and why you left.”
And he’d say, “Well, I didn’t like the youth ministry, and I left.”
“Okay, and when did you come back? And why did you come back? Was the youth ministry any better when you came back?”
“Okay, well, thank you for that. Okay, let’s move over here. And why did you leave?”
“Because we don’t have a choir anymore.”
“Aha! Okay. And when did you come back? When we put the choir back?”
“No, you haven’t put the choir back.”
“That’s right. So when did you come back?”
“Well, I… I…”
“Thank you. Okay, let’s just move along.”
You can go through the whole list.
It’s a product of luxury, all this moving around. It’s a product of the fierce individualism of our Western culture—particularly and primarily in America. You can’t bounce around like this when you live in a small town in Scotland. You heard the statistics this morning from these housing schemes. There’s no place to go. Of course the pastor’s not that great! Of course the music’s not the way you entirely want it! Since when were you the smartest, brightest bulb in the box, huh? You’re a jolly nuisance to yourself, and to your wife! And your children love it when you go on business trips. So stop your nonsense! And by those kind of means, I encourage the flock.
One of the delights of staying long enough is the opportunity to develop leadership skills—leadership skills that take time and take patience. Being around long enough to determine whether you want to lead or whether you want to be liked, whether you just want to be affirmed. Do you want to give leadership, or do you want to just follow wherever anybody’s taking you?
You put all your children in the back of the minivan. One says, “I want to go to Burger King.” One says, “I want to go to McDonald’s.” One says, “I want to go to Arby’s.” And what do you want to do? Drive around satisfying everybody’s needs? No! Take ’em to Chuck E. Cheese!
“But nobody wants to go to Chuck E. Cheese!”
“They will when they get there.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m the leader. We’re gonna have a great time. Shut up. We’re gonna have a great time!”
And when you drive them back in, and they all got out of the van, and they run in to their mom, and she says, “How was it?” they said, “It was fantastic!” How did that happen? None of them wanted to go there. Who took ’em there? You took ’em there. Why? You led them. And you told them it would be great. And you made it great. You led them!
I feel so sorry for these poor young fathers, driving around to all these restaurants: “Where do you want to go now? Where do you want to go now? What do you want to do next?” Goodness gracious, get a life! You see the average guy in the church: “What do you want me to do now? What would you like now? Is it too loud? Let me make it quiet. Is it too long? Let me make it short. What do you want me to do?” Lead, for goodness’ sake! Lead!
That’s the same dichotomy, you see, as he mentioned earlier: the idea of certainty and humility are at war with one another. The idea that humility and leadership—you know, forceful, directive, visionary leadership—is at war with humility. No it’s not! The reason you’re up there is to lead. And if you stay long enough, then you have long enough to say, “I’m sorry, that was a bad idea.” And everybody goes, “Yes it was. It was a horrible idea!” “If you just set out to be liked,” said Maggie Thatcher, the Iron Lady—“If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time and you would achieve nothing.” Yeah.
And that’s, incidentally, why I read from Nehemiah 6:8. Because, you know, you’re not there very long, whatever the wall is you’re working on, before somebody, before some unholy trinity, shows up to tell you, “You know, get off the wall. Come down here. Let’s have a conference.” And they’ll do it very strongly. Wanting to “harm” Nehemiah. He had discernment. He realized the motives weren’t right. It was insistent. It wasn’t just one time; it was four times they came back with the same deal. And four times he said no. And so they upped the ante, and the next time they came back with the dreaded thing: the anonymous letter! Right? With just a little hint of the fact that “this letter represents many, many people!” Have you ever had an anonymous letter where somebody says, “I’m only writing on my own account”? No. They said, “This letter could have been written by hundreds of people who feel the same way as me! So strongly do I feel it that I’m not even going to tell you who I am at the end of it.”
And you remember Spurgeon, who was at the receiving end of a lot of that kind of stuff, one day got up in his pulpit, and there was a piece of paper in the pulpit, and it just said, “Fool!” on it, with an exclamation mark. And Spurgeon stood up and he looked at it, and he picked it up, and he said, “You know what, I’ve been in this church a long time, and I have routinely had letters that were sent to me without a signature, without the person identifying themselves.” And he says, “And here this morning, I have somebody identify himself, but no letter! Thank you!”
And you can’t use this all the time, but you need it in your arsenal. When you get some of the stuff that comes your way that is critical and that, when you’ve done your best—and we’re not above criticism, and constructive criticism is vital and necessary, particularly when it comes from our wives—but when you’ve done your best, you know, “This is just a load of hogwash. There is no substantiation to this.”
You see what they were saying there? They said, “You know, the word is out on the street that you are actually planning on making yourself the king. You’re so stuck on yourself, Nehemiah, you’re gonna become the king. And you’re sending people all around to say, ‘You know, he’s the king!’” So they threaten him; they say, “You know, the real king is going to find out about this.” So what does he do? He doesn’t answer all the silly stuff. He says, “So I sent him this reply.” In the NIV, which I memorized it in years ago, it reads, “Nothing like what you [say] is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.”
Now that’s good to have in your arsenal! You can’t use that as your reply to all the letters of criticism. But you might want to use it for some of them. I haven’t used it frequently, but I use it. I don’t have time to chase down all this stuff: “You think this, you think that, you said this, you’re trying that, you’re doing…” I say, “Come on!” “Dear Ann, Nehemiah 6:8. Your pastor and friend, Alistair.” And they go reading in their Bible: “Whoa!” I don’t mean it in a dismissive way, in an unkind way. And I could give you chapter and verse for this in a way that is a happy, happy ending, not an ending of animosity.
When we stay long enough, as well, we have the opportunity to allow our congregation into our lives, don’t we? You know, Paul says, “We didn’t just share the gospel with you, but we shared our very selves with you.” If you stay long enough, then the congregation has an opportunity to observe the birth of your children, the growth of your children. They have the opportunity to observe how you handle your teenage children—whether they’re good, bad, or ugly; whether they stress you; whether you are involved in their sanctification or their existence is the means of your sanctification. The congregation understands that. If you stay long enough, they will see how you respond to the death of your parents. If you stay long enough, they will see the struggles of your life. If you stay long enough, depending on how life takes you, they will see how you respond to being diagnosed with cancer. They will see how the pastor handles it when he’s not the visitor but the visited, when he is not the one who seeks to bring the verse of encouragement to the patient, but he is the patient lying on the trolley, longing for encouragement from someone in his flock. Sort of passing fancies and quick movements deny to the congregation the opportunity for that kind of engagement. And it means a tremendous amount, both to the pastor and to the congregation.
If you stay long enough, then you can marry the children of the people that you married when you began. One of the members of my pastoral team, I just did his wedding in the last few months, and his mother sent me the picture of me doing his baby dedication as I held him in my arms when he was just seven or eight months. That’s a tremendous joy. It’s a terrific encouragement just to see them grow physically, but to see them grow in grace and a knowledge of the Lord Jesus and to be included on the pastoral team and everything that goes along with that; to see young boys who have been the product of a broken home being not only saved but also secured and sustained, and go on to love Christ, and go away to university, and come back, and seek out the church, and get engaged with the church, and be out here Sundays—it’s enough to make you want to jump up and down on the pulpit. It’s enough to make you want to lie with your face on the carpet and bless God that he ever gave you the chance to have the tiniest part in the mysteries of his grace and his providence.
Stay long enough, then we have the opportunity to acknowledge what we can’t do as well. That’ll come quicker than perhaps we want it to be understood. But if I can tell you biographically, I was here about eight years when we were having a sort of review of how it was going. So we were around—what?—1991 at that point. I was meeting with some of our elders on, I think, a monthly basis, and not in any spirit of confusion or undue concern, but just realistically to think about where we were and where we were going.
The elders had been very gracious to me. I came here at the age of thirty-one, and they had helped me out—especially the older men. One man in particular used to meet with me consistently to try and help me get organized, and we would meet at Bob’s Big Boy, and he would show me, you know, “This is how you do this.” And he was very organized man. He is a very organized man. And he had a big book, and he was very organized, and he wanted me to be organized too, and he would be particularly encouraging to me. And then he would say, “I’ll see you in a week,” or whenever it was, and then I’d come back, and then I was a dreadful disappointment to him. He said, you know, “How did you do?”
And I’d say, “Well, I didn’t do very well on that one.”
And he’d say, “Well, you know, how did you do on this one?”
I’d say, “Well, I didn’t do that one at all.”
And, “Well, let’s look…”
I said, “Please, don’t turn over any more pages.” I said, “This is horrible.”
And he was painstaking: “Oh, don’t worry. You’ll get this, you’ll get this.”
Well, I never got it. I haven’t got it. And so, when we were meeting, I told the men, I said, “You know, I think I’m beyond my sell-by date in this place.” I said, “I’m maxed out. I mean, I don’t have any problem with trying to teach the Bible. I mean, I hope I can get better at that, but I know what you’re supposed to do. I’m up for a good funeral. I love weddings. Baby dedications are fantastic. And I love the baptisms, as long as the water’s warm enough. And visitation, I’m good on visitation, and I like old people, and I enjoy kids. So in terms of, like, the orb of pastoral ministry, that’s fine. But in terms of the development of the infrastructure of the church, the notion of team building and team development and sitting with fellows and going, ‘And what is your name again? And, yeah, and what are you planning on doing?’ and all that kind of stuff?” I said, “I’m incompetent.”
But you’re not supposed to say you’re incompetent. I mean, if you’re a pastor, don’t say you’re incompetent! You’re supposed to say, “I am very competent.” Unless, of course, you’re not! In which case, it would be good to admit it, wouldn’t it? “Well,” you say, “they might move you on.” Big deal. Better to move on. And one of the men that was meeting with us, he said—he was from Texas, he is from… well, he lives in Carolina now. But he had that Texan drawl, I don’t know. “Fine. Fine.” I don’t know. He said, “I don’t think”—I shouldn’t do his accent—“I don’t think you’re incompetent. I think you’re lazy.” So I said, “Oh! O-kay!” I says, “So we’re gonna have to find some objective way to prove my incompetence. ’Cause I’m tellin’ ya, I ain’t lazy! I’m incompetent!” How many guys would trace the monumental shift in their ministry to a moment like that, where you’re tryin’ to convince your elders that you’re incompetent? “No, no, no. You want me! I’m incompetent. I’m telling you.”
Now, I can’t… I’ll spend the rest of the time telling this story. It has funny bits to it, sad bits to it, and a happy ending to it. But the fact of the matter is, I did prove my incompetence. I went and I met with a guy in Oregon. I can’t remember his name now. But I went out there, and I told him, “I have to prove that I’m incompetent.” And he said, “I think that’s gonna be pretty easy. I’ve only known you for five minutes, but you’re giving strong signs in that direction.” So I had to fill in all these boxes. I fill in the boxes: “Do you like green?” “Nah, I like blue.” I mean, “Do you like squares?” “Nahhhh, I like circles.” “Do you…?” You know, a bunch of nonsense, really. I mean, just stupidity, you know. I mean, I told them I’m incompetent. They don’t need this stuff! You don’t need these boxes. Trust me!
Anyway, it came back: “He’s incompetent.” So I was fine. And the Texan, he had to suck it up: “I told you, I’m incompetent.” And so now we had a choice. “Okay, what do you want to do? You wanna continue with my level of incompetence? Do you wanna have me go somewhere else and share my eight years of incompetence with them? Or do you want to try and figure out a way to compensate for my incompetence?” In other words, “Do you want to try and staff my weaknesses?” And they said, “Oh, yeah, we want to staff your weaknesses, ’cause we want to keep you. ’Cause you do have one or two strengths—not many; you got one or two. We’d like to have the strengths, but we gotta deal with this.” Of course we do! Because how are you gonna develop this church? You couldn’t develop the church.
And if you poke around in here and speak to the guys on my pastoral team, you will find that without exception, these guys are competent. They have levels of competency in areas over which I know next to nothing. And in the key in all of that is the one guy, Jeff Mills. And you go find Jeff Mills, and then you find the key to the development of Parkside Church. Because in securing the giftedness of that individual, we secured the potential development and usefulness of the congregation at more levels than any of us could ever imagine.
And as I travel the country and as I go around places, I realize the peculiar benefit that has been mine and has accrued to our congregation as a result of being prepared to acknowledge the facts as they are, rather than sort of stumbling along, either trying to jam square pegs into round holes or whatever else it is. And I know not everyone will have that privilege, but I’ll tell you, if there is a way at all to find that kind of support, at whatever level, it’s absolutely vital. It’s vital in any area of life, isn’t it? Of course it is.
Well, I could go on, ’cause I just find the whole thing entirely delightful. It’s just a delight. Every Sunday when we have communion, and it ends up I’m usually sitting on the floor here by the time it ends, and I tell my congregation, I look out on the congregation and I say, “This is why I exist on the face of the earth. This is my Eric Liddell moment. This is my ‘When I run, I feel his pleasure’ moment.” This is it. When I do this, I do this.
Now, I should tell you that when I go home on Sunday nights, I tell my wife, “I’m leaving the ministry.” She doesn’t listen anymore. She hasn’t listened in probably fifteen or sixteen years. She expects it. As I’m going up the stairs, I’m taking my belt off my pants—there are no females here—I’m taking the belt off of my pants, as I’m walking up the stairs, I’m going, “I am going to get a decent job. I am going to… I cannot do this one more Sunday! I am gonna get… I am gonna get a job somewhere in the thing…” And she’s like, “You’re unemployable. Shut up. Just go to your room,” you know.
So, it’s a strange, strange thing, pastoral ministry, isn’t it? “This is my greatest delight in the world; I gotta get a proper job.” “If anyone aspires to the office of an overseer, he aspires to a noble thing.” “Who is sufficient for these things?” Aspiration and fearfulness, delight and disappointment: it’s all wrapped up.
And it has peculiar dangers. The danger of despondency, which can so easily creep up on a person. Martin Luther comes down for his breakfast one morning, and his wife is dressed in mourning. She’s got the entire outfit on for a funeral. Luther looks at her at the breakfast table, says, “My dear, what has happened? Has someone died that I didn’t know?” “Yes,” she said, “God has died.” “Come now,” said Martin, “that is a dreadful thing to say.” Then she said, “Well, why, my dear Martin, do you live as you live if God is still alive?”
There are peculiar challenges in pastoral ministry, aren’t they? There are burdens that take us. There are sadnesses that fill us. There’s fearfulness that can overwhelm us. I’ve never been clinically depressed, but I do know what it is to get the blues. When I first gave a seminar at Moody Bible Institute, way back in the early days—long, long time ago; twenty-seven years ago, probably, or twenty-five. I don’t know. A long time ago. And they asked me to do a seminar. I didn’t even know what you did if you did a seminar. I had to ask somebody, “What does that mean?” He said, “Well, you give a talk, and they maybe ask questions.” I said, “Well, what am I going to talk on?” They said, “Well, that’s your thing. You have to figure that out.” So I thought, “Okay. Why don’t I talk on ‘Dealing with Pastoral Depression’?”
Somebody says, “What do you know about pastoral depression?” I said, “I don’t know anything about it. But it would be fun! You know, I could do, like, ‘Dealing with Pastoral Depression,’ you know? Of course, no one’ll come anyway, because they don’t know who I am.” The sort of thing: “Alistair Begg, Room 249, ‘Dealing with Pastoral Depression.’” You know, like nobody there, go for a coffee. Perfect. I show up, the place is packed out. There’s standing room only. I said, “Hey, I’m good! Look at this! I didn’t realize I was this good. I didn’t realize anyone knew me.” They don’t know you; it’s your subject, dimwit! I didn’t realize how many men were burdened and overwhelmed by these things.
And I remember when we got in the Q and A session, too, you know, this guy put up and says, “I’m a leader in a local church, and I’ve noticed that my pastor’s wife has been very, very unhappy lately. She’s been miserable, she hasn’t been showing up at the prayer meetings, and I wonder if you have some guidance for me, what to do with her.” I said, “Well, I got an idea for you.” I said, “Why don’t you increase your pastor’s salary by five thousand dollars?” This is twenty-seven years ago. That was not the answer the man was looking for.
But it was actually marginally prophetic on my part. Because when I found out what was going on afterwards, I realized that the guy and his wife were on the breadline, in terms of the support of the congregation. They were offering them stuff like old shoes for their children: “Hey, maybe your children would like these. My son isn’t wearing them anymore.” And in the natural, obvious course of events, the woman was bowing under the burden of this thing. And actually, that really would have been a good answer. And the church leader was oblivious to what was going on. In fairness to him, he had probably never taken the time to find out. But one of the dangers of pastoral ministry is the danger of a kind of crippling despondency which squeezes a life out of a person.
Another entirely different danger is the danger of laziness. Of laziness. I know there are lots of books out on pastoral burnout. I haven’t seen many guys burning out. I’ve seen a lot of guys rusting out, but not burning out. I don’t want to be unkind to my young friends—but it never stopped me before. If you think hard work is sittin’ around in the local Starbucks with your laptop, it’s probably time for you to get a real job. Go and can fish in Alaska. Do something worthwhile. That is not work. Don’t tell me it’s research. Don’t tell me you’re finding out about the culture. There are a lot of people that need to hear. There’s a lot of ladies who are incapacitated and elderly who need visits. Some of us are just lazy. And in the pastoral ministry, it’s actually an easy place to hide.
Intellectually lazy: we never read anything that we don’t want to read. We read only to sustain our own arguments. We have never read anything that is counter to our convictions; therefore, we are really largely unprepared to stand against the tide. Emotionally, we’ve grown lazy—maybe in our devotion to our fellow colleagues, our members, our wife, our children. Spiritually lazy, insofar as we are losing increasing touch with the heart of God. And in the midst of that, there is the danger of the devil finding work for idle hands to do. The correlative danger of misplaced affection—affection for the task rather than for the one whom we serve, affection for people other than our spouse. I tell the young guys on my pastoral team, “If you have a lady who is coming to talk with you, and you’re looking forward to talking with her, and it’s not your wife and it’s not your daughter or your sister, then don’t meet her. Why are you looking forward to meeting her? Don’t tell me it’s a spiritual exercise.”
And some of you who have developed the hugging program, look out. ’Cause in the normal course of events, it would be entirely natural for you to hug somebody whose perfume you found appealing, whose waistline you discovered was firmer than your wife’s. Consider the fact that the collapses in pastoral ministry over the three decades that I have been here are all ultimately traced to pride in the heart of the pastor who has started to believe that the rules apply to everyone except to himself.
And the danger of a ever-widening gap, as Paul says, between my life and my doctrine. The danger of prayerlessness which goes along with it. The danger of becoming jaded, of becoming cynical. The danger of spiritual arteriosclerosis, a hardening of our spiritual arteries. Some of you, like me, take statins every day. The reason you take statins every day is either because you cannot get your cholesterol under control by diet or by exercise, or because, like me, you have a genetic condition which predisposes you to that buildup in your arteries. So my mother died at forty-seven of a heart attack; my father died at seventy-four of heart disease. I haven’t no notion of it going on in me. But I do what I’m told to do in order to do what’s supposed to happen. But it’s a strange thing, isn’t it? Can kill you without you knowing it. The same thing happens spiritually. [John Owen] says, “A man may preach every day in the week, and not have his heart engaged once.” “Preach every day of the week, and not have his heart engaged once,” because his heart becomes hard.
The danger of becoming theologically contaminated by succumbing to every wind of doctrine, of becoming theologically capitulated by endorsing everything that comes along—or becoming theologically constipated. It’s a big danger. Especially if you get old! You become like Statler and Waldorf in the… What do you call those guys? Yeah, that’s the boys: the Muppets. Remember those two? Two disagreeable old men. Now they got old, they just sit up on the balcony and they heckle. That’s all they did, the whole program: “Hey! Look at that. Can you believe what he just did? Look at that. Cut that out.” You get old. You start sittin’ up on the balcony: “That’s not the way I would have done it.” So you become a troubler to the rest of the cast, from a position up in the rafters.
So what do we need to do? We need to every day say, “Lord Jesus, thank you for being so gracious as to give me this opportunity. You know that I am a wretched rascal. My wife told me that just after breakfast, and I couldn’t agree with her more. I want you to fill me with the Holy Spirit today. I want you to give me a vision of Christ as the exalted and ascended King. I want you to help me with my Bible. I’ve read lots of it, but parts of it I don’t understand, and the bits that I do understand, I need help with. Help me to love the people. Help me to teach the Bible. Help me not to be grudging. Help me not to be greedy. Help me not to be pompous. Help me always to remember that you put your treasure in old clay pots so that the power might be seen to belong to God and not to men.”
When I told the congregation a few weeks ago now that I was gonna try this thing on, you know, the dangers and delights of staying someplace for a long time, they laughed. I think they laughed. And one guy wrote me a note. I got an email when I got home—it was quite interesting—from a man who’s a member here. I met him years ago at an exercise club, which you can see has had a great impact on me. I do a lot of talking there. The only muscle I actually exercise up there is my tongue and talking to people. But I met him in peculiar circumstances. He is a lawyer in town. He’s Ivy League and military academy. Big, tall fellow. And I have watched him now over these years as God has taken him from darkness into light and out of a miry clay and put his feet on a rock and established his going.
And he wrote me this note. I said, “You know, pray for me, ’cause I don’t know what I should tell the people about thirty years in one place.” And he wrote this note, and he said, “Please tell those folks that because you’ve stayed so long, you have—with God’s help, of course—been able to help poor wretches like me become poor wretches who really love our Savior, who really love Sunday nights at Parkside more than any other hour of the week, and who really treasure the privilege of attending a church that is like some sort of wonderful theological seminary that brings in great preachers to teach us.” Which is a kind of backhanded compliment, isn’t it? Just when I thought it was getting good, you know? I was reading it, “Oh, that some kind of wonderful theological seminary—that brings in great preachers like Kevin DeYoung and Thabiti Anyabwile. Thank you for bringing in all these great preachers.”
That’s what we need, isn’t it? That’s what we need. Just a little bit of encouragement, and then, fwoop! Right off at the knees. Off at the knees, so that our gargantuan craniums can be brought down to sufficient size to allow us to get in through our bedroom door and rest our ever-inflated egos on the pillow next to a long-suffering wife, without whom we would be in dire straits.
That’s enough from me. I think we stop. I don’t feel like any questions, so we stop.
On our best day, gracious God, we are, each of us, unprofitable servants. We stand before our congregations so often like Jehoshaphat in the public square, with the people before him and the armies against him and declaring, “[Lord,] we do not know what to do, but our eyes are [up]on you.” We are so painfully aware of the wretchedness of our own hearts, of our pride, of our temptations, of how easily and quickly the shift takes place from that which is God centered and right to that which is man centered and wrong.
And yet we thank you that in the mystery of your providence, you have chosen to set your love upon us and to redeem us and to give to us this great privilege. And though we are not what we might be, we are not what we once were. And we are what we are by the grace of God. And you have good deeds foreordained for each of us to do. There’s a place that you’ve put us. There are people amongst whom we serve. There are responsibilities and privileges which are ours to fulfill. And there’s only one life, and it’ll soon be past, and only what’s done for you, Lord Jesus Christ, will last.
So help us to turn our eyes upon you, to see you in all of your transcendent, ascended power as sovereign over the affairs of time and over our congregations and over our lives, and to say to you today, as long as you give us breath, as long as you give us strength, that we want to live to the praise of your glory.
Forgive us, Lord, for things that we say in jest that hurt or harm. Banish from our recollection anything that is unkind or unhelpful or untrue. The things that are worth recalling, embed them in our consciousness, so that when our spirits are low, our chins may be lifted by your grace, and when we begin to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, that you will in the immensity of your love put us where we need to be.
Thank you now for the opportunity of some relaxation in the hours ahead. Bless those whom we have left behind and those for whom we have special concerns. We commend them to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen. Amen.
 “The Duty of a Pastor,” in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 9:453.
 See Ephesians 3:8.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John Pringle (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1848), 1:48.
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, 40th anniv. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 17.
 2 John 4 (paraphrased).
 Paul Simon, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (1975).
 1 Thessalonians 2:8 (paraphrased).
 Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson, written by Colin Welland (1981).
 1 Timothy 3:1 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 2:16 (ESV).
 Owen, “The Duty of a Pastor,” 9:455.
 See 2 Corinthians 4:7.
 See Psalm 40:2.
 See Luke 17:10.
 2 Chronicles 20:12 (ESV).
 See Ephesians 2:10.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.