For the entirety of my life until last year, my father served as a pastor in small churches in the Northeast. I watched him lead through the worship wars of the 1990s, through 9/11, and through the COVID-19 pandemic. After 41 years in the pastorate, he retired.
Over the summer, my mom, my brothers, and our families gathered to celebrate. It was an intimate gathering at the family camp we attended each summer since I was a boy. We also compiled a video of people from the three churches he served. Each story was unique, but I was struck by a common message. People talked about a pastor who was also a friend—someone who made them laugh, provided godly help, and walked with them through their dark and difficult days.
As I watched my dad tearfully receive those words of thanksgiving, I considered his view of success. In him, I’ve seen a way of doing ministry that strengthens the soul and builds endurance for finishing the race. It involves a healthy view of rest, humble love, and a faithful walk with God.
Hebrews 4 describes the rest we enter because of Christ’s finished work on the cross. Verse 10 says, “Whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.”
Rest is tricky, but throughout my dad’s career, he made sure to take days off. He used his vacation time and took sabbaticals when they were available. This required trusting God with his work enough to confidently walk away from it for a day, a week, or even three months. It took humility to know he wasn’t so important that the ministry wouldn’t continue without him.
A benefit of this view of rest was my dad’s presence in our family life. We spent days off together. Family vacations were a yearly tradition, and Dad was at all my major life events; I never remember feeling like his work at the church was more important than our family.
Insufficient trust and humility can lead to overworked, tired, and burned-out pastors. Jesus tells us the Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27). We’d be wise to listen and enjoy the gift. Sabbath may not make sense in today’s economy, but stepping away from our work will only make it better.
My dad loves people. He’s a faithful shepherd who would disciple anyone willing to follow him as he followed Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). Whenever I asked my dad how work was, he’d have a story about someone growing in his faith or coming to know Jesus. The people he met at church, around town, at the hospital, or in homeless shelters meant more to him than attendance, programs, or money.
The people my dad met at church, around town, at the hospital, or in homeless shelters meant more to him than attendance, programs, or money.
It wasn’t just his love for people that stood out—it was his humility toward them. He considered others’ needs more than his own. He patiently led people and congregations through the long, slow work of discipleship. He never viewed them as a means to an end.
How often have we known or been the type of leader who sought personal gain? Are we obsessed with networking, increasing our influence, or finding fulfillment in church growth? When we are, our lack of humility can tempt us to lose patience with those we lead. But when we humble ourselves before God and others, we find the freedom to love and lead without expecting something in return.
I have vivid childhood memories of waking up to find my dad sitting in silence and solitude with his Bible and a cup of coffee. He was consistent in his walk with God, and he led others from an overflow of the Spirit’s work in his life. His devotion has become even clearer to me in the last year. In retirement, nothing has changed. I see it, and his grandkids see it. When we’re in the same house, he’s still the first person awake with his Bible and coffee. Dad may have retired from ministry, but his walk with God continues.
I’ve learned the hard way that my walk with God matters more than my work for him, and I can’t do the latter without the former.
I often do my work for God, not with him. My study, prayer, and spiritual practices are more connected to my ministry than I’d like to admit. I’ve learned the hard way that my walk with God matters more than my work for him, and I can’t do the latter without the former. We work with God by abiding in the Vine, dependent on the Spirit to grow his fruit in us (John 15:4; Gal. 5:22–23).
How do we measure success? Results are often the barometer of success in churches because they’re easier to measure. But God measures by faithfulness rather than results (Matt. 25:23). As I saw in my dad, he asks us to finish the race, not win it.