This excerpt is taken from Zack Eswine’s new book The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus (Crossway, 2015).
Pause here for a moment. Slow down if you can. Do you have a bucket list for ministry, all the great ministry achievements you want to accomplish in his name before you die? You would not be alone if you did. Just read the classified ads, and myriad desires of those who make up your congregation and community reveal themselves too.
James and John had bucket lists. “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” they said. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35–37).
James and John had begun to subtly yearn that their ministry with Jesus would provide them a platform for greatness. Their cravings began to wreck their community (Mark 10:41). Jesus did not stop this friction or potential wreckage from happening. He still doesn’t. Did you mark that down? James and John were dearly loved, gifted, called, fruitful, and central to Jesus’s earthly ministry. He graciously heard their desires. But their closeness to Jesus and their fruitfulness in ministry didn’t mean that everything they did, said, or craved was blessed by God, or that everything they did was good, right, and helpful to those who knew them.
Instead of giving them such immunity, Jesus responded. What he says sobers us. It’s possible for ministry leaders to desire greatness in ways no different from anyone, anywhere in our culture. Attaching Jesus’s name to these desires doesn’t change the fact that they look just like the cravings of the world.
Pause here. Read that last sentence again if you need to. Prayerfully slow down for this. Human leaders everywhere desire greatness and to lord it over others. “It shall not be so among you,” Jesus declared. If it is greatness that you desire, you must from now on surrender your life to greatness of a different kind. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43). Servants give their days to small, mostly overlooked tasks over long periods of time with no accolade.
Mercy and Sight
Jesus then takes James, John, and his other students in ministry into a living case study. He shows them an unnamed mountain of a man. This man was poor and blind. Jesus offers this poor orb-shattered man the same powerful question that he gave to those who were a “big deal” and traveled with him: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51).
Right here, the grace of Jesus humbles us in the contrast of desires he unearths. James and John were in the thick of ministry with Jesus and among Jesus’s prized pupils. Yet this was not enough for them. They wanted better seats. Meanwhile, the poor man asked Jesus only for two things, and the first thing was mercy. The second was sight.
I think back to Mrs. Canter’s class, my seminary internship, my first pastorate, Mamaw’s porch, and the shattered remains of my ministerial crowd. When did it happen in my ambitions for ministry that I no longer felt my need to desire mercy when with Jesus? When did I begin to presume upon the privilege of my eyes working properly and define greatness from the vantage point of my privilege rather than the vantage point of Jesus’s grace?
There is a way of desiring to go all out for the ministry that will split you in two, cause pain to those you serve, and reveal how far off from Jesus’s definition of greatness you’ve drifted. I know this firsthand. But I’m learning something else too. There is more grace and more hope here than you may yet know—a vocation of pastoral work among the greatness of slow, overlooked people and places can become, in God’s hands, all gift, true joy, abiding contentment, and good life. Why? Because this is Jesus’s way. Where Jesus is our portion and desire, we lack no true treasure.
Overlooked Joy in Jesus
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field (Matt. 13:44).
Could it be that joyfully selling all we have includes letting go of our misguided ministry bucket lists? What if the joy we desire in Jesus is like hidden treasure in a field that many people, even in ministry, overlook and rarely buy?
Do you remember what it was like before you desired vocational ministry? You had no training. You were unknown in the world. Jesus was lovely to you. He had saved you. He had communicated his love to you. He was all treasure, true, pleasurable, satisfying, and altogether beautiful. He was your portion. He was your desire. It was this ravishing provision of Jesus that roused your affections to serve him in the first place with your life in vocational ministry. No wonder, when Peter declared that he would excel and outdo all his ministry colleagues, the rooster’s crow wasn’t long in coming. To restore Peter to ministry, Jesus took Peter all the way back to first things, first loves. “Peter, do you love me? Then feed my sheep” (see John 21:15–17).
This is where our vocation begins. Pastoral calling to feed others is secondary to and flows out of a prior desire for the loveliness of Jesus himself. The old hymn comes to mind: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”
But Peter learned what we all do in the ashes of ministerial rooster crows. Jesus comes for us. He hasn’t left us. His steadfast love endures forever.