No pastor begins his ministry hoping to quit. Or burn out. Or fail morally. And yet sadly such categories exist, since this is precisely where many end up.
We all want to finish well. We want to faithfully endure to the end. But this is no easy task. And when it comes to the hard grind of church planting, finishing the course God has laid out before us takes divine power.
So how can we end up like Paul, who was able to write to Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7)?
Ray Ortlund and Sam Storms help us think about this on today’s podcast.
Listen to this episode of Churches Planting Churches, or watch the video below.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Tony Merida: Welcome to Churches Planting Churches, a podcast on the theology and practice of church planting. I’m your host, Tony Merida.
Hey, everyone. A great joy to have Ray and Sam here, guys, who need no introduction. We’re going to talk today about finishing well. I’m Tony Merida, pastor of a church called Imago Dei in Raleigh, North Carolina.
I also serve, as Steve said, as Content Director for Acts 29, releasing blogs and podcasts in partnership with TGC each week. If you don’t follow our podcasts, you can do that on various platforms, like Spotify—Churches Planting Churches. And so, this is a special one to have with our elder statesmen. Why don’t you guys get us started by just talking to us about where you’re at now? What’s new in your life? What’s happening?
Sam Storms: I’ll let the elder-est do it first.
Ray Ortlund: Okay. I have the privilege of serving as lead pastor at Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee. And in five or six weeks, September 8th, it’ll be my last Sunday there, so that’s a poignant moment. It’s fast approaching.
Merida: So transition plan?
Ortlund: The elders of Immanuel have graciously provided this Fall as a sabbatical for us, not a study leave.
Storms: You’re not virtuous, right?
Ortlund: That’s right. And then, my dad and mom gave us their non-profit called Renewal Ministries, and we’re going to come onto the board of Renewal Ministries, January 1, 2020 and put the pedal to the metal and drive.
Merida: Love it. Love it. So you’re not just going to Florida, sitting around . . .?
Ortlund: That would drive me nuts. I love work.
Merida: Yeah. Yeah. So what will Renewal look like?
Ortlund: Preaching, teaching writing, mentoring.
Merida: Love it. Sam, what’s going on in your world?
Storms: I’m the lead pastor of Preaching and Vision at Bridgewater Church, Oklahoma City, just finishing up my 11th year there. I’m going to hang around a little bit longer than Ray is, probably another four to five years. And then, I have a non-profit called Enjoying God Ministries and I’m going to do the same things that he’s doing with Renewal Ministries.
Merida: Sounds awesome. Now, talk to us about how long you’ve been a pastor. We’re going to talk about some of the challenges that you face. But, how long have you been in ministry now?
Ortlund: I was ordained at my home church, Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena on September 14, 1975 so we’re coming up to 44 years.
Storms: Yeah, I’ve got you beat. I started serving in a local church as a pastor in January of ’74. But both of us taught at school so we had some years out; you were at Trinity for how many years?
Ortlund: Nine years.
Storms: Nine years. I was at Wheaton College for four years, but the rest of the time has been pastoral ministry.
Merida: Sam, have you ever been tempted to quit?
Storms: I know how he’s going to answer this question. Honestly, no. Now, in saying that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been, at times, incredibly frustrated. And even to an extent, I don’t want to say disillusioned; disappointed, challenges from elders and people and pastoral staff and others, exhausted, worn out.
But honestly, I don’t think I can ever recall a day when I thought I need to go do something else. The best way I know how to put it is my very worst day in pastoral ministry is immeasurably greater than the best day I could have doing anything else, and I just can never envision doing anything else. It is stunning to me that I’m actually paid to study God’s word and explain it to others and to help people grow up in Christ, that is the most baffling mystery to me of all.
So, I don’t know, maybe later when I think on your question, I’ll think back to a time when I thought maybe about doing something else, but honestly, I don’t think so.
Merida: Give me a call and you give me an answer later if you have something else.
Ortlund: I feel the way Sam does. I love being a pastor. I can’t believe I have the privilege, the sacred privilege, of doing this. When someone calls me “Pastor Ray,” I almost want to break down and cry. It’s so glorious and powerful.
I have never been tempted to quit. I have been terrified that I might be thrust out. I went through the valley of the shadow of death some years ago. I saw myself as maybe three months away from being a greeter at Walmart.
I was terrified. For the first time in my life, I felt honesty demanded that I asked the question, “Have I been wrong all my life?” All my life, I’ve believed God loves me, but look at the burned-out rubble, the bombed-out rubble of, like, Berlin 1945 that my life and ministry are now.
Maybe the truth of my existence is God hates my guts. Eventually, I figured out I was right the first time. He does love me. But guys, I did not leverage my own way out of that despair into where I am now. I now feel so loved by God. I feel downright spoiled. I didn’t theologize my way out, I did not pay my way out, all I can say is God is faithful. God is kind. When I couldn’t hold onto Him, he held onto me. I’m so profoundly grateful.
Storms: Yeah, I’ll just add to that: If two older guys can sit here and say they never really thought about quitting, it’s not because of us. It’s not because we’re strong-willed men. It’s not because we don’t have egos that get easily offended. It’s because of what Jude says, “To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you in his glorious presence with great joy, to him be glory and honor.”
It’s because 1 Peter 1:5, “We have been kept by the power of God through faith.” Yeah, the only reason; I love our friend, John Piper, who said the only reason we woke up this morning and we’re still Christians is because God is keeping us, he’s preserving us. And if you ever think that the only way you’re going to persevere through whatever it is you’re going through is if you kind of grit your teeth and clench your fists, you know, in a bullheaded way, will yourself into persisting in pastoral ministry, you will eventually burn out if you don’t constantly, daily say, “Lord, the only reason I’m still here is because you’re still here upholding me and preserving me.”
Merida: Amen. Praise God. What are some of the unique challenges for endurance? To have a marathon ministry like you guys have had? What have been some of the challenges? You mentioned that a little bit just now, Ray. But other challenges? Criticism, people leaving—what’s been some of the hardest difficulties?
Storms: Doing the very best I can to avoid comparisons. All those of you who have megachurches, God bless you. Thank God for megachurches. But I think the one downside is that the rest of us, the other 95% who aren’t in them, tend to compare ourselves with that and say, “Well, that”s what pleases God, therefore I don’t. That’s what being truly mature and successful in ministry is and therefore I’m not.”
And I think we have to strive not to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves with anybody else. I think if I had yielded to that, I might have quit, I might have concluded that I had been a massive failure. So, that’s one thing is just avoiding falling into the ego-driven trap of comparison.
Ortlund: What has become very significant to me is that life flows out of death. John 12, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
In the ways of God—this is so counter-intuitive—in the ways of God, life and death are not opposite categories. In fact, they’re not only compatible, life comes from death. And once we deeply accept the wisdom of God and, sort of, arranging reality that way, we can relax and accept the buffetings and setbacks of life and ministry, realizing that is the very way the risen Christ brings his life-giving power into this world of death and futility and loss.
So, okay, I’m all in.
Storms: I would add one more thing to that as well. I think I’ve known this and believed it for many, many years but it wasn’t until the last couple of years that it came off the pages of Scripture at me in a way that I’d never seen before. I sat down and basically read through the New Testament as a whole, noting every reference to the power of God, and I was stunned (because I think the power of God is simply a reference to the Holy Spirit) and how everything in life and ministry is dependent upon the power of God.
I was looking at Colossians 1:11, where he talks about “being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might for all endurance and patience with joy” just something that seemingly mundane as enduring and being patient with people. It comes from the energizing presence of God’s power. And then, Colossians 1:29 has been life-giving, where Paul says, “For this I toil, struggling,” so everybody here knows those words “toil,” “struggle.”
There’s no passivity in Paul. He worked hard, but then he says this, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” I mean, the idea that the omnipotent God of the universe, I like to say “the God who has Genesis 1 on his resume” is literally, not figuratively, not symbolically, literally, powerfully infusing my life, my mind, my heart with his own divine energy.
That is stunning.
Storms: Just stunning. And that truth has propelled me forward. And maybe, you know, as I approached 70, I won’t get there as fast as he will, but almost. I’m just a little bit behind. What drives me to think maybe even longer than I had thought is—it’s toil, its struggle, it’s painful, it’s hard, but the omnipotent God of the universe is energizing me. That is just stunning.
Merida: And I love that you’re still stunned by it approaching 70. And the joy you guys have, you are so loved here by this room. Who has not benefited from their labor, their toil.
Ortlund: And we love you guys so much. You’re so life-giving. You will never know that joy that we feel—maybe until you’re 70 years old and looking at a bunch of gospel stallions who are going to accomplish such, already accomplishing, such wonderful things by God’s grace for God’s glory.
Storms: When that comes from a couple of gospel mules like you and me. Sorry. Didn’t mean to ruin your moment there.
Merida: When you look at the younger generation—generalization—when you look at the younger generation, what is it that excites you? You mentioned the gospel stallions. What is it that concerns you? Feel free to be transparent; we’re all ears.
Storms: I will just express one concern, and I know Ray has this as well as many of, if not most of you. We have seen a trail of devastated lives among those in pastoral ministry, the moral failures, we hear it. I mean, I’m looking back on . . .
Ray and I are both graduates of Dallas Seminary and I almost think that over half of my graduating class are no longer in ministry, and probably half of them are out because of some moral failure. And I just want to say this from the depths of my heart, and this is an expression of my own theology of Christian hedonism, I’m concerned that the arsenal of weaponry that you are bringing to bear against the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, are woefully inadequate.
It’s this idea that, “Well, I’ll never fall because I’m terrified of what people might think about me,” or “I’ll never fall or I’ll never yield to that sin or temptation because I don’t want to lose my livelihood.” I’m telling you, if that’s all you bring to bear against Satan and this world, you don’t stand a chance.
He will eat you alive. I just, I keep coming back. If I can. Sorry if I keep going back to the Bible here.
Merida: You guys can pretty much do whatever you want.
Storms: I just think of Moses in Hebrews 11, “By faith, Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.”
That’s a massive choice. Saying no to that kind of wealth and prestige. He says, “Choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin,” and the fleeting pleasures are there all the time. And then he says, he considered “the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.”
So what I’m saying simply is, the only thing that is going to sustain you in ministry, in your marriage, in fidelity to your calling is when your heart is captivated by a superior pleasure, the pleasure of knowing and being known and loved by Jesus. If all you bring to bear is just “I’m going to will my way until I’m 70,” good luck.
The only way you conquer the fleeting pleasures of sin is with the satisfaction of a superior pleasure, which is in knowing and being known and loved and loving Jesus. It is the beauty of Christ that has to motivate us and hold us faithful and true to what he’s called us to do.
Merida: That’s good. Ray?
Ortlund: One thing that greatly encourages me about you is the combination of theological conscientiousness with spiritual passion. That’s a powerful combination. Never lose that.
But what worries me about you is what worries me about myself, and its perennial, and that is pride. Big deal on this: Platform. I need to be noticed. Ministry is going to relieve my nothingness, ministry is going to display my grandiosity, ministry is going to do that for me.
That is a stab in our Lord’s back. This is for the display of His glory. John 3:30 . . .
Storms: I was just getting ready to quote that verse.
Ortlund: Oh, no. It’s my turn. I got this.
Storms: You stole it from me. I preached on it last Sunday. That’s why . . .
Ortlund: I don’t care. John 3:30, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” and in the narrative of John’s Gospel, John the Baptist, after he says that, disappears from the narrative, never to reappear.
Now, in my wickedness, the thought enters my mind without even intending to. He must increase, and I must decrease. “Hey, I’ll be big about this. He has been good to me, I’ll share the platform with Jesus. I mean, I’m not going to say, ‘I must increase, he must decrease,’ that would be bad. But hey, we can increase together. You know what I mean? This is a team win.”
That is evil. That is evil. That is us lying to ourselves with a flattering lie that really I must increase and he must decrease. It is a miracle of grace that God gives in mercy . . . By the way, this is one of the reasons why we can be grateful for failure, embarrassment, suffering, setbacks. They teach us that decreasing so that he can increase—that it really isn’t so bad after all.
You know, really down on my face before the Lord, actually, that’s where I belong. It’s where I’m happy. And so, okay, maybe I should stay there, maybe that could work.
Storms: I really did preach on that Sunday. I wasn’t just making it up . . . I called it “A Case Study in ‘Teeter-Totter’ Theology.” We go down, he goes up. When we go up, he goes down.
But I was captivated by two words in that passage: must. You know, it’s not John saying, “ Eh, It’s okay. I’m all right with him increasing.” No. There’s an internal compulsion that it has to be this way. And then, the amazing thing is that John, he doesn’t say, “And thus I have fulfilled my duty and thus I have obeyed, now I should . . .” No, he said “And now my joy is complete.” Joy was centered in the increase in the supremacy of Jesus, and that’s what blows me away.
So, another title to that sermon is Learning Humility from a Baptist.
Ortlund: That is so funny.
Storms: I know that sound like a contradiction in terms, but it really is possible.
Merida: Now, I’m preaching on John 3:30 this coming Sunday. Appreciate that. We’re in a room full of friends here. Friendships matter, right? As we’re thinking about faithfulness, can you talk to us about the importance of friends?
Storms: Here’s one of them right here. Just his encouragement . . . Yeah, it’s hard. And I know, you probably have already encountered this. It’s hard for some people in your congregation to really draw close to you and you to them just because of the dynamics that exist between pastor and people but, you know, I’m so grateful than in our church, I’ve got a handful of men; one of them, I’ve known for 50 years, a couple others, I’ve known for 40, and there isn’t anything that I can’t tell them. And knowing they’re not going to turn their back on me and run away and like, “Man, you had me fooled all this time. You’re really a jerk after all.” Just the encouragement that comes from them, the camaraderie, it’s just, you know, the whole issue of accountability.
I’m not saying anything that you don’t know. You can say you’re accountable, you can say you’re keeping short accounts with people—but anybody can escape accountability. You can lie through your teeth and live a double life. You have to want to be accountable, you have to authorize and empower people to speak into your life.
That has been so vital to me over the years.
Ortlund: In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare wrote—guys, life goal, Let’s stop losing friends. Not one more lost friend for the rest of our days. God help us.
Merida: That’s good.
Ortlund: Shakespeare said, “And those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, bind them to thy soul with hoops of steel.” I’m not sure we feel that way about each other. If we don’t have friendships that looked like Jesus actually had to come and die and be raised again in order to create, then we’re not yet where God wants us to be.
And I believe every guy has to have one friend in his city who knows what’s really going on, what he’s really facing inside and keep current with him. I have a friend like that, and I’m struck at how I come back to him every month with the same stuff.
I really haven’t changed since high school much. I thought I’d be, you know, saintly by now, and I’m still facing the same issues. And it’s embarrassing to keep repeating the same tale of woe to my friend, but that’s what it means to have a friend. And so, he always says the same thing to me.
“So Ray, this thing that you’re so troubled by, where is God in all that?” Duh! Isn’t that great to have a friend who will tell me that? And it is so embarrassing and so freeing to tell him what’s really going on.
Guys, listen. When we, men, look each other in the eye with fierce affection, such that it starts getting embarrassing, then we’re getting somewhere. Let’s live that way.
Merida: This is where I forget I’m on the interview. I’m just drawn in, man. George Muller said his first order of the business every day was to get his heart happy in the Lord. What have you guys done through the years? What are you doing now? What does it look like? You both radiate a contagious joy. What’s your day-to-day life look like to cultivate that?
Storms: Yeah, I have never once grown weary of God’s word. I hear of people who kind of become so academically-oriented and so passionate about being precise and right and winning every argument that the Word of God becomes a hammer rather than, you know, a sweet-smelling rose, I’ve just constantly fallen in love with . . .
That’s why I think expositional preaching, verse by verse, is so important because there’s always something new and fresh the next week, always. I, for myself, I spend as much time as I can in worship, and I don’t mean just corporately, I mean in private, just celebrating and sitting before the Lord.
You know, I’ll sing that song we sang just in the last session, “O Praise The Name” and, man, it just awakens me. And then, just digging deeply into God, not just the doctrine of God, but exploring the personality of our great Triune God, he’s an endless source of fascination and beauty and excitement, and that’s what keeps me going.
That’s what keeps me alive.
Ortlund: I’m a huge believer in back to basics. We don’t need to be clever, the basics of daily Bible reading and prayer, and . . . Here’s something my dad taught me: joy is a moral category. That doesn’t imply that we just will ourselves into joy in the Lord, but Philippians says, “Rejoice in the Lord, and again, I will say, Rejoice.”
There is always—when we rejoice in the Lord—we find by faith through Scripture and according to the word, we go to God and we look at the Lord and we say, “Okay now, what is there about you that can actually thrill me, cheer me, encourage me, put new life into me right now? I’m in the midst of all of these reasons to be miserable and wretched.” Okay, but I am, by faith, looking at you.
I’m looking at you with new eyes and with new needs, and I’m sitting here with my Bible open. But what’s happening is I’m looking through the Bible at the Lord himself, I’m saying, “All right, I would love to see some new facet of your glory that will just light me up inside.” That is rejoicing in the Lord. That’s a moral category.
Not rejoicing in the Lord is treating him as if he were a failure. I just don’t think we want to do that. Jesus did not live and die for us to do that. So, back to basics. Every morning, make your coffee, open your Bible, sit down, read, rediscover who the Lord is and how much he loves you and how fully he cares for you.
Get your soul realigned with the Lord. Look at him by faith. Find some reason in the Lord to rejoice. Give it all to him in prayer. Go have a great day.
Storms: Just Psalm 119:18, I preface every sermon with it, “Open my eyes that I might behold wonderful things in your word.” You can’t see wonderful things in God’s Word with the natural eye. Lord, you are going to have to open my eyes, you’re going to have to quicken my heart, you’re going to have to illumine my spirit to see the inexhaustible riches of Christ.
Merida: Guys, thank you so much for your time. You’ve encouraged us. You’ve instructed us. Ray, you’ve stared at us. It’s the best stare in the world, isn’t it? And your smile too, you know. You do both so well in the same paragraph. It’s really remarkable.
We love you, men, and we’re so grateful for you. We honor you and thanks again.