The Gospel Coalition hosted a breakout panel titled “Faithful Endurance: The Joy of Shepherding People for a Lifetime” with H. B. Charles Jr., Dave Harvey, Richard Phillips, Jeff Robinson, and Juan Sánchez at the 2019 National Conference to address the present trend of short stays in pastoral roles within churches.
Knowing that the average length of tenure for an evangelical pastor is slightly less than three years, it’s no surprise that instability plagues our churches, which is healthy neither for the congregation nor the pastor. The panel discussed the value of faithful pastors who dedicate their lives to single congregations for decades, and the formative process through which faithfulness to a single congregation builds godly character over time.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Jeff Robinson: Good afternoon. It is after lunch. This is a dangerous enterprise, isn’t it? I’m not sure what we’re going to do to keep you alive and awake and upright, but we’ll do our best. Welcome to this panel. This afternoon, we’re here to discuss the issue of persevering in the pastoral ministry. This is loosely based on a new book that’s coming out from Crossway and The Gospel Coalition, that I have the privilege of being the co-editor along with Collin Hansen, our editorial director at TGC, called Faithful Endurance: The Joy of Shepherding a People for a Lifetime, and indeed, we talk a lot about how hard it is, how difficult, how the pastoral ministry is fraught with difficulty, but it is indeed a joy, isn’t it? So, what we want to promote is the idea of staying in the game, of enduring when things aren’t exactly ideal, which is probably never, right?
So, the panel this afternoon is sponsored by our friends at Crossway. We’re grateful for their generous support to make this session possible. You’ll learn more about Crossway about their booth, which is booth number three, or at their website, Crossway.org, so I commend that to you, for sure.
I am fortunate to have some veteran pastors with me here today to discuss this issue. These men have endured collectively for a long, long time. In fact, some of them are among my heroes in the ministry, so I just get to ask the questions and benefit. I’m also a pastor; I pastor a church in Louisville, Kentucky, called Christ Fellowship Church of Louisville. It’s a Southern Baptist congregation that’s about six years old, and I am the second oldest person in the church, which is really weird for me.
So, I have with us today, down all the way to my left, Juan Sanchez. Juan is a dear friend, long-time friend of mine. We started seminary together… well, you were in seminary already, but we started a long time ago at Southern Seminary in Louisville. We were in church together for many years. He is Senior Pastor of High Point Baptist Church in Austin, Texas. He is a council member with The Gospel Coalition, and he is author of a recently released book, Seven Dangers Facing the Church.
Beside him is Rick Phillips. Rick is Senior Minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He is also a council member with The Gospel Coalition, and he is author of numerous, numerous books.
Beside him, of course, is H.B. Charles. H.B. is pastor/teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida, where he has served since the fall of 2008, correct? He is also a TGC council member.
Immediately to my left is Dave Harvey, and Dave, in addition to writing often for The Gospel Coalition… as often as I can get him to… Dave is teaching pastor at Summit Church in Fort Myers and Naples, Florida; author of many books, my favorite being When Sinners Say I Do, which I’ve used in marriage and pre-marriage counseling for a long time, and he tells me there’s a sequel, right?
Dave Harvey: That’s right.
Jeff Robinson: So don’t wait for the movie. Get the sequel, right? Excited about that.
Well, brothers, thank you for being here. Again, it’s a privilege for me to be with you all this afternoon, not just an audience, but you all, and we want to kind of get this started talking about the joy of shepherding people for a lifetime. Talk about… Rick, we’ll start with you. Talk about what attracted you to pastoral ministry when you were first called by God to serve. What is it that made you say, “Not only is God calling me, but I want to do this,” besides the grace of God, of course?
Rick Phillips: I was compelled completely against my will by a sovereign God.
Jeff Robinson: Amen.
Rick Phillips: I was 35 years old when I went to seminary, and I was a military officer from a multi-generation Army family. I was a professor at West Point, getting ready to go to Europe to take command, to be deputy commander of an armed cavalry squadron, which is what I had been raised to do since I was a little boy. God required me… it’s kind of one of those things, it’s a long story, but I went into the ministry because I was… and it came in the context of ministry. I was leading Bible studies, I was speaking at events, I was writing things, and under the compulsion of God, I went into the ministry against my will. I recommend that as the way to go into ministry, by the way; that way, you know you’re stuck with it. God has forced me to do it. I have to do it.
I have to say that probably, for me, at the beginning of my ministry, it was the joy of the ministry of the word, and I think everybody will say it’s more than that, it can’t only be that, but it also can’t be less than that. For all the difficulties that we have, and they are legion, the blessing of being a servant of God in proclaiming his Word is an extraordinarily high one, and the thrill of that has not lessened one bit in over 20 years of preaching morning and evening.
Jeff Robinson: I think this is one I want all four of you to answer. Juan, talk about that. What attracted you… again, besides a sovereign God… to pastoral ministry?
Juan Sanchez: God got a hold of me a little bit before He did Rick, because I was in the Navy ROTC. I was going to become a naval officer, and so, I actually wanted to fly jets for the Marines, but I came to faith in Christ at 17 through youth ministry, and I started working at a local church when I was 19 years old. The Lord just warmed my heart to that. And so, for me, it was an issue of having to relinquish my scholarship and finish my original enlistment contract, and then come back to the University of Florida and get a degree.
So, it was a little bit of a circuitous route, but it was… the impact of young people accepting me, someone from Puerto Rico who was a foreigner and a stranger to this culture… accepting me as a peer, as a human being, that made a real impact and opened the doors for the gospel, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a part of that. So, initially, I saw myself being in youth ministry forever, and then the Lord got a hold of me with the ministry of the Word, and I realized that, as Rick said, that’s what I want to do. I want to be faithed with to feed God’s flock with God’s word.
Jeff Robinson: Good. H.B.?
H.B. Charles:: Can I borrow your microphone? So, my story is different. I was a boy preacher under my father’s [inaudible]. The Lord called my father home when I was 16 years old. The following year, I was 17; the church called me to succeed my father. I was a senior in high school.
Jeff Robinson: Wow.
H.B. Charles: You asked me what was it like to pastor at 17? I could tell you initially, when it dawned on me what was happening, I was like, “You all are going to pay me every week to preach?” Yes, that’s all they would let me do, in the sovereign providence of God. Yeah, they did pay me. They did pay me. They did not let me do anything else but preach, and it worked out. I didn’t want to anything else. I just wanted to preach. I had a place to preach every week. I didn’t have to ask anybody to preach. So, everything that I could, I preached.
In those days… pardon me… in those days, questions would come up, and I could just spend the whole week studying to try to answer those questions from the Bible, and I was not allowed to say anything in a meeting; I was not allowed to make any decision. But week in and week out, I was seeing the Word of God touch people and change people’s lives, and open people’s eyes, and there were things that I did not know. I’d grown up in a church that was somewhat traditional under my father’s ministry, and questions came up that I didn’t know, and God brought godly, older men to point me to the right tools to study, and I would dig until I figured it out and then go teach. I was blessed to be among people who gave me time and space to think, read and pray, and to see God’s Word work in people’s lives, and then God shape a church through the ministry of the Word… it convinced me early in the sufficiency of scripture, and now, it’s almost 30 years later, and that joy hasn’t changed, to see the Word of God do its work in the life of a congregation.
Jeff Robinson: Brother Dave?
Dave Harvey: Well, I think I’m here representing those with far less impressive backgrounds, because there’s no military service and I certainly wasn’t preaching when I was young, although I love that story.
H.B. Charles: And I don’t recommend it, for the record. I don’t recommend it.
Dave Harvey: But I was a security guard, and that’s got to count for something. Part-time, yeah, but security guard nonetheless.
I think there was that undeniable sense… when Paul says, “If anyone aspires to be the office of overseer, he desires a noble thing”… it’s always fascinated that Paul’s located the call, first, in the level of aspiration, because I felt that. I felt like there was this charge hooked up to my aspiration that made me ministry very attractive, and even as a new believer, when I was in the church and I was watching men preach or do ministry, there was an undeniable affinity and attraction. I remember sitting and listening to the Word of God preached, and thinking, “How does he do that?” Then, that question kind of morphed over time to, “I wonder if I’m supposed to do that?”
Similarly, the other facets of ministry, through counseling and small-group ministry, as I watched others doing ministry effectively, there was this undeniable attraction, so I point back to that as being formative, and I’ve had to point back to that many times when times have gotten difficult, thinking, “No, I think that was clear. He made it clear,” and here I stand.
Jeff Robinson: Well, there are many pastors in the room here. We’ve got, what, 200, 250 people, so no doubt, there’s at least one of you who is struggling with ministry, saying, “I don’t know. This is tough. I’m in a situation, I don’t know if I’m going to live to tell about it as a minister.” Most of us have been there, almost all of us. I’ve said before, “You’ve been in the pastoral ministry for a week, you’ve thought about quitting the ministry, probably.” You may have even written your letter of resignation so you have that on file. We’ve all done that, I’m guessing.
So, I’d like for each of you to briefly talk about a time when, in ministry, you were tempted to quit, that you really thought, “This just isn’t for me, perhaps,” or there is a barrier that is insurmountable. What was it, what are the one or two things that kind of kept you going, that made you… I think I wrote in my chapter that pastoral ministry is like the bucking bull at the rodeo; there’s always something to throw you off. Well, what made you get back on, just one or two things? We’ll start with Juan.
Juan Sánchez: I’ve been asked this question before, and maybe I answered a little bit differently, because for me, pastoral ministry has been a lot like parenting, in the sense that parenting is frustrating, but I never imagined myself not being a parent. I guess in pastoral ministry, it’s, “I’m going to go be the parent of other kids.” That’s the temptation.
I’ve never gotten to a place where I thought, “Okay, I’m just going to quit pastoral ministry and go do something else.” For me, it’s been more of a challenge of, “Do I quit this and go somewhere else,” which is, I think, a dangerous temptation to flirt with, particularly very, very early on, at first signs of trouble. And so, I was in a very difficult ministry situation, and it was my first pastoring, even though I had been in staff ministry since I was 19; first pastored, and I had a lot to learn, and I was ready to commit myself for life. And so, for me, the hard thing was, I was committed, but I was attacked.
The attacks were kind of just a small number of people, but when you’re young and you think more highly of yourself than you ought to, any attack just seems overwhelming. I think, in essence, I needed to be humbled, and that was a part of that, so when I came to the end of that process, what I realized is… I literally remember this. I was in the North Georgia Mountains, it’s kind of your area of the woods.
Rick Phillips: It is.
Juan Sánchez: I was praying, “Lord, release me from this ministry,” and my devotional, I opened it up to 1 Timothy 1 and said, “Remain on at Ephesus,” and I thought, “Okay, Lord, I’m not mystical.”
Jeff Robinson: You only get to do that one time.
Juan Sánchez: That’s right, that’s right, that’s right. I’m not mystical, but I just kind of sensed the Lord was not done with me there. The Lord allowed me to work through things to come to a place where I realized, the best thing for me to do is to move on from these people, and the most fascinating thing…. and I’ll just be quiet here… is I can go back to that church now, and after me being gone for a while, they realize what we were trying to do together, and they welcome me and actually invite me back, and it’s a sweet time, because it was a very hard time.
Rick Phillips: I also have not really been tempted to leave the ministry, but I came in the ministry later, and I have a strong sense of divine obligation. I’ve definitely been tempted to leave churches, and I think that is probably the more common one. Almost all of us will say the same sort of story.
It’s funny, because if you’re a preacher and if you’re somewhat able at it, you probably get a high degree of adulation. There’s a lot of praise, a lot of devotion. It’s amazing, and you have to reckon with yourself, “Why does a small amount of criticism weigh so heavily on me as a man who is praised so much?” Spurgeon would say, you can’t listen to either one of them; in fact, the praise may be more dangerous than the other. You have to mature, and you have to let your reputation go.
What I think has really made me tempted to go is when you have conspiratorial power struggles, and also, we’ve all, I’m sure, had that, too, where you’re really being undermined in terms of your ability to serve the Lord. That is very frustrating, and I’ve certainly been there and have been tempted to go.
I think the two things that have caused me not to do it is, one is… in the course of pastoral ministry, you develop ministerial relationships that there’s going to be a very heavy price tag for other people if you sever them. Now, there’s a time when a pastor needs to go. I was Senior Minister of a church in South Florida for five years, and I left there after five years because I soberly concluded that my calling to Christ was not going to be able to be fulfilled in that setting, and the setting to which I was going, which actually was a smaller church… I would be able to fulfill the particular things Christ is asking me to do, and that has proved to be true, and I made the right decision in leaving. Churches never understand at the time. My advice to pastors who are leaving their church is leave soon after, because it’s hard on churches.
But when tempted to leave, I think that many of us as shepherds are going to realize how many people, your relationship with them… either personally as a pastor, or the effect of your pastoral ministry… because when a senior minister leaves, that whole church is placed in jeopardy, and a lot moves with it. There’s one point where God says of Hezekiah, “I have made you a peg, that I would hang Israel on you,” and any minister will feel that way, that God has made us pegs and there’s thing He’s hanging on us. There’s movements, there’s agendas, there’s people’s lives, that in the providence of God, none of us are indispensable, but the fact remains that your influence in their lives is providentially decisive. That has proved to be an overwhelming obstacle to me being willing to leave, and I think it should be that way.
The other one is just a little wisdom. It’s going to happen in your next church, too. The honeymoon is going to end. The same kind of sinners are there as in your same church, the same kind of power conflict tendencies. It’s amazing when you talk to your friends. “Oh, you had that happen to you, too,” so it really probably is not a local dynamic, so you might as well stay put; particularly if your wife has friends, absolutely stay put.
A little wisdom and perspective will say, when I dig in here… but the other thing is, “Why don’t I approach it in a more godly way?” When you decide, “No, I’m going to stick it out,” then the question is, “What is God doing in my life? How am I a spiritual leader, particularly to those who are opposing me in illegitimate ways?” That’s where God starts doing a real fruitful work in your own life, through staying.
Jeff Robinson: Have you got a microphone?
H.B. Charles: I’ve got a microphone, yeah.
I would agree with my two brothers. I’ve never had the temptation to quit ministry. I have had the desire to get out of where I was. I pastored a church I grew up in for 18 years. I was called there at 17. Everyone knew me, I knew everyone, and it was a… for whatever their weaknesses were, this was a praying church, and I had saints literally tell me, “We will not let you fail.” I served that church for 18 years; I had no expectation that I would ever leave that church.
A little more than 10 years ago, I was called to another church on the other side of the country where I serve now, a much larger church. I did not know anyone in the city, much less anyone in that church. The church had just gone through a moral failure, and it was a scandal in our city. Our church was in the news every week. I had never seen anything like that, much less knew how to navigate that. I did not expect… if these things had played out, I didn’t think the church… the church is 100 and something years old… I didn’t think the church would survive three years if everything just played out the way it was supposed to, and if they did survive three years, I was convinced they would fire me within those three years, and they took their best shot. No, no, it wasn’t for lack of trying, I’m going to tell you that. It was nothing personal. They didn’t know me. They were hurt by the previous experience, and he was gone, and they were taking it out on me.
Yeah, that’s just the long story. I would say, through that period, God did two things when it was just very, very difficult. My family, my wife and my children, who were young… I just remember, I couldn’t get off the couch for several weeks. Someone taps me, I roll over, my wife and my three kids are standing there. I roll over and I said, “What’s going on?” One of my kids said, “Family meeting, Daddy.” I was like, “You don’t call family meetings, I call the family meetings.” My children had just never seen me like that.
Jeff Robinson: Wow.
H.B. Charles: God used that conversation to just shake me.
Second thing I would just say, brothers: I had friends, godly friends, who prayed for me, who encouraged me, who rebuked me when sometimes, the issue was not what was being done, but it was my sinful response to it, because I was, as the kids say, in my feelings… hurt by what was going on. Those relationships, God really used, with my family and with pastors, friends… some from other places who could see it from a perspective that I could not. God used them to encourage me and challenge me and help me to hang in there during that difficult period.
Jeff Robinson: Dave?
Dave Harvey: Yeah, I’ve wanted to leave ministry weekly at times, consistently. I remember back when they used to man tollbooths on 95 or 75, and I remember giving my money to the woman, thinking, “Wow, what a great job that would be, to just be a tollbooth attendant. Nobody’s criticizing. Nobody’s betraying them. It’s a good job.”
But about seven years ago, I resigned from a church I had been serving in for 27 years. That was an incomprehensible step to me, that I would ever come to a place where it would become necessary to have to take that step, and it created a season where I was deeply discouraged, feeling disoriented, displaced. You’ve always had a home, you’ve always had a people, but then all of a sudden, you’re just in this place where you’ve never been as an adult, because as an adult, I was always involved in the church, vitally involved with a group of people in a small group, and all of a sudden, I was in between things.
Yet, the distance that created and the opportunities to reflect helped me to realize some things about myself and helped me to realize some things about my own soul, and it began to give me an understanding that there are times where the work that God wants to do is so important that the only way that He can get us there is by creating some kind of big transition. There are some places in our heart that can only be reached by the kind of disruption that will take place through a profound transition.
I know, for me, that pulses… I’ve learned to be brought low. I mean, I was brought low, and it wasn’t the only time, but it was a big time. I think I became more familiar with that in a way that I… I have a category for that. That’s functional for me now in ministry.
I also think that there is a way that we derive identity from ministry, that we all acknowledge the reality of, but don’t clearly understand the impact of. We don’t really understand the depth of it because we’re still in it, where an experience like that, with the distance that it creates, can give us a perspective that, “Oh my, that was really bad. I thought it was set at a three. That was at a nine.”
And so, one of the things I began to realize is that God will lead me into times like that because there are things that He wants to do in my soul, because who I am in Jesus and who I am before God is far more important than any role that I play. If I really want to understand the gospel, and if you really want to measure the depth to which I get the gospel, you can take a close look at how I respond in moments like that. I mean, examine me on how I respond when I feel sinned against, and you’ll pretty much get a feel for the traction that the gospel has in my life.
So, it’s being in situations like that that I began to realize that God will, at times, invite us into those seasons where discouragement, disappointment, that just seems to be a part of it, but that there’s soul work, there’s transformational work that’s achieved there that, for some reason, in our life… or maybe it’s just my life… can be achieved in no other way. You come out of that actually thanking God for the experience of that, and so I’ve learned that those times can be profound times of engagement with Jesus and profound times of preparation for something that the Lord has planned.
Rick Phillips: Jeff Robinson, I used to say that my philosophy of ministry in 2 Corinthians 4: 1-6, faithfulness to the ministry of the Word. We do not tamper with the Word of truth, but we commend the truth of God to the consciences of men, so on and so forth. God has expanded that chapter to me, and I’ve kept reading, and really, that chapter says the minister has two functions: one is the ministry of the Word, the second is the ministry of suffering. Death is working into us; life is working into you.
Our fellowship with Christ in ministry is fellowship in the suffering of Christ. I think for all of us, over time, we have to embrace that, first reluctantly, but then, secondly, ministerially. None of us are seeking it, but if I’m called to be a servant of Christ and to be a minister, I am called to suffering with Christ, and that is inseparable from the ministry of the Word, and that’s about 20 years progress in my life.
I don’t know how many times I’ve said to my wife, in difficult times, we’re feeling attacked and betrayed. Death is working into us so that life is working into them. And so, the question is, okay, are we okay with that, now that we are aware to the whole chapter? And then when the answer is, “Yes,” now we’re bearing our cross. The bearing of the cross is not something you can’t get out of; it’s something that you do in fellowship with Christ so that His redemption would come to others, and when you get to the point where you, maybe not always carefully, but you self-consciously bear the cross, and then you try to bear it in His manner, that’s when you become a minister, really.
Dave Harvey: I have another thought unless you want to move on.
Jeff Robinson: Sure, please do.
Dave Harvey: I was just whispering to Jeff Robinson that I had a thought. I didn’t know if you wanted to move on or kind of riff on this a little bit, but you said what I was trying to say in a much more concise way, which I appreciate. In fact, you should move down and be in my church standing right next to me while I preach, because I can use that when I preach.
Rick Phillips: My congregation will be amused at you calling me concise, with the luxury of not knowing me then.
Dave Harvey: It’s a quote by J. Oswald Sanders, from his classic book, Spiritual Leadership. He said, “A cross stands in the way of Christian ministry. It is a cross upon which the leader must consent to be impaled.” When I think about ministry, I think about it as a kind of paradox, where people, our greatest joy… I mean, we get to serve them and love them. We get to be part of the transformational experience that they have with Jesus. We get to preach to them and to relate to them, and it’s this incredible honor.
But they are also… and this is the paradox… they are also the cross upon which we must consent to be impaled, and a lot of people coming into ministry don’t get that. They don’t understand that the people that they’re called to serve are the cross upon which they must consent to be impaled, that there’s a sense where if one is called to ministry, they must be willing to be the target of the church’s imperfections, and if they can’t come to terms with that, they probably should not go into ministry.
Jeff Robinson: Well, no doubt, we have young men at seminary here, rookie pastors. How can we teach that in seminary? I teach it at a seminary. I teach you future pastors… is there any way to prepare them for that reality, that you’re going to go out there and you’re going to get nailed to a cross, you’re going to walk the county road behind your savior, and that is just part and parcel of the ministry? It seems that is clearly a threat to faithful endurance, when men go into the ministry with false expectations.
This is for any of you. How can we better serve future pastors by teaching that, or can we? Is that just learned on the battlefield, to be a soldier? Any of you?
Rick Phillips: I’ve thought how useful it would be to have a class an exegetical class in seminary on Paul’s philosophy of ministry, because you are going to get this in Paul. My main thought is… I’m not sure you really do teach it in seminary, the church does it… but I think, obviously, you’re teaching in seminary, you need to do it… I think that we tend to be more technique-oriented rather than biblical principle, and if you were to say, “Okay, let’s look at Paul’s life and ministry,” what was Paul’s approach to the ministry of the Word? What was Paul’s approach to prayer? What was Paul’s philosophy of suffering? That would be very helpful.
Jeff Robinson: This is why the previous volume in this series, 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach You, began life as 47 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me. We were asked to brainstorm. It also just can’t really prepare you for real-life ministry any more than basic training can prepare you for war, can it?
How long have each of you been in pastoral ministry? Just go down the line. Dave, how many years?
Dave Harvey: 33 years.
Jeff Robinson: 33.
H.B. Charles: 29 years.
Rick Phillips: I was converted at age 30, so something like 23 years.
Juan Sánchez: Since I was 19, and I’m 53.
Jeff Robinson: So, lots of experience here. Tell me, as you survey the landscape of the church and churches, what poses the greatest threat to endurance in the pastoral ministry, to your minds? H.B.?
H.B. Charles: Yeah. What comes to my mind… I was just recently, not too long ago, with a young man, and sharing with him and listening, and it just made me meditate afresh on 2 Timothy 4. I started ministry with a firm commitment to the beginning of 2 Timothy, Chapter 4, Verse 2: preach the Word. That commitment has not wavered. It has increased over the years.
I think what has changed, developed, I hope grown in me is my commitment to the end of 2 Timothy 4 and 2: with complete patience and teaching. I think sometimes a young guy goes into the church and he’s been trained, and he’s going to preach the Word, and he’s going to fix everybody in this church, and I think that complete patience and teaching, this long suffering with people… this not just loving the truth, but loving the people to whom God has called you, and not merely loving some idealized picture of the church in your head, which is usually the church somewhere else. I used to say that most pastors pastor three churches at the same time: the church they are at, the church they were at, and the church they want to be at. If you don’t do that and just love the sheep that God has called you to… that’s God’s work in our hearts. That’s God’s gospel work in us, as we are serving the gospel… to love the people that he has called to for Christ. I think that’s key to endurance through the ups and downs and challenges of ministry, I would say.
Juan Sánchez: Let me just approach that from a little bit different perspective in the sense of, in our tradition, seminary is not required for pastoral ministry, and not everyone is going to go to seminary. So, there’s nothing new under the sun, and we read Acts 20; Paul warns the elders from the church of Ephesus that false teachers are going to arise. The letter of Revelation, it’s a letter written to seven churches… they need to be encouraged to persevere, and so, there are all these temptations that are always a threat to endurance. That’s why Paul wrote 2 Timothy, for Timothy to endure faithfully.
So, I think the greatest danger to endurance in pastoral ministry is whatever danger is threatening us to quit pastoral ministry. It could be a lot of different things for some people. For some people, they don’t endure because they weren’t called to begin with, and so, I would encourage us as churches to think of… this kind of goes to the earlier question… how we can encourage young men, identify young men, encourage young men; place them in pastoral roles, whether it’s internships or pastoral assistantships, and help them develop… I think part of the problem is the church has not been involved in the call process. They’ve wrote an excellent book that we use in our church, and for so long in our tradition, it’s been dependent just upon, well, I feel called, and the church has not participated in the external call to affirm that.
So, I just would encourage to re-engage with the church’s role in helping affirm the call of an individual.
Dave Harvey: I think, picking up on the 2 Timothy theme that seems to be surfacing here, it is interesting that, as we understand that to be Paul’s last letter… I think Stotts says his last will and testament… the number of relational difficulties and stunning statements that he makes throughout the letter, and they’re personal names, like they were his mates. They were the guys that he hung out with, that he shared his heart with, Phygelus and Hermogenes, or Hymenaeus and Philetus. In Chapter 1, he says, “All of Asia has left me.” I think I’ve had bad days, but… all of Asia has left me.
Last chapter of the last book that Paul wrote, closing words, he says, “When I stood to give my defense, everyone abandoned me. Everyone deserted me. No one came to my defense, but the Lord stood by my side.” Even Paul, with all of his gifts, the guy who had been to the third heaven… ministry was constructed in such a way for him where even with everything he brought, he still had this relational challenges, these debris… he ended his ministry with things open-ended. There wasn’t closure everywhere. I think that can bring such encouragement to us mortals with guys that are just slogging it out, week in and week out, and trying to do our best to realize that, yeah, the church is a complicated place. It’s messy people, and that we’re really called to be faithful in this place of messiness and to trust God with the fruit.
Rick Phillips: What is the greatest threat to endurance in ministry? I would add this: the wrong definition of success. How we define success in ministry is going to determine everything about us. Let’s not kid ourselves with the church culture we’re in, particularly at an event like this. It’s very hard to watch Kevin DeYoung and H.B. up there and not say, “I want that, and I want to have those gifts.” We all say it’s not pride, but the joy of doing it. The fact may be that God… maybe you have better gifts than anybody here, and in the sovereign will of God, he may send you a church that collapses under you for no fault of your own.
I went to a church where I say I became a preacher at Tenth Presbyterian with James Boyce. I became a minister of Christ in the church I went to, that I should never have gone to, in retrospect, if I was seeking success. I got there and this very large church crumbled based upon things that largely had nothing to do with me, but I got the blame for it, and I’m being attacked. I remember, I preached a sermon on Psalm 56, when I’m afraid, I will trust in Him, and I was commiserating… I was actually on my knees praying, and I prayed these words: “I trusted you, and you have betrayed me.” That was my prayer, and I started laughing at myself, and I said, “Well, Lord, you own me. You can do what you want. Maybe I should stop whining about it.”
But if we can just really mean our rhetoric, and that’s going to come out of the personal piety of our lived relationship with the Lord Jesus, and He’s going to force you to it, then we’ll be able to say this, and sincerely… that the reward I am seeking from ministry to Jesus Christ is the joy of ministry to Jesus Christ. That’s the place of safety, and that’s the fortress where… and we say that; no, where I mean it… and he’s a living Lord and I’m doing it unto Him, not because of my self-image and all that baggage and all that; I want to serve… we’re still going to [inaudible], because we’re trying to accomplish things for Him, but brothers and sisters, if the reward we’re seeking in ministry is anything but the joy of serving so great a Lord and Savior as Jesus Christ, we are in a very precarious state, and we are very likely to be overthrown.
So, how do we define success? It needs to be with a desire to hear those words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” because the truth is, you’re going to build something up, and I’ve had crazy things happen in my ministry, where, well, there goes five years of momentum down the drain. I mean it, and you’re just kind of stuck there with it. Well, you’re not. That’s God’s business, not mine, and this is not an empire for my glory… and the joy of serving Him.
I think it was opposition that gave me that. I remember one time, I was preaching to a congregation, my congregation; I was preaching John 1:12, a rather good text… for those who believe, He gave them the right to become children of God… and I realized that two-thirds of the people hated me, because I was preaching the Word of God. I just had a supernatural joy, not in a perverse way… the thrill of proclaiming this truth to these people, and to do it for that Jesus, and if we can just be liberated, where we really are doing it for the reasons we thought we were doing it when we came into it, the joy of serving Him is the fortress that will give you endurance.
Dave Harvey: Just in working with younger pastors, and this may be true of even some guys who are here, you will be astonished at how many young pastors can come to a point where they feel defrauded by God, because the way that ministry is shaping up, because of the way the church is growing or not growing, because of the problems that they’re having. They hold God hostage to this certain vision of success, and when God doesn’t deliver, they feel defrauded by God, and are very tempted to just kind of… not renounce Christ, but just move off of the field, move over to the sidelines, take a seat in the stands, and just say, “You know what? I’m still in the game. I’m still part of the field here, but I’m not going to be in the game, trying all my best. You’re going to get my cheers from the sidelines,” and they’ll withdraw their passion. They’ll withdraw their ambition.
So, that definition of success, having to do with preaching Christ, and having to do with faithfulness over fruit, is so utterly essential.
Rick Phillips: We have to ask ourselves the question when we’re suffering, why did this slander… the first time you’re really seriously slandered, it’s amazing how much it hurts you and how outraged you are, and then you have to ask yourself, why do I feel so outraged? It’s a very instructive line of inquiry.
Dave Harvey: It may not be dead yet, whatever hurts.
Rick Phillips: Amen.
Juan Sánchez: The one other thing that I would add as we’re having this conversation is, an exhortation that I need to continually preach to myself: if I’m not drinking deeply from God’s word and communing with the Lord, relying upon the Holy Spirit, I’m going to be tempted to do ministry in my own strength. It will wear me out, and that’s a real threat to endurance. But I think… maybe I should just speak for myself… in my ministry, it is too easy to prepare sermons and prepare studies and not stop and have a regular time of communion with the Lord, and we have to fight for that.
That is so important for our lives, for our marriages, for our parenting. We have to understand, first and foremost, we are children of God, communing with a living God through His son, by His spirit, and He’s given us His word, and we must be deeply rooted there.
Jeff Robinson: I think one of the best pieces of advice I ever received from a veteran pastor… and I’ll share this with you… during a particularly gut-wrenching time in ministry for me… many of you may know Harry Reader, a pastor at Birmingham, Alabama, a PCA pastor… Briarwood PCA church, a fine church… I was grumbling to him one day, a pastor at Alabama; I was grumbling to him about the people in my church and how many of them seemed to be my enemies, and all this. He listened for a while and he said, “I think you’ve forgotten something very important and that is your fundamental identity. It’s in Christ and it is one in Christ. You’re a Christian, and a Christian is a person being made new. Old things are passed away. All things are being made new. You’re being made new in Christ, just like your congregation. And so, those difficult people, God has ordained these circumstances, these people, and they’re opposition for your good.”
Of course, I thought, “Boy, I must really be sinful.” How much mortified sin… of course, it remained to me, but that really helped me to persevere because it helped me to understand that, most fundamentally, I’m still a Christian, just like those people in my church, and I need to cling to Christ and be in the Word every day, and I’m being transformed and these are means that God is using to do that in me. It was very simple and very clear, but it helped me so very, very much. And so, get mentors like that who have been in ministry a long time, and talk to them about this when you’re tempted.
Well, we talk a lot about the perils of pastoral ministry. Let’s turn as we’re kind of almost running out of time, and I want to talk about the joys of ministry. Where have you experienced unexpected joy? Seasons, maybe, or even events, but seasons, perhaps even, of unexpected joy as a pastor? That’s open to all four of you.
Rick Phillips: I think we haven’t yet.
Jeff Robinson: We’re all looking at you. Conditional clause needed; yes, you have.
Rick Phillips: I will say, I think joy for me is, as a minister, I get to have some precious relationships. We had a 95-year-old… she was 98 when she died… missionary in our church named Bobbie Hauser who was one of the greatest Christian, and because I was her pastor, she prayed for me every day, and I would see her at the nursing home, and I got to have this special relationship with a woman I never would have known well. I got to deliver her the news at age 95: “Bobbie, I have bad news for you. The medicine has worked and you’re going to live.” “Oh, pastor, pray that I would die. I so want to see His face.” I would never have known her that way.
We do death, so I do death, and so, when they’re dying, I’m often very close to them ministerially; not all families can handle it. The pastor, we have a duty to those who are dying. That is some of the most beautiful experiences I will ever have in my life, is praying with and talking with… fairly early in my ministry, in a time of great difficulty, I ministered, I think, effectively, to a man who was dying. I said, “Dennis, the morphine starts today, and you’re going to lose the capacity to think, and you’re going to open your eyes up in Heaven.” He said, “I’m going to thank Him for all the ways you’ve encouraged me in trusting in Him.”
That’s literally true. That’s not a Hallmark card. He is going to see Jesus two days later, and the joy that’s evolved in ministering to saints who are dying is a rare joy.
Dave Harvey: I think about the fact that, of all the ways that God could have determined that change take place, that the making new process that you were talking about is engineered… that he decided that people in our roles would play a prominent role in that. And so, we have this unique role where through the Word of God and through the impact of the words that we share based upon the authority of the Word of God, the role that the Lord gives us, the potency of our example, the care that we supply… that there is a credibility and a weight that is given, where we have the privilege of participating in transformation that’s going to have an eternal impact on the lives of people. I mean, it’s like, “Wow. We get to wake up and do that every day,” and do it in ways that people remember, and when they remember, they often color you in the picture.
Just the other day, I got an email from somebody who used to be part of our church 20 years ago. They were talking about the impact of the Word 20 years ago. They’re still listening to messages that were preached back in that church 20 years ago from the different people that were preaching, and I’m thinking, “Yeah, who gets this? What architect gets an email 20 years later?” Teachers do, perhaps, and they need to get more, but it’s just that sense that we’re called to that, and we’re armed with the Word of God to accomplish that. What a privilege it is to do that. So, that’s what comes to mind for me.
H.B. Charles: I would just say what I said at the beginning. Just the joy of seeing God’s Word work.
I remember not too long ago leaving the Sunday and feeling like, “Lord, I was really, really bad, and I just wish I had more time,” and I just felt like I could have been better-prepared and said it clearer. Then, I am thinking, “If God spares us, I get another shot at this next week, and I get a chance to water what’s been planted.” I really thought, “Today, I leaned into a pitch and took one for the team. Next week, I get another shot at this.”
Rick Phillips: So you’ve got a man on first base when you start.
H.B. Charles: Right! I did, I did. Just the privilege of plodding along in the ministry.
Rick Phillips: And the process of sermon writing. At 8:30 Sunday morning, I’ve got to stand and deliver. I’m there to bring my A game so far as I can, so it’s not whatever I have. No, I’ve got to bring a finished sermon. I write my morning sermons the week I preach them. That’s just my deal and I like to do it that way, and the joy week to week of wrestling with the Word; you’re really feeding from His hand, and even the prayer life of seeking His blessing so that you can understand.
Over and over, on Wednesday, you’re going, “I have no idea how I’m going to preach this. I’m dead meat.” He feeds you from His hand week after week. That is a particular blessing, and it’s a joy.
Juan Sánchez: The only thing I would add is, I think sometimes we have to pray and fight for that joy, because there are seasons of dryness or discouragement, seasons where you have to fight to love the sheep, and ask God to give you the love for the sheep that He has for the sheep. To me, the unexpected joys have been those times when the Lord has answered those prayers.
I was in a church revitalization, and after 13 and a half years, even though it’s been a sweet 13 and a half years, it feels like, “Okay, we’re out of that financial hole.” The staff is in place, and it’s just kind of a sweet place. The joy of going through our membership directory and praying a page a day for the members… for me, that’s been a sweet joy, to be able to pray for the members and then have conversations, and see how the Lord is working, the joy of praying for years and years to see fruit of conversion, and then, entering into a season where the Lord allows you to see that. So, to me, the unexpected fruits of answered prayers, in a variety of ways, but particularly praying for joy for the sheep.
H.B. Charles:: A month or so ago, I was invited to go home in Los Angeles and preach the 10 year anniversary of my successor, and I got a chance to see people who I shepherded for 18 years. Some people there are still on staff that I hired, people I grew up with, literally. It was a great day. The service was over, I was in the pastor’s study, and a young man came at the door and said, “Someone is outside in the parking lot to see you,” and it was Henrietta Hunter, who has known me literally all of my life. She’s still a faithful part of the church. Someone has to bring her to church every week. She’s been there under this pastor, under my 18 years, and she served under my dad.
Before they pulled her off, she just wanted to thank me for those 18 years and make sure she get a chance to encourage me. She said she was proud of me. She remembered when I was a baby, that she was proud of me, and to see that I have stayed the course all these years, and she told me, “We may never see each other again.” She encouraged me to stay the course for the reward to come.
Boy, when I tell you how much it took me not to break down there, but that’s the joy I sometimes think we forget. The harvest is at the end of your ministry, not the end of the service or the end of the calendar year. We are pressing on for a reward that is much greater than anything this world can offer, and that’s a joy that I hope we don’t forget.
Jeff Robinson: Well, we are out of time, and I saved that question for last intentionally, because to summarize what you’re all saying, I think is… local church ministry is a privilege, not a duty, and so that’s a good place for us to go from here, to realize that God has called us to this great, great privilege, and we get to watch Him week after week build his church, both in us and through us.
Thank you for coming. We appreciate your kind attention, giving us your afternoon.
H.B. Charles: Brother?
Jeff Robinson: Yes, sir?
Would you offer prayer? Somebody here is going-
Jeff Robinson: Well, that was actually where we were going to go. In fact, I want you to pray for pastors here and beyond, so if you would do that, that is the right place to close. Absolutely.
H.B. Charles: Sure, it would be a privilege. Let’s pray.
Our Father in Heaven, we are grateful and thankful for the privilege of calling you our Father in Heaven, because of the finished work of the Lord, Jesus Christ, who is our all-sufficient prophet, priest and king. We praise you for your mercy with which we have received these ministries, and for the fact that you would graciously condescend to use people like us in the service of your kingdom.
We praise you that you have placed the treasure of the gospel in jars of clay, so that the surpassing power will obviously be of you and not of us.
I am praying for brothers under the sound of my voice who find themselves at a hard place, and for couples who are here, hoping that these days would help them find discouragement to go home and hang in there, and for congregations where there is division and opposition, and decline and other factors that have brought discouragement to some shepherds’ soul.
I pray, Father, for these men, that you would help them to be steadfast, immovable, and always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, their labor is not in vain.
I pray, Father, that you would help them to not grow weary of doing well, knowing that in due season, they will reap a harvest if they do not give up.
I pray, Father, that you would help these brothers to trust you with their whole heart, and to not lean on their own understanding; to acknowledge you in all of their ways, that you would make straight their path.
I pray, Father, that they would cling to the hope of the gospel of our risen savior. I pray that they would stand on the firm foundation of your Word.
I pray, Father, that everything they do would be seasoned in believing prayer. I pray that you would, please, Lord, help them to know even those afflicted by a thorn in the flesh, that your grace is sufficient, and your strength works best in weak people like us.
We give your praise for it. In Jesus’s name, amen.