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2011 New Year’s Resolutions for Pastors

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  1. Be a man of prayer! 

“It is impossible for the preacher to keep his spirit in harmony with the divine nature of his high calling without much prayer.  That the preacher by dint of duty and laborious fidelity to the work and routine of the ministry can keep himself in trim and fitness is a serious mistake.  Even sermon-making, incessant and taxing as an art, as a duty, as a work, or as a pleasure, will engross and harden, will estrange the heart, by neglect of prayer, from God.  The scientist loses God in nature.  The preacher may lose God in his sermon” (E.M. Bounds, Preacher and Prayer).

“It will be in vain for me to stock my library, or organize societies, or project schemes, if I neglect the culture of myself; for books, and agencies, and systems, are only remotely the instruments of my holy calling; my own spirit, soul, and body, are my nearest machinery for sacred service; my spiritual faculties, and my inner life, are my battle ax and weapons of war” (Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students). 

2.  Stay anchored to the Scriptures!  The Scriptures are not a springboard for whatever topic you wish to discuss—but the anchor for that which God has already revealed.

Sometimes we hear it said that ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books.  “What!” is the appropriate response, “than ten hours over your books, on your knees?”  (Benjamin Warfield, quoted in John Piper’s Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.)

3.   Be clear regarding the gospel—both to Christians and non-believers.  Both believers and non-believers need to be saved from the law.  Unbelievers risk believing they are saved by what they do—and believers risk believing they are kept by what they do.  It’s all based on what Christ has done!

An emaciated gospel leads to emaciated worship.  It lowers our eyes from God to self and cheapens what God has accomplished for us in Christ.  The biblical gospel, by contrast, is like fuel in the furnace of worship.  The more you understand about it, believe it, and rely on it, the more you adore God both for who he is and for what he has done for us in Christ (Greg Gilbert, What is the Gospel?)

4.  Tolle lege (Take up and read):

When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments (The Apostle Paul, 2 Timothy 4:13)

Read, but not to remember everything. Read because that 1% that you remember has to potential to change your life (C.J. Mahaney). 

5.  Train others up in the ministry (whether full-time or lay ministry):

“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority” (Kenneth Blanchard).

“Be careful with whom you spend the bulk of your time.  A leader influences many by investing in a few and letting those few influence the rest. . . . You will want to make sure that these key people are shepherded, developed, equipped, and empowered so that they are excited and believe deeply in the vision.  They in turn will influence others” (Dave Kraft, Leaders Who Last). 

6.  Determine to stay the course and protect your calling.  Remember the promises of God, his steadfast love, and the power of the resurrection!

Sadly, toughness and determination are often lacking in church planters and pastors.  It is staggering to see the number of pastors who end up divorced and the number of seminary graduates who leave the ministry within the first five years.  The average tenure for a pastor at a church is about three years (and less than two years for a youth pastor).  While there are, of course, wonderful exceptions, the sad truth is that pastors do not make it for the long haul (Darrin Patrick, Church Planter). 

Raising and Training Aspiring Preachers in Your Church

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Kevin Larson at The Resurgence wrote a very compelling piece called “Why You Should Raise Up Preachers at Your Church.”  He notes that some church planters (and I would add even pastors of more established churches) fear vacating the pulpit for even a week because they are under the delusion that the church rises and falls on them. 

I found this quote interesting:

Do you feel alone in the struggles of preaching? Let someone else take a stab at it. The old joke that a pastor only works on Sundays won’t garner many laughs as other men take turns wrestling with God and a text and then proclaiming the results to God’s people. Many fear that sharing the pulpit will invite further criticism of their weakness, but generally the opposite occurs. Don’t be so insecure.

While I believe a calling has something to do with fueling preachers to preach 3-4 times each week, I actually have heard this from one of my deacons.  He said, “Bro. Matt, if anyone comes up to me about your preaching, I always tell them two things: (1) He’s preaching the Bible, and (2) would any of us be willing to give it a try.  When you’ve walked in a pastor’s shoes, you then begin to understand His calling.  So pray for him.”  I was so appreciative of that—not because he defended me (I do not feel that need), but because I know his prayers have teeth because he ‘gets’ to a degree what pastors go through.

But back to the original issue.  I had the pleasure of training young expositors as part of my Doctor of Ministry project at Southern.  It was one of the great joys of my life and I’m ready to tackle that again—ready to pour into others regarding preaching and ministry in general.   Not all of these men I trained during my DMin went into the preaching ministry.  In fact, one is now a band director and another is a worship leader (the latter found out through this project that he was not called to preach—but at least he worked through it to see). 

But we must not allow pride and insecurity to be used as leverage to rob others of the joy of ministry.  This has been a slow turn for me, but over the last twelve months, God has released me to see that I need to do more equipping and unleashing.  And it’s starting to take shape with missions, small groups, fellowships, and other areas. 

What think ye?

A Vacuum Tube From Your Study To The Pulpit And Back?

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I am finding a crucial balance between studying the text (which is primary, of course) and studying your people — and not just the people in your congregation but also in your community. This morning, we had the privilege of doing what we call our Athens Neighborhood Blitz. We aimed to put an ESV New Testament, John Piper’s Fifty Reasons Why Christ Had to Die, a church flyer, and a VBS flyer in every home within a mile of our church. With a few exceptions, we succeeded — and in the process got the rush of being obedient to the Great Commission.

Preachers must understand basic hermeneutics, for sure. We must certainly “rightly divid[e] the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). But if you read the Apostle Paul’s letters, his heart beat for his people. He would address a specific issue at the beginning of his epistles, then would give some greetings at the end peppered with particular comments and instructions. Paul made it a priority to know his people as well. I suppose that is why I find myself content at a smaller church of 160-170. I have the opportunity to get to know the people here at Boone’s Creek. With that comes heartaches as well simply because you are more aware of individual issues.

There is a relative safety and comfort for the preacher who only studies His books and commentaries. But no where in the New Testament do we see the ministers cloistered away from the people. No, like Jesus, the apostles went to where the people were — and so must we.

One minister noted that he wished there were a vacuum tube going from his study to the pulpit and back. The implication is there — he wanted this so he wouldn’t have to be disturbed by people.

So the question is: can one be a great preacher but a terrible pastor? Are these two mutually exclusive? What think ye? (I think you already know what I think on the matter.)

Priceless Advice As a Young Pastor

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I came to my church in 2003 at the age of 31 — by far, the youngest pastor they had had since the early 1980s. I had not quite finished my MDiv work at Southern Seminary, but I had already received a Master of Church Music from Palm Beach Atlantic University as well as having been in the ministry since 1992.

On Sunday nights, I am meeting with four other young men who feel a calling into the ministry. During our time together, they asked my advice on a number of things. I began to recall advice I received as a young pastor (and still do). I had received no shortage of advice as I entered my first full-time pastorate. And now that I am in my fifth year as a pastor and in my 17th year of ministry, I have started to accumulate some of that advice for young pastors that I would like to pass on to you (for what it’s worth).

1. Train yourself in personal holiness and godliness.

In 1 Tim. 4:7-8, Paul tells young Timothy: “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” While a lesson here about the personal physical fitness of a pastor would apply, the fullness of personal holiness in the development of character in the pastor must not be missed. If a pastor is to serve as an “overseer” (1 Timothy 3:1) of a church, then the character we oversee in our people must also be found in ourselves (1 Timothy 3:2-7).

Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. [25] Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. [26] So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. [27] But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24-27).

2. Never, ever, ever stop learning once your academic work is completed.

Even when Paul was in jail and facing the end of his life, he urged Timothy: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus and Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13). Paul had an insatiable appetite for study. Why? In 2 Timothy 2:15, we see the reason for the desire: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (ESV). One of Paul’s greatest fears was getting the Word wrong. Yet his love for the Lord and his love for those to whom he preached. He knew life and death hung in the balance. He never stopped learning because he never stopped loving God or his people.

For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel (Ezra 7:10).

3. When taking the pastorate of a church, take into consideration the age and geographic location of the church and institute change accordingly.

I had one church growth leader tell me, “If you want to institute change in a young church, it’s like turning around a Volkswagen in the parking lot. If you want to institute change in a historic (old) church, it’s like turning around a battleship in the Atlantic.” When I told one pastor friend of mine the age of my church (200+ years old), he told me not to institute any change at all the first year. I will need to gain the trust of the people. My friend Mark Combs just quoted something to me from Audrey Malphurs’ book “Being Leaders” that it takes five years in the church for people to begin seeing you as the leader. Wow!

Plus, in considering geographic location, rural areas are different than suburban areas which are different from urban areas, etc. So if you implement a program developed in Chicago in a small town heartland, it will not fit. Get to know your God, know His Word, spend time with the people, and quit trying to make each church a cookie-cutter of another or implement a program that is the equivalent of a broadcast feed to a bigger, more influential church. They called you as pastor. No short-cuts allowed!

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. [9] For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you [10] always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. [11] For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— [12] that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. [13] I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. [14] I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. [15] So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome (Romans 1:8-15, ESV).

4. Your ministry must never be divorced from the people. ‘Nuff said. After all, it is a ministry … to actual people … under the calling of the living God through Christ.

5. Never enter a pastorate looking ahead to the “next gig.” You risk missing the blessing of your current ministry and deprive the people of your full attention.

Some pastors see small churches like the minor leagues. They groom and hone their talents so they can “move up” to bigger and better. They risk wanting to be influential nationally or globally rather than locally among their own community. The issue has become so problematic that smaller churches now expect young pastors who have certain gifts to move on. “Oh, we’ll never be able to keep him here,” they say.

But isn’t that what our smaller churches need: stable leadership and those who love God, love the Word, love their people? When Paul wrote the Philippian church, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3-5, ESV) or when we writes the Colossian church, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (Colossians 1:3-5a, ESV) — we see how thankful Paul is for the people that God entrusted to his care.

We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, [3] remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thes. 1:2-3, ESV).

6. Craft your preaching around the themes of the Word of God first, not the felt needs of your people.

We know that God has given us His revelation. But when people come in to church with “felt needs,” we have to understand that our feelings are tinged with the Fall and that the Word of God will always penetrate and go deeper. The high risk of topical preaching is that the preacher begins with a person’s felt need, then looks to Scriptures to deal with surface issues. Yet, the high risk of expositional preaching is that we believe we can completely remove ourselves from our people and can preach to them without the establishment of any relationship. But I will say this, I would recommend expositional preaching coupled with embracing your people. This balance shows that, again, you love the Word and take it on God’s terms, but you also love your people. That way, when hard texts are preached, they know it is coming from someone who loves them where they are — but is also on a journey with them to help them be all they should be in Christ.

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. [2] For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. [3] And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, [4] and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, [5] that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

Young pastors, please keep in mind that you must remain diligent and invest yourself in the work that God has for you. Don’t try to keep up with the Jones, but follow His Spirit. Don’t try to look first at the latest church growth plan — God’s already given us a sufficient plan found in the Scriptures.

Should Preachers Read Outside Their Worldview?

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The average preacher in America finds himself short on time.  While I do appreciate the counsel of other preachers such as Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney, Mark Driscoll, and others like them who recommend preparing 15-20 hours per sermon, I simply do not have that luxury.  I not only pastor a church of around 170-180 in attendance, I teach a Senior Bible Class at Blue Grass Baptist School, I am a doctoral student at Southern Seminary, and have a wife and four children.  My only other staff person at my church is my minister of music and youth.

I introduce this post this way to show that many preachers (especially those of us in small or smallish churches) are pressed for time.  So the question is, do we have time to read not only things unrelated to our sermon preparation, but also things unrelated to our particular worldview?  Call it a comfort zone, but the majority of us neglect or even resent reading anything other than what reinforces what we already believe.  I find myself guilty of that as well.  I avoid them because on occasion they make me upset due to their heretical teachings or misspeaks, but mainly the issue is time.

This past weekend, I forced myself to read a bit of Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven (click here to read some of my thoughts on this book) and Joyce Meyer’s Be Anxious for Nothing.  I would not read books by these authors normally for various reasons.  So why read them?

Because many folks in my congregation read them.  First Peter 5:1-5 says:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed:  [2] shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;  [3] not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.  [4] And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.  [5] Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

I mentioned in an earlier post that “Preachers should be the most well-read individuals on the planet.”   I am becoming more and more convinced of this.  Paul asks young Timothy, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13, ESV).  Even with the number of situations in which Paul found himself, he still understood the necessity of a pastor branching out his reading to various areas.

The newly minted Sovereign Grace Leadership Interview Series podcast debuts with this very subject.  What Mahaney recommends is taking two or three days for reading and refreshment.  This is a priceless idea.

But what should a pastor with limited time read?  Anything to prioritize?  Stay tuned to this blog.  But even so, I would love some feedback on what all of you would recommend.