He sat in my office exhausted and discouraged. No, he wasn't about to abandon the ministry to which he'd been called. In many ways he lived with a deep sense of privilege. He’d been chosen and gifted to be a minister of the gospel, but he was tired, and his work had taken a toll on his family. He was able to admit that he said yes too much, sought to establish personal control over too many things, and worked way too much. He’d thought that his deep dedication and unending schedule were the result of the motivation and loyalty of faith, but in the midst of his exhaustion and his family's protest, he began to wonder. Could it be that this life of frenetic energy and constant ministry focus was driven by something else?
His wife told him again and again that he needed to be around more for their four children. She told him that even when he was home, he often wasn't "there." And in his quiet, self-reflective moments he had to admit that his heart wasn't at rest. Little did my pastor friend know that he was not alone. His story is the story of many pastors.
Could it be that one of the dark secrets of pastoral ministry is that a whole lot of what we do is driven by worry and not by faith?
Could it be that at the functional level much of ministry is shaped by a long catalog of "what ifs"?
Could it be that this causes us to load the health of the church onto our shoulders?
Could it be that too much of our ministry is shaped by subtle pastoral self-sovereignty?
Could it be that in pastoral ministry the sin of unbelief is often recast as commitment, discipline, dedication, or a willingness to suffer?
Is it not possible in pastoral ministry for unbelief to be perceived as maturity?
Worry is the Problem
Permit me to use Matthew 6:19-33 as a lens for understanding how in pastoral ministry worry becomes the problem and how the gospel is the solution. It’s important to note that as Jesus exegetes the kingdom of self in Matthew 6:19-31, one of his major topics is what I would call anxiety-bound needs. It all starts with us doing something we don't do very well: deciding what we need. We all tend to load into our need category things that may be important but are not actually needs (if need is something that is essential for life). Then we work to secure all the things we’ve become convinced we need. This way of approaching life and ministry always ends in that range from low-grade anxiety to paralyzing fear.
Think of everything you can worry about in ministry. There’s always that lurking fear of failure, the fear of what to do with the problem people that populate every church, the fear that perhaps you're not really gifted to do what you've agreed to do, the fear of conflict, the fear of the lack of people and financial resources, the fear of not being respected and appreciated, the fear of the unexpected, and the fear that at some point you won't be wanted or needed anymore. So to make sure your fears aren't realized, you say yes too much, you try to control too many things, and you work too hard.
What Jesus says next maybe hard to accept, but it is vital to hear. He essentially says that the reason our lives are driven and shaped by fear and not faith is that we have forgotten the gospel. Christ lays down three gospel arguments for us to consider.
1. The Gospel of creation
First, Jesus points to the surrounding creation (the lilies and the birds) and says that there’s ample visible evidence every day that God won’t abandon the work of his hands. If he cares for the flowers and the birds, will he not care for those he made in his own image? So the gospel of creation preaches rest to the pastor. Would God gift a man then abandon him? Who could be more committed to the welfare of the church then the One who established it? The welfare of the church is not the pastor's job—it is the Lord's promise. The pastor's job is simply to use his God-given gifts in public and private gospel ministry.
2. The Gospel of relationship
Jesus then reminds his listeners that they’ve a Father who knows their needs and is at work meeting them. This means, first, that it’s God's job (if I can use that language) to define our needs. No one knows better what we need than our Creator, Savior, Father. Second, it’s God's covenantal family commitment to meet each of those needs. Once your ministry is driven by your attempts to meet your needs, you’re ministering for you and not for others. Others-centered ministry is always propelled by a quiet rest in the Father's love and care. This also calls us to trust the Father's wisdom and timing. If he is meeting our needs, then we must conclude that if we don't have it right now it’s because our Father knows that we don't need (in the true sense of the word) it right now.
3. The diagnosis of "little faith"
So, what is the problem? Gospel-amnesia. When you forget who you are, you quit resting in the Father's provision, you start relying on your own wisdom, and you try to do God's job. All this results in functional ministry anxiety and a catalog of bad personal and ministry choices. Jesus' diagnosis is quite stinging. He says that the problem is that no matter what we say we believe, there are moments when we essentially live like pagans. We live (even in ministry) as if there’s no God, let alone a God who’s adopted us into his family and showers us moment by moment with his forgiving, empowering, and transforming grace. Because he’s my Father, it’s impossible for me to ever be alone in ministry, to ever be left to my own resources.
Seeking God's kingdom in ministry means many things, but it surely means remembering his fatherly presence, relying on his fatherly care, resting in his fatherly wisdom, and trusting in his fatherly grace. Then we can say no when it’s the appropriate response of faith, we don't attempt to control what’s already under the Father's wise control, and we aren't tempted to do more than we’re able to do.
Pastor, preach this gospel to yourself today for your sake, for the sake of your family, for the sake of those to whom you minister, and for the sake of the Father's glory.