Pastors, Church Leaders, and Churches: A Work in Progress…

Earlier this year, my family moved to Wheaton, IL. As we familiarized ourselves with the town it became apparent that their roads are a work in progress. Throughout the town, road construction was being done. We’ve said multiple times over the last month or so, “We’ll be glad when they get done!” As you know, sometimes road work can be an inconvenience. If it lingers long enough, it becomes downright annoying. 

When it comes to the life of a believer, we too are a work in progress. The Apostle Paul pens this idea when he writes, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6 ESV). So, our whole lives are lived “Under Construction.” 

As one who is a work in progress, I can attest to how many times I feel that my “work in progress” (or lack thereof) is inconvenient, tiring, irritating, and annoying. Honestly, I just want to be complete; I just want to be whole. 

As a pastor, I’ve had to face the reality that both the congregation and me are a work in progress—under construction. As a result, ministry can be met with struggle, heartache, loss, affliction, disappointment, difficulty, opposition, and suffering. Such can lead to cynicism, fatigue, burnout, and depression. In addition, it can have negative effects on our mental health, personal health, marriage, relationships, and overall view of ministry. 

Anyone who has ever been in ministry knows it is tough, difficult, and weighty. Things don’t go according to plan. What you thought was…isn’t. You thought you would be further along than you are. Some of the people that were with you in the beginning, aren’t with you anymore. You’re criticized and under constant microscopic scrutiny. Money is scarce. Maybe you’re seeking a new season of ministry and you feel as though no one is looking at you and giving you a second look. And there are times when you are left wondering if it (ministry), if you (the minister), are even good.

So, what do we do when we find ourselves struggling with our state of being a work in progress? 

Remember it isn’t your work but God’s. 

I’m a fixer. If I see a problem or someone tells me their problem, I want to fix it—unless it is house related, and then I call a handyman. When it comes to problems in our personal life or in our church, pastors tend to be fixers. If we have problems, we tend to go at solving them alone. It may be a frustration we are having, a person who is causing us issues, an addictive pattern we can’t seem to break, a feeling of depression, or a struggle we are having in our marriage. And rather than truly consulting God, and inquiring to Him, about how He would have us handle it, we try and tackle it on our own. In short, we put all the pressure on ourselves to solve the issue.

If we see ourselves as the foreman of the work, we will become vulnerable to the weight of ministry. When that happens, the jar of clay (the minister) will be crushed by the weight of the ministry. Pastor, church leader, we must hand our lives and our ministries back to the ONE who put them under construction in the first place. 

According to Paul, the one who put the sign up on our lives, “A Work in Progress,” or “Under Construction,” wasn’t us, but God. Paul notes, “…he who began a good work…” (Phil 1:6). Therefore, it would only stand to reason that the ONE who began the work would continue the work. 

Remember that God has a perfect track record of bringing His work to glorious completion.

I recently started coaching my eldest son’s basketball team, which reignited my affinity for basketball. It reminded me of when I was really into basketball—during the Michael Jordan era. I remember watching the Bulls growing up and seeing Michael Jordan hit game-winning shots, like the one against the Cleveland Cavilers in 1989. But did you know that Michael Jordan was only 50% on game-winning shots? In short, the greatest basketball player to ever play the game (arguably) didn’t have a perfect track record. 

I know as pastors we want the ball; we want the control. Control is a descriptive of fixers. However, our track record—if we were honest—is like Michael Jordan’s, imperfect. Just like failing to hit a game-winning shot, many cases of frustration, fatigue, burnout, and even (some cases of) depression are brought about by failing to see the desired outcomes. 

However, God’s track record for starting and completing a work is perfect. What He starts, He finishes. What He promises, He fulfills. Just think about Genesis 1. Could you imagine being alongside God during the creation project without knowing the specificity of His plan? As you stood beside Him you may not fully understand what God is doing, what He is building, but what He is doing is methodically and intentionally working to bring and shape something very good into existence.

We may not be in control, nor fully understand what God is doing.

We can trust that God—since the beginning—has a perfect track record of working something to glorious completion.

As one of the contemporary praise songs suggests, “He has never failed us, and He won’t start now.” 

Remember the process is anchored in the person of Jesus Christ.

I was recently on a panel at a conference where the question was asked, “What keeps you in ministry?” A few years back, I probably would have said, “Because I was called.” However, in my almost 20 years in ministry, I’ve experienced both mountaintops and deep dark valleys. Truthfully, the deep dark valleys have taken their toll on me, humanly speaking. 

But when I answer that question now, I quote Philippians 3:10 where Paul expresses, “that I may know him (Jesus) and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death….” 

I believe in the call as pastors. However, the call to ministry is answering the call to suffer. Again, this isn’t to take away that the call to ministry is one of joy and experiencing the power of God to move mountains.

However, if you really summarize ministry in the vein of Jesus, it is a call to suffer. Yet, in His suffering there is both life and glory.

In closing, pastor, church leader, your life and ministry are under construction. Both are a work of progress under the foreman of Jesus Christ, worked daily by the Spirit of God. There are certainly times where living in this “work in progress” can bring frustration, fatigue, burnout, depression, and mental illness. But in your struggle, remember the works not your, it’s His, He is good with a perfect track record, and that your life is rooted and anchored in the life and love of King Jesus. 

Maranatha and Mission: Hearing the Gentle Whisper to Stay on Mission

This article originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. You can find it here.

Over the course of the last year, I have been training for triathlons. When I have a long training session or I’m in a race, there are two moments where I feel like giving up. First, I think about quitting when I experience a shortness of breath due to the physical activity. Second, there are times I want to throw in the towel when I feel the physical pain in my legs, calves, and shins.

In those moments, when my mind and body are telling me to stop, I hear this faint whisper: “Keep going; just put one foot in front of the other; you got this.” In other words, this faint whisper—in the sea of physical pain and emotional stress—exhorts me to stay on mission.

Maranatha moments, for me, are filled with the physical pain and emotional stress of life. All I want to do is cry out to Jesus…please come! And while he is more than likely not going to come back physically at that moment to make all things new and to right every wrong, I do believe he answers that cry and prayer in another way. He sends the Spirit to fill us as he lovingly whispers, “I’m here with you, I will never leave you nor forsake you; stay focused and stay on mission.”

It is the Spirit of God that brings comfort and peace in Maranatha moments. Not only does he bring peace and comfort, but he reminds, refocuses, and refreshes us to stay on mission.

What I’ve found in my own life, and what I suggest to you, is that Maranatha moments can serve as a catalyst for mission.

Here’s how.

First, Maranatha moments remind us that this world is not our home; we are sojourners between this broken and dark world and a world fully mended by the blood of Jesus and effusively lit by the glory of our King.

As John writes towards the very end of Revelation,

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more, grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Then the one seated on the throne said, Look, I am making everything new. (John 21:4–5)

While Maranatha moments might give us pause in this world, they do not paralyze us from courageously and boldly moving forward towards the next in the power of the Spirit.

Second, Maranatha moments refocus us, as believers, on the primary mission to share and show the good news of Jesus.

It seems that much of Christianity today—particularly in the West, and specifically in North America—revolves around squabbles of secondary and tertiary importance. My observation in contemporary evangelicalism is that we occupy our time by vehemently debating matters such as the role of the church in American politics and the role of the church in culture.

While these issues are important—and there is a time and place to have such discussions—the time, energy, and sometimes visceral, prideful, and declarative tone eclipse the primary issue of making Jesus known. It comes across as if we are trying to make our stance known.

Some believers reason that the role of the church in American politics is more critical and crucial than ever. Believing such, Christians will exert their energy calling out the other side in militaristic language. They’ll go after brothers and sisters who are on different sides of political policies. [Note that I said policies, not doctrine. For while one may hold a particular doctrine, that doesn’t mean he or she will necessarily hold to the same policy.] Some will even opine that a fight for conservatism is a fight for Christianity in America.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t engage in the political realm; what I am saying is that Maranatha moments should refocus us to engage in our primary calling of making Jesus known through both word and deed. As we beg and cry out for Jesus to come, we are reminded that it isn’t about an elephant or a donkey, but the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

Another issue that tends to eclipse the primary call of mission is engagement with and in culture. This is close to the previous point, but still unique by itself.

Here’s the million-dollar question: How are we called as Christians to engage a pluralistic, pagan land—even one that was founded in part by Judeo-Christian principles?

In reality, it’s only been in recent times where the church in America has had to wrestle with answering it. And because many Christians—both in leadership and followership—have not seriously wrestled with the theological and missiological understanding and application with such a question, we find ourselves reacting to the cultural typhoon we call secularism, pluralism, and rugged individualism.

As a result, we may find ourselves sounding like a clanging gong, expressing our position and point without doing so in love or humility.

Maranatha moments re-attune our hearts on the primary mission of making Jesus known instead of on transforming the world into our preference. We are reminded when we pray “Come, Lord Jesus” that he is bringing a new city adorned as a bride prepared for her husband.

Therefore, we don’t have the primary call and pressure of transforming this world. We can work, serve, and love the culture faithfully as we faithfully share and show Jesus’ love.

We can partner, in a spirit of common grace, with the culture working towards its flourishing. We can commit ourselves to a local faith community that seeks to embody and enact the coming Kingdom of God in our midst—thereby serving as a preview of the new city to come.

Third, Maranatha moments refresh our lives to give us the breath to breathe into others.

Maranatha moments arise when we are spent, exhausted, hurt, or in pain. Maranatha moments come when we are depleted and feel hopeless and helpless. The weight of life has become too much. However, while we are vociferously crying out “Maranatha!” because the struggle of life is too real, the Spirit is gently reminding us about mission because the need of the world is too great.

Here’s what we all know: Everyone has Maranatha moments. That doesn’t mean everyone is crying out for Jesus to come. Those who don’t know Jesus may be crying out for relief. They may be crying out, “Enough! Make it stop.”

They may be yelling curses to God. Maybe they are dealing with loss.

Maybe they are battling depression. Maybe they are struggling with an illness. Maybe they are in a crisis of identity.

Whatever it may be, our Maranatha moments can be leveraged to refresh our lives so that we can be aware of the needs around us that we might breath gospel life into their weary souls.

In closing, this is the tension we believers live with on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis. We are pelted constantly with the darkness and horrors of life in a fallen world. Such onslaughts leave us wailing, demanding, and even beating our chests, calling on Jesus to come quickly.

But on the other hand—amidst the train horn of brokenness, rawness, and vulnerability, Jesus sends his Spirit who speaks with a a still small voice, whispering, “Stay on mission.” Don’t lose sight of your planted purpose on planet earth—to demonstrate good news living and to declare the good news life.

As Peter quipped, “The Lord…is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Therefore, while we wait, we work. While we somberly mourn, we stay on mission.

Mother’s Day: Hurt, Hover, Honor

Mother’s Day seems to be a roller coaster or a basketball holiday—where some people are emotionally up while others are down.

For many, it’s a day reminding them of great loss, including mothers that have lost children. For others, it’s a day reminding them of their misfortune of having a deadbeat mom; or conjuring up the pain of being estranged from their mom. And still there are others who are reminded of the complications that prevent them from biologically experiencing the joy of motherhood.

Such emotional lows remind us that we live in a fallen broken world that has been damaged by sin. As a result, a day that is meant for joy and honor, because of sin, is wrought with hurt, pain, suffering, frustration, and loss. The reality is that there’s nothing that I can write or express that will take away the hurt, the pain, or the sorrow that you may feel. But what I can do is point to the all sufficient grace of God, and say that wherever you are, whatever the situation, and whatever the pain, God will meet you there, love you there, and be ever present with you giving you grace, peace, and comfort as you live in the here and now.

I love what Paul says in Romans 8, which has helped me through times of pain, suffering, and loss, “And we know that for those that love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). Christianity is the only faith that teaches that God is able to bring about good—to work good—in our life even in the midst of hurt and heartache. In addition, I love what John Piper asserts regarding God’s work amidst our pain, hurt, suffering, and loss. He exclaims that God is working a peculiar glory. Just as God brought good to the world (not to mention was glorified) through the suffering and death of His Son, so too can God work mightily through your pain and suffering to bring about good, not only in your life but in the lives of those God has placed around you.

While there are certainly those who find Mother’s Day difficult, there are those who see Mother’s Day as a blessing whereby they can celebrate and honor their mothers.

In the second verse of Scripture, Genesis 1:2, we read, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” The imagery of the Spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters is like a mother bird hovering over her eggs to awaken them and bring them to life. While Genesis 1:2 has nothing to do with mothers, it certainly uses imagery befitting of mothers. Aren’t mothers the ones who hover over their children in protection, provision, and presence, in an effort to allow them to grow to maturity and flourish in the world?

Isn’t this the type of portrait the author of Proverbs 31 paints? Read the following verses from Proverbs 31:

  • “She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens.” Proverbs 31:14-15
  • “She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet.” Proverbs 31:21
  • “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” Proverbs 31: 25-26
  • “She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.” Proverbs 31:27-28

The mother whose children rises and calls her blessed is a mother who “hovered” over her children—who cared for, provided for, protected, counseled, and played with her children.

Such actions of motherhood serve to bring life, maturity, and flourishing to their children.

I know that I can say today—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that God has greatly used the “hovering” of my mother to bring me to the place I am today. Her care, wisdom, love, support, protection, provision, and presence has been a chisel used by a sovereign God to craft me into the man, husband, father, and pastor I am today. For me I have no reservation about rising up today and calling my mom blessed! She is a rare and priceless jewel that has brought great value to and in my life!

Happy Mother’s Day to My Mom

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Just as God has greatly used my mom to shape me, I know that He is also using my wife to shape our children into the people He intends for them to become. The way she loves, cares for, provides, dwells, plays, and supports our children are second to none. I know that our children have a mother for the ages because I see the heart, passion, intensity, wisdom, and maturity with which she mothers. She definitely “hovers” in a way that enhances their lives and provides opportunities for them to flourish in this world. My children simply are better children as a result of their mother!

Happy Mother’s Day to My Lovely Wife

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I also would be remiss if I didn’t recognize two other amazing women who have served me (and my children) in a motherly capacity: my grandmother and my mother-in-law.

My grandmother is one of the most amazing women in the entire world. When I think of my grandma, Mother Teresa comes to mind. I don’t know if there is ever a time in her life where she is not giving. I think she wakes up every morning thinking about someone she can give something to. Over the last 33 years of my life I have greatly benefited from the generosity of my grandmother—whether it was the cinnamon toast and oatmeal she made me when I was sick or the financial and emotional support she (and my granddad) gave me while going through college and seminary.

My mother-in-law I think created a new cereal that she eats every morning called, Jesus Flakes, since she lives every second with the posture that Jesus is Grrrrrreat! (I know that was kind of cheesy J). Nevertheless, I’m grateful for her passion for Jesus. It’s a passion that not only has challenged me and my walk, but has greatly influenced my wife for God’s glory and her family’s good.

Happy Mother’s Day to My Grandmother

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Happy Mother’s Day to My Mother-in-Law

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In short, three words came to my mind this Mother’s Day: hurt, hover, and honor. Thus, today I pray for those whose hearts hurt, and pray that God’s grace will be sufficient and that He will comfort them with the peace that surpasses all understanding. Today, I praise God for the way my mom “hovered” over me and the way my wife “hovers” over our children. And today, I honor my mom, my wife, my grandma, and my mother-in-law and rise up and call them blessed for they have been a treasured blessing to not only me, but also to Caleb, Ellie, and Luke.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers! You are greatly loved and cherished, and today we honor you!