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. 

Investing in and Taking Inventory of our Sanctification

We invest in what we love. Take a quick second to think about that statement. It’s true isn’t it? If you love your job, you invest your energy and effort into doing excellent work. If you love the thought of retirement, at some point, you invest in a financial portfolio. If you love being healthy, you invest your energy and effort into eating right and working out. If you love your wife and children, you find the time to invest in them.

Peter, in his second epistle, expresses that those who know Jesus—those who have been saved and redeemed by King Jesus; those that know Him and have been given everything they need to live a godly life—are to “make every effort” to invest (to supplement) in growing in their faith. In other words, Peter, after having explained that God has done all the heavy lifting to give us what we need for living a godly life, turns to explain how believers are to be active in their sanctification—the process by which God molds and conforms His people into the image of Jesus.

Without going into detail on the specific areas (which you can do by listening to a recent message of mine) Peter mentions, I want to spend just a few moments addressing four principles of investing in our sanctification.

First, our investment is PERSONAL. Investing in sanctification is something we “get” to do rather than something we “have” to do. Or, put another way: it is something we should “want” to do rather than “have” to do. Growing in our faith and relationship with Christ is personal. Because of His unwavering and unconditional love for us, and our growing love for Him, growth in that relationship should be seen as a privilege and honor, not some burden.

If you see following Jesus as more of a burden than blessing, it may be that your view of following Him is more mechanical, ritualistic, and religious rather than personal and relational.

Second, our investment is INTENTIONAL. Investment, regardless of what area of life it’s in, is intentional. Someone investing their time coaching a little league team is intentional. Someone investing their money in a money-market or 401K is intentional. A husband investing time in planning date nights with his wife is intentional. The same is true with regard to sanctification. We have to be intentional.

Being intentional requires planned and deliberate action to exert energy and effort into cultivating our relationship with Christ.

If someone wants to lose weight and they go out and buy a treadmill but never intentionally use it, they won’t lose weight. In a similar manner, if someone follows Christ but never spends any time with Him (reading, praying, and seeking Him) or His people (gathering corporately, meeting with other believers), then that person hasn’t been intentional and therefore is unlikely to grow.

Third, our investment is GRADUAL. Just as it takes time for a financial portfolio to increase and grow, it takes time for us to grow in Christlikeness. We don’t go from zero to hero overnight. That’s why we refer to sanctification as a process! As we personally and intentionally invest, we see gradual growth. Here’s a sobering truth that hopefully makes you and me take a deep breath: YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BE PERFECT! You are going to fail; you are going to drop the ball. You are going to miss the mark. But, in the process of sanctification, understand that you fail forward—knowing that every step (and misstep) along the way God is molding you and shaping you into the image of Jesus. In other words, He is working all things out together for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28). Sure there will be days you echo the Apostle Paul, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

In the gradual process of becoming like Christ, it’s important to remember that there is NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1), and that the same grace that saved you is the same grace that sustains and sanctifies you!

Fourth, our investment is SYNCHRONIC. Although Peter’s list seems sequential—add to virtue, knowledge, and to knowledge, self-control, etc.—it’s more synchronic. It’s synchronic because the Christian life isn’t about a checklist. For instance, it’s not like I master virtue and then move on to knowledge. The characteristics and qualities that Peter lists are all areas in which we are to grow simultaneously and synchronically. They are all interconnected. However, the last characteristic that Peter lists is love. And, like I alluded to earlier, it is love that drives all the others. It is Christ’s love for us, and our [growing] love for Christ that compels us to grow in virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, and brotherly affection.

So, how’s your investment? Are you investing in your sanctification? Are you working out your salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12)? Don’t misunderstand, I didn’t ask you if you’re working FOR your salvation? But, are you working out, working in LIGHT of your salvation. Are you taking the life that has been imparted and imputed to you and cultivating it through the practice of spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, silence and solitude, corporate worship, accountability, etc.?

In conclusion, to help take spiritual inventory on how your investment in sanctification is going, here’s a list of ten questions I borrowed and adapted from Donald Whitney’s, Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health. As you read through them, be honest with where you think you are.

1. Do you thirst for God?

Always                  Often                           Seldom                        Never

2. Do you strive to govern your life according to God’s word?

Always                  Often                           Seldom                        Never

3. Are you sensitive to what God may be doing in and around you? In other words, are you contemplative or reactive to what happens to you or around you? Do you immediately start complaining when things don’t go your way, or do you pause and ask God what are you doing? What do you want me to do? What are you teaching me?

Always                  Often                           Seldom                        Never

4. Are you a loving person?

Always                  Often                           Seldom                        Never

5. Do you have a growing concern for the spiritual, temporal, and physical needs of others?

Always                  Often                           Seldom                        Never

6. Do you delight in, and are you devoted to, the bride of Christ?

Always                  Often                           Seldom                        Never

7. When is the last time you exercised in the following spiritual disciplines?

  • Prayer
  • Bible Reading
  • Corporate Worship
  • Evangelism (Had a gospel conversation with someone)
  • Served others
  • Stewardship (giving)
  • Fasted (you went without food or device in order to seek God’s direction and will)                                                            
  • Do you express a godly sorrow over your sin

8. Do you express a godly sorrow over your sin?

                            Always                  Often                           Seldom                         Never

9. Are you a person who holds grudges or extends grace? 

Always                  Often                           Seldom                        Never

10. Do you strive to live here on earth as if you were living there in heaven?

Always                  Often                           Seldom                        Never