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I’d give it all for one good friend.”
– Howard Hughes when asked about his wealth of 4 billion dollars

At a pastors’ retreat this summer I had lunch with one of my church planter friends who wanted some counsel. Throughout the conversation he admitted to struggling personally, emotionally, and ministerially. I really felt for him because I was walking through a fairly tough year myself. Indeed, it was the reason he wanted to chat specifically with me. Early in the course of our conversation I asked, “Do you have any friends there?” Almost immediately he soberly replied, “No. I don’t have any friends here. I’m incredibly lonely.” He knew exactly what I was asking. He knew I wasn’t referring to amiable people in his neighborhood or even welcoming members of his church. He knew I asked if he had solid, deep, transparent friends around him that he could confide in, trust, and lean upon. The reason I asked about his close friendships isn’t because the lack of them was the cause of his struggles but because good friends greatly blunt the great struggles many pastors experience in ministry.

Friendships are God’s way of giving us emotional safety nets. They are really gifts of grace to us by Jesus. Proverbs 18:24 tells us, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” and Proverbs 27:17 reads, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” It’s pretty clear that we can have friends – I mean really close friends who are as close as family – friends who make us better, friends who sharpen us. I call these kinds of friends someone’s Core relationships . They are the inner circle of relationships surrounded by the outer circles of Friends then Acquaintances. The Core are those who know your soul, your secrets, your struggles. You trust they would do anything for you. These are the people you’d give your kids if something happened to you. They’re like family, “closer than a brother.”

But they are hard to come by, especially if you are a pastor. Add on, for many, the already lonely venture of planting a church and you’ve got the recipe for some serious relational challenges. While it’s hard not to sound self-serving about this, the truth is that no one knows what it’s like to sit in your seat. To feel the weight of responsibility, the unceasing pressure of the task, the demands of being “on” as pastor 24 hrs/day, and a thousand other things that come with the role.

Consequently, the temptation is to run to isolation and hide ourselves away emotionally. We put on masks affixed with smiles and utter pleasant words which lead people to think we never struggle in ministry. The idea is that our lack of transparency in the present will save us greater grief in the future. We don’t want our congregants to think wrongly of us, that we’re incompetent to the task of pastoring when the truth is pastoring is incredibly taxing on us in more ways that we can innumerate. But the illusion of isolation is you think you’re protecting yourself when, in reality, you’re making yourself more vulnerable to the enemy’s attack. The hole only gets deeper, the loneliness redoubles, and our hearts shrink inwardly from all the things we love. Even worse, some turn to medicating their situations with things like food, drink, or even porn. This is the true product of isolation.

Brave pastors are intentional at cultivating friendships.

Brave pastors find men who can understand them, meet them where they are, and schedule time with them. Often they are other guys in ministry who know the unique challenges that pastoring a church brings. (This goes true for their wives as well). In other words, they “get it” because you share the same iron of pastoring. Having these kind of Core friendships are ways we come up for air when we’ve been swimming in the depths of ministry. They help release tension by talking over coffee, spending time in prayer together, or simply having a good time with them in someplace fun. These are the guys who know your junk, your hangups, your failures and still love you. They can encourage you but also call you out when needed.

Brave pastors intentionally cultivate friendships in order to fight the temptation of isolation. I’ve tried to it. It’s saved me more times than I’d like to admit. How isolated are you? Who knows your junk? Don’t commit the sin of poor stewardship for not developing a Core. Your health, your family, and your ministry depend on it. Leverage the grace of friendships so that you might pastor for the long haul. That’s what brave pastors do.

 

 

I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself – and to all who will notice – that I am important.
– Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

There is no question leading or planting a church is to embrace a whirlwind of people, events, and countless other things demanding your time. It’s inevitable. In my own world, especially in the early years, my week was full of counseling congregants, meetings with ministry teams, lunch dates with members, setting up chairs in the school where we were meeting, not to mention finding time for sermon prep.

Busyness not only was a given but I started to make it my normal, and not just externally but internally as well. I thought a sign of health and growth as a pastor was to live life going a 1,000 miles an hour. I believed it communicated I was on the right track, making progress, and honoring God with every second.

What I didn’t realize is that if pastors aren’t careful, doing the work of Jesus in the church can kill the work of Jesus in them. When life is a blur of activity with little to no reflection and quiet with Christ the soul withers. We  start listening to every voice but the One which ultimately matters. Leadership and ministry books are read by the dozens while the Scriptures are only opened for preparing messages. We begin to talk a lot about God to others but seldom make time for him to talk to us. I know I’ve been guilty of living this way.

There is a reason why God says in Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” The context finds Israel in the midst of perilous times, experiencing conflict from the nations around them. Surely it was a hurried, anxious, frenetic season. Yet, in the midst of all this craziness, God calls his people to slow down, stop striving, be still, and reflect on the truth of who he is!

I’m reminded of the words in 1 Kings 19:11-12 describing the prophet Elijah’s interaction with the God of the Universe:

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.

What is true is for Elijah often is true for us: God speaks not in the roar but the whisper. And if we think a hurried, anxious, frenetic life in ministry is healthy, we’ve likely succumbed to the temptation of busyness. It only appears we’re getting things done while our interior life greatly suffers. As Eugene Peterson notes, busyness gives the appearance of significance. Frankly, a bursting-at-the-seams calendar may indicate poor stewardship of our friends, our family, and even our faith. Always being busy strands us in the desert waste where God’s voice is hard to hear.

That’s why brave pastors fight the temptation of busyness by embracing slowness.

Jesus did. After a long day of ministry Jesus grabbed his disciples and told them in Mk. 6:31, “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.” Jesus knew the value of taking a detour and finding a quiet place in the middle of the hubbub of ministry. He and his disciples were running around doing all kinds of great things for the kingdom and Jesus said, “Let’s get out of here!” He didn’t do this for his followers but himself as well. Luke 5:16 says, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Mark 1:35 adds another snapshot of Christ, saying, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” If slowing down was good for the King of Glory then surely it must be good for those who follow that king.

Be brave and decide to fight the temptation of busyness. Find a distraction-free zone where you can get alone and quiet on a regular basis. Cut down your time on media and open your Bible a bit more. Periodically not only take time off but time away as well. Pastors need places to go and rhythms to embrace where they can move from the voices to the Voice, from the thousand words to the one Word.

Brave pastors embrace slowness.

I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine at seminary. We were in class sitting on the back row. He was reading a book on church growth that was full of tips and tricks on how to market the local church more like a store full of products for people to consume than a place where God’s people rallied to be on mission. In fact, I remember one time he disparaged a well-known Bible teacher for being too Bible-oriented and not savvy enough for the world.

Now, several decades later, he is a slave to pragmatism. His sermons are pep talks with very little Jesus, the Bible presented primarily as a self-help book, and the church’s ministries reaffirm the consumeristic mindset of the people. Added to this is a cult of personality where his face is seen everywhere as if he, not Jesus, is the main attraction. It appears the church is here for him, not the other way around.

Yet if you looked at his church you would see a fast-growing congregation which might be the envy of many a pastor. The notoriety, the book deals, the conference speaking, and other things that often accompany pastors who lead churches of this ilk can be incredibly seductive to the church planter who is still grinding away at trying to shepherd a small, fledgling congregation in the obscurity of a school cafetorium.

But we would be wise as leaders to remember that what works doesn’t always mean what’s good.

It’s not hard to grow a church if you don’t care if it’s biblical or not. One can put on enough attractions that the circus-like atmosphere will draw a crowd. You could also preach a message which feeds people’s narcissism or greed or consumerism in a way that puts people in the seats. Honestly, pragmatism is a very effective tool for creating growth.

But while pragmatism might grow a church numerically, it will definitely stunt the church spiritually. People who attend are given a twisted view of the faith. God is a means to an end. Faith is like a product you grab in the grocery aisle. Something you take thinking you can use it and if it doesn’t work you can pass it by the next time. The Bible is about us and making “our destiny happen” instead of being the story of God and the redemption he offers Jesus. Yes, leading this way can draw a crowd, it just won’t grow a church.

That’s why a brave pastor remains steadfastly committed to the Word of God not only to tell him the who of ministry but the what and how of ministry as well. Everything about the church (and the leaders within it) should be tethered to the biblical prescriptions of what the church should be about – in ministry, in message, and yes, in method. Why? Because we want to do the Lord’s work the Lord’s way. Is there really any other option?

Pragmatism promises quick results but we must remember if the Lord isn’t in those results, they aren’t real results at all. Who grows the church? We don’t. Acts 2:46-47 reads:

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

God causes real growth. He always has. He always will. Thus it’s no surprise Paul addresses the effectiveness of ministry saying in 1 Corinthians 3:7, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

If pastors want to be pragmatic, may we pragmatic about our local churches never becoming un-anchored from the Scripture! Let’s continually ask ourselves if what we’re doing is biblical:

  • Do we have a biblical leadership structure OR do we do what’s easiest for us?
  • Do we have biblically qualified leaders OR do we just look for talented people?
  • Are we preaching a biblical message OR is it just what people want to hear?
  • Do our methods demonstrate or belie confidence in the power of the gospel?

If we don’t affix the how and what of ministry to the Word of God those things can easily drift toward pragmatism. And if we see quick results because of that drift we’ll be tempted to stay away from the harder work of letting the Bible tutor how we do ministry. The fast growth that may result gives the illusion the ministry is sound when, in truth, it’s greatly off-course. Brave pastors understand that remaining biblical might cost them – numbers, accolades, and running with the “big boys.” But what they won’t be short of is the power of God for real change and the glad conscience of leading Jesus’ people Jesus’ way.