A recently overheard wisecrack at a dinner table: "Jesus is coming; eat your dessert first!" It wasn't meant irreverently, though some would be sure to take offense, nor do I believe it was said with any intention at making a contemporary commentary on church culture. But it did. Yes. I think so.
Pardon me if this comes across as dour, cynical or dubious about anyone's sincerity other than my own. Because I do believe the vast majority of pastors and church leaders are serious about God, their ministries, characters and solidity in the Word, joined to sanity regarding Holy Spirit-filled life, practice, worship and gift-ministry.
But there's a lot of "dessert first" thinking out there as you scan the horizon of church life--and I don't mean just among us charismatics. It's everywhere. The "it" I refer to is a growing mind-set among some that is shaped by short-term goals and solely pragmatic means for seeking what will inevitably become short-lived "success."
I heard of one leader acknowledging the "short shelf life" of a technique he had found for drawing crowds, and another disdaining any preaching that utilized a text of more than five verses because "reading any more Bible than that will lose attention."
Add to this the ease with which exposition is set aside for the sake of "communication," and Internet humor becomes the key to sustaining audience attention in sermons, and the idea of true shepherding--leading and feeding the flock for the long haul--becomes a decreasing concern, except among the thoughtful, the thirsty and those who are hungry for righteousness in an hour that only "kingdom come" will make a truly lasting difference.
I'm very much "into" this arena of concern today, motivated for the most part by my continuing and deepening picture of what pastors are really seeking--that is, the pastors who are truly shepherd-hearted and true servants of Jesus' flock. My exposure every month to another new group of 45 senior pastors, who always represent a considerable spectrum of age, affiliation, church size, ethnicity and educational background, provides an affirmation.
While a lot of "puff" blows in the Christian media and entertainment realm, and competitors scramble to be acknowledged as the next mega-mogul, the growing evidence is that there are actually a preponderance of pastors willing to "wait for dessert." In other words, they are looking at the issue: "How do I lead in a way that lasts, builds for time, runs in a way as to finish well, serves to grow people, not 'my ministry,' and lives to offer the sacrifice of my life for Christ, not to advance my success under His name?"
My present passion to serve and mentor precious pastors not only finds expression (and discoveries for me every month) in my School of Pastoral Nurture, but also shapes the formation of our annual autumn leadership conference at The Church on the Way. This year's conference (Nov. 4-6) is themed, "Going the Distance: Growing and Building a Trustworthy Ministry That Is Alive, Aglow and Abiding--Living, Loving and Lasting."
In brief, that says it all. But not long after I had set the agenda for the gathering and assembled speakers (including Rod Caesar, Tommy Barnett, Jim Reeve, Sonny Arguinzoni and Mrs. Willie Jordan, with others), I was asked for an interview regarding pastoral priorities and what qualities are most important to shaping pastor-leaders of worth.
For what it's worth, I want to pass on a summary of my answers to the interviewer. If you're interested in more detail, I'm elaborating these issues in a series of postings on my Web site (www.jackhayford.com); just click the path leading to my communiqués on our autumn leadership conference.
Question: What are the marks of a good and faithful pastoral ministry?
Answer: I would prioritize seven: (1) servant spirit toward people; (2) consistency and fidelity to God's Word; (3) purity in morals and integrity in ethics; (4) commitment in marriage and family; (5) trustworthy and practical in business and finance; (6) hospitable and gracious in relationships; and (7) a heart of compassion for the larger community, both Christian and non-Christian.
Question: What habits and practices do you feel can sustain a good ministry over time?
Answer: The basics, in my view, are born of the above priorities and are a combination of habits that are both spiritually focused and honest in relationships:
pursuit and cultivation of a strong, intimate walk with Christ
constant hunger for and growth in the Word of God
prioritizing of one's marriage relationship and family life
refusal to accrue debt or succumb to a self-serving lifestyle
building accountable relationships with a small group of peers
choosing to remain unconstrained by opportunism, ecclesiastical separatism or intellectualized vanity.
Question: What are the major challenges you see facing pastors in ministry today?
Answer: With a broad brush, I would note four things, recognizing other issues still remain:
increasing intensity of the spiritual battle, intensified moral temptations and the threats related to a cultural weakening in marriage commitments
reduced societal respect for the pastoral office, which discourages and begets a sense of reduced worth among leaders
false definitions of success projected by reason of media and mega-ministries, which create illusions for pursuit and monsters of intimidation
general absence of a clearly focused definition of church, its ministry and a pastor's role in cultivating people who truly find their identity in Christ and who are led to minister in His name.
Question: What do you feel are the things that either inhibit or encourage the practice of good ministry?
Answer: Let me simply note two in each category. First, things that inhibit the practice of good ministry:
a lack of prophetic vision and clear focus on our lives and times, leading to a business-as-usual rather than a poised-for-the-moment stance, and a preach/ teach-from-the-textbook habit of convenience rather than bothering to seek the mind of the Spirit for one's messages from the Word
a lack of perspective on realities of spiritual conflict (resulting in "wrestling flesh and blood" rather than confronting "principalities and powers"), and a lack of discernment of the true pastoral task of seeking to shape big people more than being trapped in the pursuit of building a big church.
Things that encourage:
holding a broad view of grace, secured in a theology that places worth and value on God's purpose in humankind
maintaining strength and mutuality with one's spouse, so that your love, companionship, partnership and sense of being called together provides a foundation of conviction about your life and purpose, no matter what.
Question: What types of activities that support pastoral ministry need to be expanded?
Answer: There is a need to move from the traditional dependency upon what I call "professionally focused" conferences to "prophetically focused" gatherings. Pastors and church leaders do need to hone skills, learn methods and cultivate capacities at a business, informational and functional dimension. But these pursuits, as obvious as is their value, too easily distract from those things that are the fundamental essence of ministry. Pastors need, and I believe hunger for, more:
in-depth interaction with proven pastoral leaders, focusing on the practical and spiritual sides of ministry more than merely the theological and academic sides
insight into the keys of vital, sound-minded power-ministry that transcends "a show," and into the ways of vibrant kingdom dynamics for leading a congregation in its prayer, worship, intercessory and ministry life
cultivation of fellowship and relationship with fellow pastors in the larger community.
It is a thrilling thing to be at the time of life I am (I just turned 68) and at the time we all are--into a new century, and so near Jesus' return! At such a time, much more is needed than a quick "dessert." Indeed, I have something of an agenda to propose: That the shorter the time we have, the more we need "the right stuff"--the spiritual substance that lasts...and lasts.
The hour is becoming darker, and the battle storms more intense. Accordingly, we need weighty light amid darkness that can be felt, and we need firm anchoring as the winds of spiritual adversity swirl at hurricane proportions.
Yes, Jesus is coming! As fellow leaders called to "run the race with patience" and to "fight the good fight--faithful unto death," we need to skip the dessert table and check in at the Savior's training table. Meet you there.