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A Pastor’s 12 Defining Moments

Stepping into the fullness of time.
A Pastor’s 12 Defining Moments
Image: George Pachantouris / Getty Images

Editor’s Note: For 2024 Preaching Today has asked John Johnson to share his 12 Defining Moments in a Pastor’s Life. The last Monday of every month will feature these moments on the site.

We hope that this series will be an encouragement to you as you encounter these moments in your own ministry. Some of these moments you may have gone through already, while others are still before you.

John is a wise guide, one who has gone through these moments himself, so let’s learn from him as he comes along side us on our ministry journey.

Introduction

He was a prolific author, founder of a nationally ranked college, and named by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. But none of this mattered to me. He was my pastor, and at a critical juncture, when my life was adrift, I came to him. It was a call for help. I had no idea what to do with a degree I was about to receive, a B.A. in International Relations. I was essentially a dilettante, unclear of what to give my life to. But he knew. Three months later, I was headed for seminary.

Maybe, as Frederick Buechner put it, all moments are key moments. Still, there are occasions which have an outsized influence. This was one. Call them game changers, tipping points, or instances that affect one’s future. Our journeys may turn on five, maybe six, or more. In this series, I have chosen twelve. There is a decision of moment that must be made, and if we choose differently, it will alter—even radically change—the trajectory of our lives.

Life is this dynamic narrative, and each of these defining moments serves as plot lines. They move the story line to its inevitable conclusion. Looking back, we find that they were what created momentum, especially when seized. Are you aware of such movements? Have you cultivated an availability for such a time when everything in life, in ministry might change?

Scripture is full of these. Saul’s time has come. He has been anointed to be Israel’s first monarch. Every leadership story in the Bible appears to be a summons, and this is his. This is why it is such a vast theme. But in this defining moment, Saul is nowhere to be found. In the face of an overwhelming task, he hides. Fearful. Unnerved. His response will cast a shadow on his kingship.

Moments must be apprehended; they also must be discerned. David is languishing in the desert, on the run for his life. Then comes an opportune moment to take out his enemy and become king. What will he do? Obedience or expedience? The course of his kingship will depend upon his decision. And then there is Solomon, David’s son, who reflects and writes, “For everything there is an hour” (Ecc. 3:1). And so, it goes.

On August 29, 2012, Steve Jobs stepped onto a San Francisco stage to introduce the first iPhone. It was a game changer. A cultural turning point. Goodbye BlackBerry. Within ten years, service for the once ubiquitous mobile device was terminated.

It may not be as dramatic, but those of us in ministry have our hinge moments as well. Reflecting on my years as a pastor and professor, I can now see that there was more going on than I realized. God’s purposes are constantly in motion, speaking and working and occasionally serving up turning points.

Life has these sharp turns and making the curve—or going off the rails—changes everything. Former constraints fade, and new vistas appear. Our task is to anticipate, discern, and respond—for timing is everything in wisdom. This is why I am writing these articles.

Some of these divine interventions are swift and abrupt, like a sudden gust of wind. An invitation to step out, when a brief window to respond, confronts us. In other cases, they are less dramatic, less obvious. Awakened, as if in a deep sleep, we realize what we have been searching for has been in front of us all along.

In Joyful Exiles, James Houston, founding principal of Regent College, describes a night he experienced an inner conviction, one deeper than any he had ever felt. Awakened by the sight of an “incomparable light” at the foot of his bed, he knew that God was calling him to surrender himself to whatever God wanted to do. Like Samuel, he invited God to speak. And then he waited. And waited. Finally, after eight years, the fullness of the moment came together. God called him to leave his professional career and begin a college.

As with Houston’s, our defining moments are set within a context. They may appear to be sudden, but in almost every case God has been setting things in place for months, maybe years. Surely in eternity past.

Describing the emergence of a current tennis phenom, sportswriter Jason Gay observed:

The overnight tennis star does not exist. A player may explode into public view during a tournament, or even sharply over the course of a brilliant afternoon, but before that, there are thousands of hours, probably tens of thousands, when the same player is hidden in anonymity, competing, practicing, plateauing, struggling, surviving … all in an effort leading to the moment. There are bad weeks, lost months, likely some underwhelming years. It is the exact opposite of overnight. (“The Long Climb of Tennis Start Frances Tiafoe, WSJ, Sept. 6, 2022)

It’s true for those of us in ministry. None of us are overnight sensations. Some of us might appear to explode into public view, but behind this are thousands of hours where we have been hidden in anonymity. We have drifted, become hopelessly lost in Greek, stumbled through our first Communion, offended a parishioner, preached without distinction, struggled through a bad board decision, and rejoiced in good ones. And then our moment comes.

I have faced and lived through twelve defining moments in ministry. I know they are real. These have been confirmed by other pastors, and now that I have repositioned from being a pastor and professor to author, I am choosing to write about them.

They serve, I hope, to encourage and to warn. We will need to be ready when leadership is on the line. Inaction can be as disastrous as inept action. A vigilant pastor not only seizes them; one squeezes out of them all the life available within. There is little time to lose. Such moments move in a timely manner, and time, as McManus notes, waits for no one.

The tragedy of our day is that we are losing time. Observing the state of the church today, it seems that pastors are not seizing their moments. Worse, there is a lack of awareness when a defining moment even emerges. Many struggle with an absence of perception of what time it is, a condition Smith calls “spiritual dyschronometria.” And this is contributing to ministry ineffectiveness.

The approach of these articles over the coming months is to identify and unpack these moments, preparing leaders to both be conscience of time and successfully navigate through these turning points. I will focus my research on the wisdom of life experiences, the insights from Scripture, the layers of pastoral history, and the “contrails of the Spirit’s movement.” God is always breaking forth light from his Word. The challenge is to discern what God is saying. Above all, this work will examine the ministry of Jesus Christ, for his defining moments provide the template for our ministries.

Outline

Though there is some logic to the order of these twelve, they do not necessarily follow this sequence. The following will serve as our approach:

1-The Moment to Yield: What is God Telling Me?

There comes a holy moment in which God sets us on our feet and says, "This is yours to do." Will I respond to his summons?

2-The Moment of Self-Understanding: Do I Know Who I Am?

There are as many expectations as there are congregants. Unless you determine your pastoral identity, people will define it for you.

3-The Moment to Find One’s Voice: Who Am I Listening To?

A critical part of ministry is handling divine revelation. Am I more enamored with my words or God’s? One must decide whether it will be imposition or exposition.

4-The Moment to Decide: Will I Position Myself as a More Autonomous or Collaborative Leader?

Key to leadership survival is the development of healthy, collaborative accountability. The right team that complements a pastor can be a potent force for excellence. The wrong team can derail their goals.

5-The Moment to Step Out: Do I Have the Courage to Bring Change?

Over time, an institutional environment can supplant a dynamic movement. A moment comes when a leader must abandon outgrown structures, upset the equilibrium, risk losing approval, and propose a way forward.

6-The Moment to Take a Stand: Will I Confront Sinful Behavior?

Ministry is messy, full of inconsistencies and uncertainties, toxic people, and unrepentance. Those who lead must be ready to discern what sins to confront and how to exercise needed pastoral authority.

7-The Moment to Engage: Will I Lead the Church to Become Culturally Relevant?

There has been an uncritical absorption and imitation of the mindset and power-structures of the surrounding society. The church needs to recover its mission to faithfully engage, address culture’s existential predicament, and unmask the powers of the world. Otherwise, it is irrelevant.

8-The Moment of Realism: Will I Give Up Unrealistic Fantasies?

Pastors can be prone to numerous illusions: there is a perfect church I need to find; my dreams can come true; I’m going to change the world. The reality is that every church is filled with sinners; some dreams need to die; and impacting one’s parish will be a stretch.

9-The Moment to Grow: How Do I Get to the Next Level?

Drift happens. Ruts develop. Will I find my second wind? Will my personal growth keep pace—if not transcend—the church’s growth?

10-The Moment to Endure: Will I Make It Through Those Dark Nights of the Soul?

Every pastor faces a crisis moment--be it betrayal by a friend, personal slander, fierce criticism, or personal failure. In such moments a leader must fight towards the light.

11-The Moment to Transition: Will I Recognize When It Is Time to Let Go?

Leaders eventually leave. This calls for careful judgment. We can leave too soon or too late. The way we do it will have everything to do with our legacy.

12-The Moment to Reposition: Do I Know Where God Is Taking Me Next?

Until our lives end, God wakes us each day with a purpose to fulfill. Am I finding it? Am I using this chapter to expand my gifts, as well as pour myself into the next generation?

It’s likely some of you have experienced some of these moments. For others of you, they are about to play out. Hopefully this series will get you ready.

John E. Johnson is an adjunct professor of Pastoral Theology and Leadership at Western Seminary in Portland, OR. He has served as a lead pastor for thirty five years, and currently is a writer working on his fourth book, as well as serving as an interim teaching pastor.

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