I have a fading old photograph from December 27, 1981. I am kneeling on the platform of our church with six spiritual leaders gathered around me, their hands on my head or shoulders. In the front row sit my dad, mom, and brother, heads bowed. In that moment over 40 years ago, under the prayers of that beloved congregation, I was ordained to the ministry of the gospel. That service was akin to my wedding in lifelong significance.
Pastors are officially set apart in various ways, some more ceremonious than others, but every pastor must carry this imprimatur of the Lord:
We speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. (1 Thess. 2:4)
Before and after that verse Paul told the Thessalonians about the vigilant ethical sentries he posted to guard his God-given trust. No error or impure motives, no trickery, people-pleasing, or flattery, no disguised greed or pandering for praise. Two particular guardians stand out: “God who tests our hearts,” and “God is our witness.”
It isn’t enough for pastors to do our sermons, counseling, meetings, and visits. To be worthy of the gospel entrusted to us we must always answer to the watchful standards and soul scrutiny of God.
I well remember one early morning long ago when my elder chair came to see me. He’d gotten wind of a financial matter I’d been involved with that, while perfectly legal, looked a bit hinky.
When I insisted that it was all good he stopped me cold. “Lee, you must avoid the very appearance of evil.” His was the voice of God.
The Father’s oversight is neither picayune nor unfair. On the contrary, no one wants us to succeed in gospel work more than he does. No one has invested more in us. No one is more eager to help. But we must pay attention when he tests our hearts.
All our pastoral work quietly tests the condition of our hearts. We’re always connected to a spiritual EKG, looking for indications of pride, resentment, or ulterior motives. We must be attentive to the Lord’s scrutiny as we contemplate Scripture. We must pray David’s prayer: “Search me, God, and know my heart … See if there is any offensive way in me.” And then listen for God’s answer.
My favorite pastors—and so many of you exemplify this—are humbly self-aware. I don’t mean that you know where you are on the Enneagram or the DISC test. You know your hearts. Your years of Bible study, contemplation, reading, spiritual friendships, and serving create depth and wisdom. You show kindness and grace, a Godwardness that is winsome and wise. The gospel entrusted to you is in good hands. You are good shepherds.
The church where I was ordained is in Deerfield, Illinois. The church where I concluded my full-time pastoral work is nearby in Lincolnshire. When our congregation planned a special program for my retirement they moved it across town to the church building in Deerfield to be sure there’d be enough room.
It was a grand program. Susan and I were seated on the platform while people said and did all kinds of nice things. It wasn’t really the conclusion of my ministry but it was a deeply moving culmination. Finally, before everyone sang the benedictions back to me which I’d so often sung over them, a group of particularly dear friends and family gathered around to pray for us, hands stretching to touch us. We were, I realized, at exactly the same spot on that platform where I had knelt to be ordained so many years before.
Be ye glad!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.