Six or seven years into pastoral life I became deeply fatalistic about my future. I saw other pastors, some dear to me, fail and were forced to leave the ministry. I was frightened. I thought, I’m no better than they are. If it happened to them, it will happen to me. It’s just a matter of time.
I thought often of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg when 15,000 Confederate troops marched into the entrenched guns of the Union Army and were decimated, suffering 6,000 casualties! Some went down early while others almost took the hill, but in the end they all fell or retreated. I pictured ministry—my ministry—as that ill-fated.
Then, in the great mercy of God, I found Jude 24, “To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy ….” I threw my arms around that promise like a drowning man seizing a life preserver.
Now, decades later, and retired from pastoring a local church, I breathe easier. Not because I’m particularly stronger but because I’m familiar with the grip of God’s grace, his hand on my back, and his insistent voice, “This is the way; walk in it.”
That brings me to Paul’s parting words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. In the course of his farewell he told them that the Holy Spirit had made clear that the way ahead for him led to “prison and hardships.” Then Paul said,
However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace. (Acts 20:24)
Once, and only once, I ran a 5K to raise money for a friend’s missions trip. It was a very hot, muggy afternoon and before I was even half finished I literally feared that my heart couldn’t take it. But I’d raised a lot of pledges with the promise that I would not stop. So I didn’t. It wasn’t pretty but I finished. Pastoring has been like that sometimes. There have been times when I wanted to do anything else—sell shoes or be a Walmart greeter, anything! But I’d promised to run the race and complete the task.
I don’t think pastors fail because the burdens are too heavy or the enemies too fierce. I wonder if the difference between finishing and failing—the one test that is up to us—is simply being true. The silent, secret pressure upon pastors, in ways no other Christians face, is to fake it. To put on our preacher voice, our shepherd’s bathrobe costume, to let prayers roll off our tongues having never passed through our souls, and to preach sermons we ourselves haven’t heard. We don’t have to be legalistic Pharisees to slowly become hypocrites.
To run the race, we must, of course, keep our eyes on the finish line. We must remember what we’re called to do: “testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” But we cannot convey the gospel authentically when we no longer take the measure of our own souls and when we’ve lost our own way to God’s throne of grace.
I remember watching a play where the actor picked up a suitcase. He leaned into it a little but I knew—we all knew—that suitcase was really empty. He couldn’t fake the weight of it. So it is with the ministry. None of us will finish well if we’ve taken up acting.
But what could be more heartening for pastors than to know that the Lord Jesus is able to keep us from falling away from him and from our calling. This is not Pickett’s Charge. To be sure, we must be brave and we must soldier on. But more than anything else, we must be true. We cannot play make-believe. Run to Jesus. The Lord, high and holy, always welcomes and revives “the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit.” Run to Jesus and “find rest for your souls.”
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.