Remarkable for Being Unremarkable

An editorial I read this week quipped that nobody reports on the planes that land safely every day. Point taken. In the same way, nobody ever reports on the pastors who labor in obscurity, quietly fulfilling their ministries. They will never be known by the world, but they are known by God.

I visited with a pastor this month who took on a small church that couldn’t afford to pay him much. The church has grown, and so has the budget. Instead of taking more money, he encouraged the church to increase their givings to other ministries, including our church plant. He is not a famous pastor or a well-paid pastor, but he’s a generous and faithful pastor. That counts.

I had lunch with another pastor this month who’s had an effective ministry. He’s one of the best leaders I know, and a faithful man of God. He should be well-known, but he’s not. He told me that he chose long ago to reject the invitations to build a name for himself. Instead, he’s kept his head down and made that local church his main work. He could have travelled the conference circuit, but instead he’s been content to be a local church pastor. That counts in God’s eyes.

I keep meeting people who are remarkable for being unremarkable. They have chosen to serve rather than to make names for themselves, and have chosen to give rather than to keep what could have been theirs.

An interviewer once asked Edith Schaeffer, “Who is the greatest Christian woman alive today?” She replied, “We don’t know her name. She is dying of cancer somewhere in a hospital in India.” Who is the greatest pastor alive today? We probably don’t know. It’s possible that this pastor is unappreciated and feels like a failure. But God knows. This pastor will never be known by the world, but is known and loved by God.

Two Sets of Virtues

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love? (David Brooks)

I’ll admit that I’m attracted to the résumé virtues. Who wouldn’t want to be known as a gifted communicator, a beloved pastor, a clear writer, and a successful church planter?

Then there are the eulogy virtues that will never make it onto a résumé. In fact, they may make my résumé less impressive: man of prayer, husband and father who made time for wife and kids, servant who didn’t chase limelight, good friend, man who cared.

A friend of mine was asked by a search committee what he desired if he came to their church. To his credit, he responded with a list that reflected mostly eulogy virtues. It would be great for the church to grow, but what he wanted most, he said, was to love the Lord more, to love his wife more, and so on. It wasn't the answer they expected.

The older I get, the more I recognize my desire for the résumé virtues, and the less I trust this desire. In the end, it’s the eulogy virtues that I really need. I’m praying instead for a character God can use rather than accomplishments others can admire.

The Benefits of an Annual Study Group

Every year I gather with a small group of pastors for a week. We meet the same week every year. The agenda is simple: on Tuesday morning we catch up, and then we get to work under the leadership of a Bible scholar. By the end of the week, we've completed our study of a book of the Bible or a theme (like the parables) and are on our way to being ready to preach what we've studied.

Photo compliments of Chris Brauns

Photo compliments of Chris Brauns

This honestly is a highlight of my year. Some reasons:

The relationships — Having met with the same group for a number of years now, I really appreciate these people and look forward to seeing them every year. There's something about walking with a group of fellow pastors over the long haul, even if you only see them once a year.

The Word — While pastors should always be in the Word, we have to fight for time of study. It is a treat to dedicate a few days to the in-depth study that we crave.

The format — It's one thing to read a commentary. It's another thing to have a commentator in the room. And it's one thing to work alone on the big idea and approach to a sermon based on a text. It's another thing to sit in a room full of sharp people and work on it together.

The break — I am usually tired by this time of year. I've come through winter and Easter, but haven't yet slowed down for summer. This May retreat is a good opportunity to take a breath and begin to slow down, or at least change gears from the frantic pace of ministry.

We're not the only ones who do this. Other formal and informal groups hold retreats or colloquiums. It meets a real need.

If you know some like-minded pastors with a high commitment to the Word, and they're interested in dedicating a few days a year to this kind of thing, then you have a lot of what's needed. I'll bet you can find a Bible scholar (completely optional) who would be delighted to help you work through a portion of Scripture as you prepare to preach it.

I've often wondered why groups like this aren't more common. Try it. Big conferences are good, but I'd trade ten of them for one of these.

Thankful

I’m attending an annual retreat this week with a group of pastors. I blogged about this a couple of years ago. I think every pastor should consider starting or joining such a group. I find it much more helpful than a big conference — and that’s not a slam against the big conferences.

Study Retreat for Pastors — photo compliments of Chris Brauns

Study Retreat for Pastors — photo compliments of Chris Brauns

I was struck by something that one of the pastors prayed yesterday. He thanked God for the retreat. and then mentioned that there are many in the world who would kill to be part of something like this. It’s true, and I don’t think about this enough.

It’s easy to overlook how blessed we are, and it’s tragic. To have the time, to have the money, to have access to scholars, to have over 4,400 resources in my Logos library, to enjoy the company of pastor friends, to have the privilege of being in vocational ministry are all incredible privileges I am prone to overlook. God forbid me from taking them for granted or developing an attitude of entitlement.

We’ve received much. What will we do with what we’ve been given?

Answering Life's Two Most Haunting Questions

I’m in the middle of reading Russ Ramsey’s excellent book Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ as we come to Easter. It’s good, but I had a moment yesterday when I recognized myself in the book, and it wasn’t pretty.

Ramsey retells Jesus’ one of Jesus’ many confrontation with the Pharisees:

When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 14:8-11 ESV)

It’s a familiar story. Ramsey’s commentary, though, exposed a little of my own heart.

But they were not unlike the rest of the world who wanted so badly to know the answers to life’s two most haunting questions: “Am I valuable, and am I lovable?” The world has historically measured such things based on possessions, reputations, influence, or family name. When power tells the story of worth, everyone postures themselves for the best possible seats at the table of life. But Jesus proposed another way. What if people didn’t find their position in this world according to how they compared to others, but rather by what God said of them? What if this were all that mattered— the Father’s affection for his children?

A lot of life and a lot of ministry is spent trying to answer the questions, “Am I valuable, and am I lovable?” As a result, life and ministry can be about trying to establish our place before men, rather than joyfully accepting the lowest positions as we rest in what God has said about us.

This isn’t a new concept, but what’s new is recognizing how powerful this is in my own heart. I’ve long known the importance of living out of God’s approval rather than earning approval from others through my efforts. How quickly, though, I forget.

When it comes to the questions, “Am I valuable, and am I lovable?” we no longer have to look to our reputation or ministry success. Those question have been answered. We just have to remind the Pharisee within us of that daily. The gospel frees us from having to validate our worth through our ministries.