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Healthy Ministry in Complicated Times

Pastoring

The Day Jack Changed

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Jack Miller was a pastor of a small church in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and seminary professor at Westminster Seminary near Philadelphia. He’d served for twenty years, and felt depressed and burned out. People weren’t changing, and he didn’t know how to help them. In Spring of 1970, he quit both jobs. He spent the next few weeks too depressed to do anything but cry.

He gradually began to realize that he’d been in ministry for the wrong reasons. He’d been pursuing his own glory and the approval of those he served. He began to repent of his pride, fear of people, and love of their approval. His joy in ministry returned, and he asked for both of his jobs back.

Before he returned, he took his family on an extended sabbatical in Spain. He began to study the missionary promises of God throughout Scripture. He became captivated by God’s promise to fill his kingdom with people from every tribe and nation. He realized that the promise of the Spirit to bring help, comfort, and encouragement is for today. He became filled with hope, not in his abilities, but in the power of the Holy Spirit to be with him, to change him, and to use him.

Everything changed. Jack began the most fruitful and joy-filled years of his ministry. The ripple effects of this change continue today through the lives of those he mentored.

I return to Jack Miller’s story often. Whenever I begin to wobble, which is often, his story reminds me of the importance of two foundational issues in ministry: the right motive and the right power. Get these right, and everything flows out of them; get these wrong, and ministry will become dead and joyless.

The Right Motive

When Miller served for his own glory and the approval of others, he became disappointed and angry. He wanted to be liked, and became timid. He saw his church as a jury passing judgment on his sermons and ministry.

It’s so easy to be motivated by the desire to prove ourselves and to earn the approval of others. I recognize in my own life the constant desire to make ministry about myself. It’s a sure path to discouragement and anger.

Miller discovered a new freedom to live and work for God’s glory, not his. He later counseled others on the importance of “the old, old story of getting the gospel clear in your own hearts and minds, making it clear to others, and doing it with only one motive—the glory of Christ.” He believed that when we begin with desiring the glory of God, the how-to’s of bringing him glory become clear. He wrote to a co-pastor:

The thought that came to me was the power that comes when our vision is centered on the glory and praise of God. Practically I believe that this glory comes into its own when we self-consciously make it our anchor for what we are doing.

Being motivated by God’s glory begins to change everything about our lives and ministries. We regularly need to revisit our motives, and repent when we’re motivated by personal glory rather than God’s glory.

The Right Power

We need the right motive. We also need the right power. Miller rediscovered the importance of the Holy Spirit in ministry. “The Father sends the Holy Spirit to do impossible things through us when we freely acknowledge our deep weaknesses,” he said.

He realized what goes wrong when we try to minister in our own strength:

The trouble comes in when the leader tries to be and do too much, perhaps unconsciously trying to have the power of the Holy Spirit and the Lordship of Christ. Inevitably what the leader is trying to do is to prove himself or herself and to own the ministry. This kind of approach frightens people, and flesh responds to flesh and conflicts follow.

Miller tried to resign “from the proud attempt to be the Holy Spirit in another person’s life,” and found that, to the degree that he received grace to do this, that his joy increased.

Get These Issues Straight

There are few issues more foundational in ministry than living with the right motive and with the right power.

I know how discouraging it is to live for one’s own glory. It’s disillusioning and discouraging. I also know the joy of living for God’s glory, and laying down my life in service of him and others. There’s no difference. Because of my sinful heart, I need to keep rediscovering the joy of laying down my life and living for God’s glory.

I know how tiring it is to live on my own power. I also know the joy of trusting the Holy Spirit to do what I can’t do, and believing that he works in our weakness.

I’m grateful for the day that Jack changed. It reminds me of how I need to change by continually revisiting these two foundational issues:

  • live for God’s glory, not mine
  • live in the Holy Spirit’s power, not my own

I can’t think of two more important issues to sort out in our lives.

quotes from The Heart of a Servant Leader

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