Shepherding to the Grave

Like most toddlers, my childhood was not marked with patience. It was too natural to demand immediate gratification. I wish I could say this was a former vice long left behind by the years of personal growth, but like many others, patience has sometimes felt like an elusive virtue. In my formative years, this impatience had trained me to think only in the short-term. I couldn’t wait to have a car when I became old enough to drive. I couldn’t wait to graduate high school and move off to college. I was all too eager to discover my major in college and thus my trajectory for a life. I couldn’t wait to find a wife, get married, and become an adult. Looking back now, I want most of these moments back; to learn to live in the present and relish its blessings.

Bygone days and reminiscing are not my point. I simply want to illustrate that many of us can identify with this impatient push to have immediate success and gratification whatever our individual and momentary desires may be. My real point is this: over the years of ‘trying’ to fight impatience, most of us have developed subtle and unhelpful habits. Chief among these incidental habits is a training of the mind to think in only short-term intervals. Decision-making, worldview, and success have all been framed by the impatient gene we carry in our flesh. This certainly influences all of life, but I wonder if it is one of the most common culprits of ministry displeasure in the church today?

As I prepared for the ministry, I remember an older pastor counseling me to keep my ministry and my personal life separate. The two were not to be the same thing. I tried to live by that advice for as long as I could until I realized that it was impossible. God doesn’t call my abilities (or lack thereof) to the ministry; He calls me to the ministry. This means our lives – the good and bad habits we form, the experiences that define us, our general dispositions – have enormous influence upon our ministries. If we have conditioned our minds to think in the short-term only, we will find that most of ministry is not only unsatisfying, but deeply unsettling. We will find that we view ministry in the short-term as well.

Before you know it, we will be running from ministry to ministry or program to program trying to satisfy the here-and-now moments. We will see every drop of conflict as a world-changing tsunami demanding immediate attention. We will live, not in a sense of biblical urgency, but in a hamster wheel of exhaustion trying to keep up with the ever-changing trends of the world. That is no way to last in ministry. That is no way to succeed in ministry.

Let me offer an alternative. Instead of seeing the world in the short-term, what if we did ministry with our eyes set on the long-term? Instead of short burst of programmatic “success,” what if we engaged in the slow, painstaking work of laying stones for a solid foundation? Such work may not yield fast fruit, but it will yield sustainable fruit. When the fast fruit has sprung up and withered for lack of root, the sustainable fruit from a long-term oriented ministry will last long after we are laid in the grave.

As a pastor, I have two goals in my decision-making: the health of the church now and the health of the church in the future after I’m in heaven. I ask, “Is this healthy for the people now? Will this set the church up for long-term health in the future?” The things I do to today I want to see benefiting the church tomorrow. I want to train people over a long haul. I want them to see that walking with God is a lifetime commitment and not simply done in short bursts of effort followed by slow seasons of complacency. I want to redefine what success is: slow and steady faithfulness with each step being deliberate for the future, not just immediate gratification.

I believe this will liberate many pastors and churches from burnout and discouragement. Instead of spinning the ministry wheels trying to one-up the latest and greatest effort, pastors can breathe a breath of fresh air knowing that the tried-and-true disciplines of the church, though requiring long-term commitments, perspectives, and diligence, will actually breed a healthier church than otherwise. Things like preaching faithfully, prayer, evangelism, and community, though less flashy, are all that God requires for faithfulness. More than that, they are often the only things that God will use to build His church.

Instead of planning with immediacy in mind, consider the trajectory that your ministry sets for the church in the long-run. Are you bouncing from one thing to the next, training your people to chase glittering, immediate gratification? Or are you training your people to progress faithfully and steadily toward the shores of heaven; to see the Christian life as a marathon and not a sprint? Are you training your people to persevere, to be standing in the end, and to increase in faithfulness, or are you setting them up for burnout?

Pastor, your job is to shepherd God’s people to the grave. Minister with heaven in mind and you will not go wrong.

Skylar Spradlin

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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