My Heart Is Full: A Miniature Memoir after Five Years of Ministry
John Piper has said that “God will hide from you much of your fruit [from your ministry efforts]. You will see enough to be assured of his blessing, but not so much as to think you could live without it” (The Supremacy of God in Preaching, 25).
I’ve found this to be true. I hear enough encouragement in ministry that I don’t want to quit—most of the time. But I don’t tend to hear so much encouragement as to become proud—at least I hope I haven’t become proud.
But the receiving of encouragement is not always so balanced of a thing in the short run. It’s a lot like gaining and losing weight. When you are, on the whole, losing weight, you still gain weight each time you eat, even if the total calories you burn create a weekly deficit. And when, on the whole, you’re gaining weight, each time you exercise or do any movement, or make no movement as you sleep, your body burns calories. Encouragement and discouragement in ministry are like that, something in constant flux.
It’s fair to say that encouragement didn’t come my way often when I first arrived at my current church five years ago. Early on, I never really wanted to leave, nor did I feel like anyone especially wanted me to leave. But I sort of had this sense that if I did leave, no one would miss me too much. People didn’t love or hate my pastoring; they seemed indifferent. That might be overstating things, but it’s how I felt.
I’m not sure of all the reasons I perceived these feelings of indifference. In hindsight, I believe the largest contributing factor was my change in role. At my former church, encouragement dripped into my inbox like it was hooked up to an IV bag, and the encouragement was broad and steady.
But at my last church, I was an associate teaching pastor not a senior teaching pastor. Church members seem to like rooting for an associate pastor, especially if he’s trying hard and improving. I’d preach an okay-ish sermon one week, but then a few months later I might preach a sermon that was a little better than just okay. People would let me know ways I had improved. They’d show me notes they took during the sermon. Then, eventually, I’d preach a few sermons that could almost be considered good, at least by associate pastor standards. A few times near the end I might have even preached well. That was fun. Again, the congregation rooted for me. Who doesn’t want an underdog to win?
When five years ago I came to Community Evangelical Free Church no longer an associate teaching pastor but a senior teaching pastor, someone also pulled the IV out of my inbox. It’s not that anyone ever said this outright, but it almost felt like people were thinking, Hey, you’re a senior teaching pastor now; we sort of expect your sermons to be good, and the same goes for your counseling, discipleship, Bible knowledge, administration, and everything else you do.
For whatever deficit of encouragement there was in the first few years—whether it was an actual deficit or it was just perception, only the Lord knows—I certainly know now that my church is rooting for me. Last weekend my church gave me a big dose of encouragement as we celebrated my five-year anniversary. A few members of the original search team, staff, elders, my small group, and a few other friends, gave up an evening to share ways that my wife and I have blessed them through our ministry here. They even prayed over us. My heart is full.
In one note, a dear friend wrote,
I see you in the trenches week in and week out wrestling with the Scriptures, honing your preaching craft, writing for the edification of God’s people, centering (and re-centering) your work, ministry, and family on the gospel. . . . Over the last five years you’ve made gospel-centeredness tangible.
That note and the other notes hold more life-giving encouragement than I feel comfortable sharing here. I don’t want my reflections to be considered self-serving. But one thing stood out as people around the room shared: the wide cross-section of life that pastoral ministry occupies. For one couple, I had officiated the weddings of two of their daughters. For another couple, I had visited them in the hospital while they sat beside the bed of a dying parent, once for a father and once for a mother. I had also prayed with new mothers and fathers in hospitals when their children were born. With others, we’d shared tears and prayers and pans of brownies in homes during countless small group meetings. And all of them had endured my preaching. Speaking of preaching . . .
My best friend, Mike, had a raffle of sorts to see who could guess how many sermons I had preached in the last five years. My co-pastor and I alternate preaching, so it wasn’t difficult to do a little math and make a decent guess. My guess didn’t count, but I thought it might have been around 110, which turned out to be a little high. In a few seasons, like last year when we renovated a building, my preaching frequency slowed a bit. The answer was 104 sermons in the last five years, which amounts to something like 400,000 words. That’s a lot of words.
Do you remember those arcade games with a mechanical bar that slides back and forth, continually nudging a huge stack of coins resting on a shelf? You play the game by dropping in coins and hoping the mechanical bar will nudge the stack in such a way that some eventually fall off the ledge. That’s often how I think about preaching and pastoral ministry. Preaching is a series of tiny nudges. There are the granular nudges in 400,000 individual words and the aggregate nudges in 104 completed sermons. With most nudges, nothing seems to happen. So in faith you reload again. And again. And again.
But then sometimes the nudges connect. Change happens. People are helped and healed. I’m thankful my church cared enough about me to show me the fruit from a few of my ministry nudges.
My heart is full.
* Photo by Amanda Herrold Photography