Ministry feels complicated. The needs are endless. We wear multiple hats, and often feel like we’re not wearing any of them well. No matter how well we serve, we face more needs than we can fill. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by it all.
One Sunday I returned to preach at a church where I’d pastored for 13 years. My time there had been complicated. I was a young man when I started to pastor that church, and had made more than my share of mistakes. I felt a little awkward as I stood in front of them again, knowing that I would pastor differently if I could do it over again.
I found myself telling them that I’d wished that I could start again and focus on only two things: glorifying Jesus and loving people.
It’s hard to go wrong when you build a ministry around glorifying Jesus. D.L. Moody once said, “I am going to make Jesus Christ so attractive that men will turn to him.” I’m not sure that one can find a better agenda for ministry.
When a pastor is acquainted with Jesus and then makes Jesus the theme of one’s ministry, a lot of other things fall into place. The agenda in preaching becomes clear. I’m not suggesting that every sermon looks the same; we need to discern and communicate the unique message of the particular text before us. But at some point, Jesus becomes the focus of every passage, the answer to the need that the text addresses, and the One who is worthy of our worship.
An agenda to glorify Jesus becomes the focus of other areas of ministry too. It begins to compel our evangelism. It shapes the vision of the church. It begins to flavour all of the pastor’s ministry, and if things go well, begins to flavour the overall ministry of the church.
When things get complicated, you can’t go wrong with a relentless focus on glorifying Jesus.
But then, I told my people, I’d also focus on loving people well.
Looking back, I think there have been times in my ministry when I kept a professional distance from people. I served as pastor with the emotional warmth of a car mechanic or hairdresser. I did all the right things, but from a safe emotional distance.
The longer I pastored, the more I realized how pastoral ministry involves love. As I reread the gospels and epistles, I began to notice how Jesus and the apostles didn’t seem to stay at a safe emotional distance. Paul admonished people with tears (Acts 20:31). He spoke of being “gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children … ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). Even his most intellectual letters drip with love.
I began to apply 1 Corinthians 13 to my pastoring: I could do everything right as a pastor, but if I did it without love, it would be nothing.
Of course, there’s a lot more to pastoral ministry. But if I had to start again, I told the people at the church I used to pastor, I’d focus on doing these two things well. I’d focus on glorifying Jesus as much as possible, and on loving them well.
It’s been over 25 years since I began pastoring that church. I can’t go back and start over again. I’m grateful, though, that I get to refocus on these two priorities in the church I get to pastor now.
Whenever ministry gets complex, I try to remind myself of two priorities that matter most: glorify Jesus and love people. That’s not all I have to do, but without these two priorities in place, little else matters.