Things I Know Now That I Wish I Had Known When I Started Ministry

C.S. Lewis once said, “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different…” I think Lewis meant that one way to get perspective on the present is to spend some time looking back. In other words, when we slip the bonds of the present to ponder the past, the interpretive haze clears a bit. Perspective surfaces on our years, our tears, and our fears.

This is especially true of leadership and pastoral ministry.

I’ve been doing ministry now for almost 29 years. When I look back on the road I’ve traveled, I see some things now that I wish I had known as a rookie. I see land mines I could have avoided, sharp twists in the path that caught me by surprise, unnecessary battles I fought, and signposts that I somehow missed. And sins – plenty of sins. I’m so grateful for the gospel! It reminds me that my mistakes are never big enough to change God’s heart towards me or His plan for me.

But if I were to grab a “Cherokee Red” (my favorite, albeit politically incorrect, soda as a kid!) with my younger self, I think I would tell myself the following things.

 

People Desire Before They Think

I was raised a Presbyterian, attended a Presbyterian seminary (I think that’s a fair description of WTS Philly), and spent 25+ years in a family of churches that valued sound doctrine. Regardless of whether I did it well or not, thinking deeply was in my church genes. I believed that right thinking was starting point for all change. Heck, even the great Puritan, John Owen, said, “The mind is the leading faculty of the soul. When the mind fixes upon an object or course of action, the will and the affections [heart] follow suit. They are incapable of any other consideration…” My point is that I was in good company.

I’m not trying to make a case for unexamined doctrine or ministries, but I discovered along the way that there are strong impulses that run beneath our powers of cognition. I’m talking here about desire. The human heart is an engine that produces and powers endless desires. We are created to worship, and we set our desires on either the Creator or the created (Rom. 1:18-32). When desires flow towards the latter, idolatry is born and spiritual adultery begins (Ez 16; Hosea 1-14). To put it in the words of Jesus, our heart follows what we treasure (Matt. 6:21). In other words, what we desire above all else.

Like a locomotive, our desires are always towing us down the track towards our vision of the happy life. These unconscious assumptions fuel our beliefs about what will help us flourish. This means to help people change, we must first help them pop the hood on thinking to see the engine of desire beneath. It means affections, more than cognition, determine direction.

This is why pastors will often sit across from well-taught people who basically know what the Bible says but are not necessarily changing. It’s the same problem I have in my own life. What’s missing is not information but desire. A corrupted vision of how to become happy is contending for supremacy in our hearts. We must pray that God returns us to a vision where we “taste and see that the LORD is good!” and “take refuge in him!” (Ps 34: 8).

Sometimes pastors can fall into a Descartian (“I think therefore I am”) mindset rather than recognizing our Edwardian, or shall I call it “Piper-ian” (‘I desire therefore I am’) impulse. We believe we inhabit the world as thinkers, only to discover that we inhabit it as lovers. I think I spent too much time in preaching and counseling just trying to help people change their thinking rather than their imagination. I wish I understood this better when I was younger.

 

Love Is Better Than Discernment

Okay, so I just took aim at thinking and now I’m questioning discernment. Maybe you’re wondering whether I’m really consulting my Bible these days. To make sure I’m not misunderstood, let me tell you what I’m not saying so that I can move on to what I am saying.

Obviously, discernment is important for Christians. Doctrine defines direction, and discerning sound doctrine guides us down better paths. After all, if Scripture is given for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Tim 3:16) then discerning how and where to apply Scripture makes huge difference. The ability to discern how and where to apply Scripture is the dividing line between an immature man and ‘the man of God [who is] equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). I agree with Phillip Way who said, “It is the responsibility of every Christian to learn, to be discipled in the Word, so that we can know how to be discerning. To fail to discern is to walk in darkness.” So make no mistake, discernment is a good thing.

But for some pastors, discernment is the preeminent thing. I know because I was one of them. For years, my go-to verse was 1 Timothy 4:16: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” To me, the twin heartbeats of ministry success were 1) Discern your heart and 2) Discern your doctrine. You may read that and think, What’s wrong with that? It’s the all-to-common danger of elevating the good to the place of best. Discerning one’s heart and doctrine is a good thing, but it’s a fools errand when done at the expense of the best.

Like Aslan’s deeper magic, God offers a more powerful and deeper magic beneath discernment. It’s the counterintuitive, immeasurably-potent, gospel-originated power of love (Matthew 22:37–40, 1 Corinthians 13:13). And for leaders pumped with discernment and loaded with knowledge, it’s easy to miss.

When a pastor’s robes are drenched in discernment, it shrinks the leadership enterprise down to three unloving ends: Protectorates, being right, and finding sin.

 

Being Right

Hyper-discernment makes ministry about ‘getting-things-right”. Whether it’s doctrine, ministry model, or the heart, the loveless discerner fixates not on compassion, patience, and kindness, but on detecting and fixing the bugs. This pastor may never see it, but he has a higher confidence in the enemy’s ability to pollute than God’s ability to protect. So he approaches ministry problems as places he needs to ‘make right’ and ‘be right’.

When a pastor fixates on discernment, he also tends to view himself as an Old Testament prophet, of sorts, responsible for declaring God’s judgment on a variety of topics. Rather than constantly proclaiming the grace of God to weary sinners, the hyper discerning pastor crushes people by always pointing out their sins.

When I trawl through my memories of my early ministry years, I’m ashamed to think of how many times I approached a situation wanting to show I was right rather than wanting to show God’s love. I valued the ability to discern motives, which meant there was a lot of speculation on what was really motivating people. And because on our best days ‘we know in part’ (1 Cor 13:9), I filled the unknown with my own discernment, which proved to be little more than a high-minded way to express sinful judgments.

When you traffic in discernment, without the True North of love, it dulls love’s instincts and importance. It makes love look sophomoric, gullible, unintelligent – a grade through which the discerning person has already passed. But we never graduate from love. We only move deeper into our understanding and application of it.

 

Finding Sin

When discernment moves to the center, “finding sin” becomes an important outcome for ministry engagement. This makes pastors speck detectives, probing the hearts and doctrine of others in search of sinful specks, even as we bludgeon them with our discerning logs (Matthew 7:1-5).

I see myself all over that portrait, and it’s not how I want to be remembered. It seems to me that pastors should be the world’s experts on love. We have experienced it in the gospel, studied it in the Bible, preached about it to the church, tasted the fruit of it in marriages, reconciliations, and saints who sacrificed. Prick a pastor and he should bleed love.

That’s how Arnold Dallimore described George Whitfield. Dallimore tells the story of how Charles Wesley became disaffected by his brother’s (John) theology and approached Whitfield to form an alliance. Given the longstanding theological and ministry differences between John Wesley and Whitfield, as well as some underhanded ways that John dealt with Whitfield, this was potentially a delicious moment. From a fleshly standpoint, it was the triumph of Whitfield’s discernment, doctrine, and ministry determination. Think about it: If Whitfield wanted, he could have received Charles Wesley as an unsolicited gift from God and enjoyed the vindication that his arrival provided. Given how John Wesley felt about Whitfield, he may have certainly done that if he were in Whitfield’s place. What would you do?

Without giving it a second thought, Whitfield marched Charles back to John and reconciled the two brothers. He said, “I would not for the world do or say anything that may separate such friends.” The alienation of the Wesley brothers was an opportunity not to conquer and gloat, but to love.

You know you’re in the grip of love when reconciliation becomes more important than vindication.

 

Conclusion

Until time travel becomes a reality, I will never be able to change my past. But I can learn from my past and help others avoid the mistakes I made. I can also rejoice in the goodness of the gospel, which covers over my many sins, mistakes, and failures.

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