64 Years in Ministry and Counting….

I have been privileged to be a pastor for about 9 years. In the first church I served at, my tenure lasted about 4 years. The second tenure lasted about 3.5 years and now I am serving as pastor of a third local church. Surprisingly, my experience as a pastor is not unique. It does seem short, but statistics tell us that the average pastoral tenure lasts about 3.6 years. To state the obvious, that’s not very long and this illustrates the unfortunate state of pastoral longevity today.

 

It was not always this way. One of my hero’s of the faith, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), grew up during a time where long pastorates were the norm. His grandfather Solomon Stoddard pastored the same church for over 55 years. His father Timothy Edwards pastored the same church for over 60 years. And had he not been forced to resign from his church after (only) 23 years, it’s safe to assume Jonathan Edwards would have served till the time of his death, just like his father and grandfather and the majority of pastors in Puritan New England. The relationship between pastor and church was kind of like a marriage – “till death do us part” was the idea. That is not to say there was never conflict, but there was a long-term commitment that was virtually unbreakable. In the three centuries since, the pastoral landscape has changed dramatically.

 

Over the past few months I have gotten to know a man by the name of Dave Lewis. Dave is a kind and humble man who loves to golf and I am told is quite competitive. Dave is a fellow pastor and when we met one morning at a local MacDonald’s I asked Dave, “How long have you served at your church?” I knew he was an older gentleman but his answer still blew me away…. 64 years! Dave started serving at Bald Eagle Alliance Church in Osceola Mills, PA way back in 1953, not long after he had graduated from Bible College. While a lot has changed during that time, and countless pastors (including me) have transitioned to other churches, Dave has stayed put. From what I can tell, he doesn’t have any retirement plans, even though he is now 87 years old.

 

I was curious so I asked Dave what the secret of his longevity was. He answered, “the grace of God and the will of God.” His simple answer hints at a profound truth. It is not God’s will for every pastor to spend his entire ministry at one church. However, in the case of Dave, God ordained that he would have a lifetime ministry at one local church. Such a long ministry was only possible through the sustaining grace of God.

 

As we continued to talk, Dave spoke to the need of every pastor to read good books and even mentioned a few authors by name. “Read Bunyan, Newton, Spurgeon, and above all Tozer” he said. Dave talked about the early days of his ministry when he heard A.W. Tozer preach on several occasions. Ever since Tozer’s death in the 1960’s, he has drunk deeply of Tozer’s works and it was almost as if he knew Tozer like a close friend. Pastor Dave is a voracious reader of Christian classics and he encouraged me in that same direction.

 

There were a few other things that pastor Dave counseled me on that are worth mentioning. Prayer for him is the “power house” of the ministry. Of course, he was simply echoing what Charles Spurgeon and many others have said before him. Having a focus on prayer is absolutely vital when it comes to maintaining a long and fruitful ministry. He also spoke to the need of every pastor to immerse himself in Scripture. While there are plenty of good titles and good authors (such as the above mentioned), there is no substitute for the Word of God.

 

When I asked Dave to tell me about his church, he had nothing but good things to say about his people. “They are the most loving and gracious people a pastor could ever ask for,” he said. Even after all these years, there was still a love affair between the pastor and his people. I have been around long enough to know that this is unique and I found Dave’s words concerning his congregation to be refreshing and encouraging. Perhaps the thing that I found most remarkable about Pastor Dave is that there is still a fire in his belly that drives him. As he shared about what he was preaching and teaching on in the coming week, there was clearly a passion and excitement. It seemed as though he couldn’t wait to share the riches that he had discovered from his study of God’s word. Even after 64 years of preaching the Word and shepherding the flock, the fire has not dimmed.

 

If you tried to look up Dave on the internet, you would find that he does not have a web presence of any sort. His church doesn’t have a website, he does not have a blog, nor does he have a twitter following. Dave is what we would call “old school” but I believe he is a model worth following and one that is all but lost in our day and age. Pease understand I am not here to put Dave on a pedestal. When I asked him about doing a little write-up on him, he was very hesitant to agree, not just because he is a humble man, but because he is aware of his own sin and shortcomings. Dave doesn’t want anyone to look to him or to any other man. Rather he would have us look to Christ (Isaiah 45:22) and His power to save. As the psalmist puts it, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Psalm 115:1).

 

Far too many pastors start off wanting to be the next John Piper or Tim Keller or some other famous pastor. It’s fine to have good models in pastoral ministry but it is unhelpful and even detrimental to aim for ministry success from a worldly perspective. This is kingdom building of the wrong kind and it happens all the time. God is simply calling pastors to be faithful (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:1-4, John 21:15-17, 2 Timothy 4:2) and diligent (2 Timothy 1:11-12) and to serve with endurance (2 Timothy 4:6-8) knowing that one day the Lord of glory will reward them for their labors.

 

Few pastors will ever spend the entirety of their ministry at one church. Obviously, Dave Lewis is unique and I praise God for his life and ministry and the example that he has given us. Many others have served well over the years, and perhaps you have heard of them and are aware of their ministries, but it is a safe bet that most are unknown to the world, except for the people and communities they serve. We can praise God for these faithful men, however, if you are looking for the best model to follow, look no further that the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate “good shepherd” (John 10:11) who lays his life down for the sheep. Every pastor should strive to emulate him and serve in the grace and wisdom that only He can give.

 

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A Word to Pastors….Read Good Books!

Last week I had the privilege of leading a group of 20-25 pastors and their wives in a time of learning and fellowship. The topic I chose to speak on was that of Reading Good Books. Typically, most pastors have a reputation for reading a lot, as well we should. But more often than not, our busy schedules tend to crowd out time for reading. This should not be. No doubt ministry can be demanding and challenging, but pastors must find time to read good books.

Let me say up front that first and foremost, the pastor is a man of one book – the Bible. There is no substitute for immersing yourself in Scripture and drinking deeply from the fountain of God’s Word. As the Psalmist puts it, “his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). Day and night, night and day, the pastor feeds and nourishes his soul with the manna of God’s Word. He does so not simply for his own relationship with the Lord, but also that he might feed the flock of God (John 21:15-17, 1 Peter 5:2) and supply them with the nourishment they so desperately need. Just to reiterate, the pastor is a man of the Book – God’s Book.

Having said that, it is vital for the pastor to surround himself with other books that aid him in better understanding God’s word. I have in mind books like biblical commentaries and books on biblical theology and such. Obviously, those are not the only books you should read, but they should make up an important part of your reading diet. We are all going to gravitate towards different kinds of books, but strive to ensure that the books you read challenge you, point you to Christ and His glory, and broaden your understanding of Scripture.

Reading is perhaps not as difficult as we think. John Piper breaks it down this way: “Suppose you read slowly, say about 250 words a minute (as I do). This means that in twenty minutes you can read about five thousand words. An average book has about four hundred words to a page. So you could read about twelve-and-a-half pages in twenty minutes. Suppose you discipline yourself to read a certain author or topic twenty minutes a day, six days a week, for a year. That would be 312 times 12.5 pages for a total of 3,900 pages. Assume that an average book is 250 pages long. This means you could read fifteen books like that in one year.”Later on Piper quotes John Stott, who suggests a minimum of one hour per day. “Many will achieve more. But the minimum would amount to this: every day at least one hour; every week one morning, afternoon or evening; every month a full day; every year a week. Set out like this, it sounds very little. Indeed, it is too little. Yet everybody who tries it is surprised to discover how much reading can be done within such a disciplined framework. It tots up to nearly six hundred hours in the course of a year.” (both quotations from: Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry, 2002)

Let me also suggest that is not so much about the quantity that you read, as it is the quality of books that you read. As Piper and Stott tell us, read as much as you can, but strive to read the best of the best – what we would call “the classics.” Strive to read those books that have proven themselves to be of tremendous help to their readers. The logic goes something like this – if we are already short on time (which all pastors seem to be) then why not read what is going to be most edifying and beneficial to yourself and to your people. This approach is admittedly pragmatic, but Scripture calls us to “make the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16).

The other day I met a man by the name of Dave Lewis. Pastor Lewis has been a minister of the gospel for several decades now and he noted that he was a ‘friend’ of Tozer. A.W. Tozer died back in the 60’s so at first I was a little confused, but then I quickly realized what he meant. Having read so much of the writings of Tozer, he considered him a friend. As pastors, we should all have those trusted friends, whether dead or alive (often the dead friends are the best), that we often consult. There are a lot of great books out there and we must be disciplined enough to read some of them. Better yet, many of them. As the saying goes…leaders are readers. Truly, reading is an absolute must for the preacher of the gospel and therefore we must endeavor to set aside time every day for this important practice. Happy reading!

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

The Same Old Glorious Message

Ever since Christmas, we have been slowly working our way through Matthew’s gospel as a congregation. Let me tell you, this has been a lot of fun for me. After spending much of my early ministry jumping around from passage to passage and doing one mini-series after another, I have greatly enjoyed digging deep into Matthew’s gospel. This past week, while preaching from 4:12-17, I noticed a similarity between Jesus and John the Baptist. Matthew tells us in 4:17, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’” This was the exact same message that John preached (see Matthew 3:2).

 

Granted, while this is nothing mind-blowing, it offers us a simple, yet power lesson. Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul and all the apostles, and the great saints of old all preached the same message. Of course, Jesus would expand on this message, but from the beginning of His ministry to the very end, He had one theme – repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! As preachers and Christian leaders, we must let this be our theme too.

 

The apostle Paul puts it this way in Galatians 2:6-7: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” This reminds us that there is only one gospel, and those who are faithful to the truth preach that same message. To distort the gospel is to deny the gospel.

 

There is a push today in our modern world to be innovative and flashy and cutting-edge. I know of one pastor who said that every three years they had a “new church” because he was constantly innovating and trying to appeal to our ever-changing world. I am not going to deny that in some ways, change can be helpful and even necessary (ie: how we use technology), but if the change involves compromising the message, then you have a serious problem. Pastors can be tempted to scratch those “itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3) all around us, but we must always resist that temptation and be true to our Lord and Master.

 

All around the world, the Church of Jesus Christ is vast and varied, and pastors serve in countless ministry contexts. How remarkable to think that in the midst of such diversity we all preach the same message….the gospel. May we be faithful to proclaim that glorious message till our dying breath. Like Paul, may we be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown or righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day.” 2 Timothy 4:7-8

 

“For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.” 2 Corinthians 2:17

 

6 Lessons From 6 Years of Pastoral Ministry

Hard to believe, but I have been in pastoral ministry for 6 years now. This has been a deeply gratifying and rewarding experience and I am grateful to God for His call upon my life. While in some ways I am still just a beginner and pray for many decades of fruitful ministry, there have been many lessons learned during my short tenure. Let me share just 6 with you.

 

1. The centrality of prayer.

Ministry makes huge demands upon the pastor and his family. There is always something more to do, and because of all the busyness, often the ministry of prayer gets skipped over. This is unfortunate and can be quite damaging to the success of the ministry. Therefore, the pastor must ensure that prayer is built into the daily rhythms of his life. It is also important to have organized times of corporate prayer, such as a weekly prayer meeting. Along with this, I am thankful for a church that I know holds my family up in prayer and other friends and family member that do the same. I have learned (and continue to learn) that ministry is war and if you are not covered in prayer, the enemy will walk all over you.

 

2. People grow through the Word of God.

Let me give you a little formula – growth happens in the Body of Christ as the Word of God is applied to the people of God through the agency of the Spirit of God. Let me say it again – people grow through the Word of God! It took me a while to realize this, but it is so critical to understand this. I see pastors all the time relying on gimmicks and programs and more gimmicks – things that promise to “pump out” disciples that in the end only disappoint. Shepherds must ensure that their flock is well nourished so that they will be healthy, strong, and effective in their walk with the Lord.

 

3. The need for patience and perseverance.

I grew up on a farm and I know the importance of patience when it comes to sowing and reaping. The farmer plants his crop in the spring, but has to wait several months until the fall to harvest it. If people grow through the Word of God (and they do) then it will require patience over the long haul. Most pastors are aware of all the massive church growth stories but we have to remember that they are not the norm. Pastors must commit themselves to diligently and faithfully teaching the Word of God year after year after year. In time, there will be an abundant harvest, but it takes patience and perseverance. In between the sowing and reaping, there will be times of trial, disappointment, setbacks, and who knows what else, but be faithful, be diligent, and persevere in the strength that only Christ can provide. And remember the words of Paul: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6).

 

4.The importance of one-to-one discipling relationships.

I love the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. If you are not familiar with this story, I would encourage you to study it on your own, but essentially, when Philip found the eunuch reading Isaiah 53, he asked, “Do you understand what you are reading? And he said, ‘How can I unless someone guides me?’ ….Then beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:30-31, 35). Although this was more of an evangelistic encounter, there is no question the church needs a lot more of this today. And it all starts with pastors. The pastor must set the tone when it comes to mentoring and discipling relationships in the church. This sets in motion what could be called the multiplication process where disciples make more disciples. Paul wrote to Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). The pastor can’t disciple everyone, but he can train a few who will train a few, etc. etc.

5.The Church needs to be the Church.

What is a healthy church? I suppose there are a few ways of answering this question, but one indispensable quality of a healthy church is love among the brethren (Galatians 6:9-10 and John 13:34-35). Plain and simple, within a healthy church, people care for one another, serve one another, love one another, etc. etc. and this is all done because we love Jesus. When we begin to understand the love of God in Christ that has been showered upon us, we can’t help but love one another. This is one of the reasons I love the church. Seeing love in action is a beautiful thing and I can’t imagine ever not being part of a local body of believers.

 

6.What a valuable asset my wife is.

Steph is my most trusted friend and counselor and has been an immense help to me in ministry. Pastors (and husbands in general) thank God for your wife and treasurer her, for she is an incalculable blessing.

 

As you can tell, there is nothing revolutionary about this list. Some of these were not so much “lessons” as they were prior beliefs that have now become strong convictions based on my experience and study of the Word.

Should I Purchase a Kindle e-reader? – A Pastor’s Perspective

About a year and a half ago, we moved from Ohio to Waverly, NY. A team of four men (now all dear friends) were gracious enough to come and move us to our new home and church family. The big joke during (and for months after) the move was the amount of books I had – from my estimates between 800-900 volumes. The jokes still haven’t stopped but I really don’t mind. I love to read and books are just part of my toolkit.

It was around the time of our move, however, that I realized I had a bit of a problem. From the beginning, my new office was full of books and there was no room to grow my book collection. So I came up with the idea of replacing old and unused books with newer and better books. This has proved to be an effective solution as my library today contains better quality content books, even though the quantity of books has platowed, and even decreased a little.

Now, let’s get to the Kindle.

I have always been a late adapter when it comes to technology. In terms of books, I envisioned myself using traditional hard copy books long after the e-book, e-reader revolution. However, to my surprise that has changed. It all started when my wife downloaded the kindle app for our computers several months ago. Since that time, we have accumulated dozens of good books for a very reasonable price, sometimes even for free. While it took a while for us to get used to this new reading medium, I could see it’s value, something early adaptors foresaw years ago. Then last month my wife and I finally decided to purchase Kindle e-readers and we have quite enjoyed our new devices.

There are many tools and functions of the Kindle, especially if you have the Kindle Fire version. I am sure there are people who barely use it for reading at all. However, my concern in this review is the Kindle as an e-reader. It’s benefits are many, but allow me to just name a few.

First off, the reader can store hundreds of books on one device. If you travel a lot, this will prove especially useful. Another benefit is the adjustable font size to meet your reading preferences. Last week a pastor friend of mine told me that using an e-reader has helped him in his bible reading, as he no longer strains to read the text. I would also add that the Kindle is easy to navigate is incredibly light. If you are like me and have some big tomes that are not easy to hold, this is especially nice. Lastly, if you find a good quote that you want to use in your teaching or preaching, it is easy to copy and paste, and much quicker than copying word for word. I have already taken advantage of this a few times.

I would still recommend getting a hard copy book if you know it’s going to be a reference book – one that you will consult again and again. I often enjoy marking up my books as I interact with and think through the books content. And while you can do that with an e-reader, I still find it easier with a hard copy book. I would also warn against over collecting. If you are used to buying $10-20 books, $5-10 books (or cheaper) can be tempting, but a book’s true value is in actually being read. As King Solomon reminds us, “Of making many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). It’s not how many books you have that matters, it’s the quality of books you have, and being able to master those books.

You probably already know there are several excellent e-readers on the market today. My intention is not to promote the Kindle so much as it is to recommend purchasing an e-reader in general. I expect that traditional, hard copy books will always be a part of my library, but I have now made the switch to regularly using an e-reader and I don’t regret it.

In Essentials Unity, in Non-Essentials Liberty, in All Things Charity

I live in Waverly, NY, which sits right on the New York – Pennsylvania state border. Rarely a day goes by in which I don’t cross into Pennsylvania for one reason or another. I am also a Canadian citizen and with most of my family still living there, at least once or twice a year, passport in hand, I journey back to my homeland. Border crossing is nothing new for me – it’s just a regular part of life.

 

This got me to thinking about a famous quote. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Originally, I thought this quote came from the Puritan Richard Baxter, but I was wrong. It is actually from a German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century, Rupertus Meldenius. Having set the record straight, lets talk about its significance and how it connects with my opening illustration.

 

As Christians, there are things that separate us, just as borders separate states and countries and territories. I am part of a denomination (the Christian & Missionary Alliance) and just like every denomination, we have distinctives. While I love my Southern Baptist friends and have learned much from them, we hail from two different tribes. We share much in common, but there are some elements of emphasis and doctrine that separate us. The same could be said about other denominations too.

 

I also have some non-denominational blood in my background. The first church I pastored was an independent church in Ohio. When it comes to my theological training, I have attended three non-denominational schools – Briercrest College and Seminary, Regent College, and currently Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Each of these schools draw students from literally dozens of denominational and non-denominational backgrounds. I thank God for these experiences, which I believe have broadened by perspective.

 

As I said earlier, there are always going to be things that separate us. Take, for example, the first church I pastored. Even as an independent, non-denominational church, we still had distinctives. We had a doctrinal statement and a mission statement along with other elements that made us unique. This is true for every church. No two churches are the same, even those that hail from the same denomination or network. I think it would be fair to say that most churches and church leaders understand this and try not to let it hinder cooperation with other bible-believing, gospel-centered churches. We realize that even though we have distinctives and unique emphases, there is a place and a need to come together for the furtherance of the gospel.

 

With that being said, let me also say there is a place for separation. The Bible clearly teaches separation (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1) from the non-believing and the apostate. There are going to be times where it is unprofitable (and even damaging) to align ourselves with those who reject the gospel of Christ. So how do we know when to separate? When is it ok to extend the right hand of fellowship and when is it not? This takes us back to our opening quotation – In essentials unity, non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. We all long for unity, but what are the non-negotiables of the Christian faith that when violated would force separation?

 

Recently, I heard John MacArthur talk about what he calls “the drivetrain of the gospel.” By this he means the essentials of the Christian faith. MacArthur defines these as belief in “a Triune God, deity of Christ, deity of the Holy Spirit, deity of God the Father, the virgin birth, the sinless life of Christ, substitutionary atonement, literal resurrection, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.” These essentials, along with a belief in the Bible as the Word of God, have formed the core of historic Christian doctrine for centuries. And where there is a denial of these core doctrinal elements, there can be no cooperation and there must be separation. I would also add that these are the doctrinal issues we must unite around as Christians. If there is anything we should be rallying around, it is these foundational biblical truths.

 

What about non-essentials? What would be a doctrinal issue where two Christians (or Churches) may differ on but liberty should be granted? I would suggest things like eschatology (views on the last things) and ecclesiology (views on church governance/baptism) just to name a couple, are matters that would fit into this category. It would be unhelpful and unwise to separate from a brother in Christ just because he doesn’t share your particular view on the millennium, for example. As a footnote, I would also add differences in ministry methodology to this list of non-essentials.

 

What my experience has taught me is that we need to collaborate and work together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Surely we are better together than apart. I don’t think anyone wins when all our energies are being poured into non-essentials that separate instead of essentials that should unite us. Is there a place for standing for the truth? Absolutely! But let’s make sure we are fighting the right battles. Let’s make sure we are armed and prepared to stand against he enemy of our souls. And let’s do everything we can to unite and cooperate with our brothers and sisters in Christ for the cause of the gospel.

The Pastor and Study

In three separate spots around my office, I have Nehemiah 6:3 posted: “And I sent messengers to them, saying, I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” Why post such a verse, you ask? Well, it is a reminder to me that the work I do as a pastor, primarily prayer and the Word (Acts 6:4), is a great work not to be neglected. That doesn’t mean I neglect other things like spending time with people, but it is a reminder of my primary calling as a pastor.

 

I have another verse posted, 2 Timothy 2:15, right next to the Nehemiah verse. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” As a pastor, I will be the first to admit that teaching and preaching God’s word is hard work. Without putting forth the needed time and effort, I will soon find myself “handling the word of truth” in a careless manner and in way that is not edifying to my hearers. This verse reminds me that I am accountable to God and have a responsibility to teach sound doctrine (Titus 1:9).

 

I have yet to post this one in my office, but another verse that serves as a helpful reminder is Ezra 7:10. “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” Ezra is a model for pastors in that he first set his heart to study, then to do it (apply what he learned to his own life), and finally to teach it (to the people under his charge). As Alistair Begg and Derek Prime put it, “The key to success in study is that we always study with a view to our own obedience first. A trap that Satan regularly tries to set is for us so to concentrate upon others’ obedience to God that we neglect our own obedience. Whatever we study in the Scriptures – even though we inevitably have our preaching to others in view – we must first relate to ourselves, and practice. Then we may teach other what we ourselves are striving to obey.” (On Being a Pastor – p. 103)

 

The pastor who has not done his homework, so to speak, will starve the sheep and disqualify himself from leadership. The faithful pastor, on the other hand, is a reservoir of truth, constantly feeding those who hunger and thirst for the manna of God’s Word. If you are a pastor, I trust you see the importance of diligent and prayerful study in ministry. As pastors and local church leaders, we have been entrusted with the gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:4) and this is a high calling indeed. One day we will give an account to God as to how we fed and nourished God’s flock under our care (Hebrews 13:17). God help us to be faithful in this charge.