For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?
— 1 Thessalonians 2:19
Last night four men, myself included, were added to the board of elders at Liberty Baptist Church. And just like that, I became a pastor again (albeit of the lay variety). Eight years ago this fall, I resigned my last pastorate and entered an anxious kind of identity crisis I did not anticipate. While I was a pastor, I talked a big game about not making pastoral ministry the grounds of one’s identity — I even wrote a book sort of on that subject! — and I believed (and believe) every word of it. But I did not realize pastoral ministry had become an idol to me until I recognized the Lord was asking me to set it aside. For how long, I didn’t know.
The questions people asked me in the ensuing months and years — primarily, “Do you think you’ll ever pastor again?” — didn’t help. On one level, it was encouraging to know people thought I ought to be a pastor. On deeper levels, it was unsettling, because it only served to confirm my suspicions that I was somehow squandering my gifts, running from my “true calling,” or generally not as useful as a layperson as I could be. And then a funny thing happened. Time went by. People asked the questions less and less. And I actually got used to not being a pastor. By God’s grace, I actually enjoyed not being a pastor!
It helped that the Lord was sweet and kind to open up new avenues of usefulness for me. Training young men for the pastorate via my faculty role at Midwestern Seminary and as director of the Pastoral Training Center residency at Liberty Baptist has been a joy and a “sweet spot.” Of course, I still wrestled from time to time about teaching (and speaking and writing) about the pastorate while not serving in one. The old saw about “those who can’t do, teach” pops into my brain more than I care to admit. But in general, I have learned to follow the Lord’s leading and be content where he has placed me, not being ruled by what I assume others may think.
A number of years ago, before our church had a plurality of elders and our senior pastor was leading us into establishing a more biblical polity in that regard, I was approached with the question about whether I’d like to be considered if and when the time came for congregational affirmation. I said no. Honestly, I wasn’t ready. For one thing, I knew there would only be two or three of us, and I didn’t think I had the bandwidth or availability to shoulder such a narrowly-shared load. But I also said no because I was still pretty wounded, and so was my wife. That’s a story for another time, but Becky would tell you that at that time she had zero interest in being a pastor’s wife again.
So we settled into being the best church members we could be, loving the family we’d covenanted with to the best of our abilities, imperfectly but earnestly. And we sought to be the best encouragers of our pastors we could be. I have learned from pastoring that former pastors are often ideal church members, if only because they know what it’s like “on the other side.” We took Hebrews 13:17 seriously and endeavored to be church members our pastors could breathe easily with, easily smile when they saw us coming, and so on.
We love our church dearly. We’d both say it has been a place of tremendous healing for us. I hadn’t been asked if I wanted to be considered for eldership for several years, so there was no real reason to ask, but a couple of years ago I finally asked my wife, “If I’m ever asked again, what do you think?” It is a sign of incredible grace in both of our lives, that Becky responded: “At this church? Yes.” I can’t tell you how huge that is.
And so a couple of months ago the elders informed me that I was one of the nominations received for our prospective expansion of the elder board, and they asked if I was willing to enter the process of examination and consideration. I took a couple of weeks to talk with Becky, to pray and think. Was I really ready to do this again?
At this church? Yes.
Because one thing I’d learned deep down over twenty-plus years of ministry — but one thing that really only came to the surface for me in recent years — is that answering a call to ministry is not about personal ambition or desire, but about a covenantal connection, a familial bond, if you will. The call comes from the Lord, yes, but it comes through the church. So I asked the elders, “Did a substantial number of people nominate me?” Honestly, I asked this not because I was looking for some sense of popularity or to puff up my ego — I didn’t ask how many or who — but because I wanted to be sure it wasn’t simply that one or two of my friends submitted my name or the elders had themselves wanted me to put my name in the hat, but that it was desired, reasonably ascertained, by the church.
Another thing I’ve learned over the years is that even men biblically qualified to pastor a church are never really prepared to pastor their church. You come to know things about your brothers and sisters you wouldn’t ordinarily know simply as a congregant. You are obligated to speak into situations you wouldn’t ordinarily speak into. And I know from experience both as a pastor and as a non-pastor that pastors carry unique burdens non-pastors don’t. There is that “daily pressure of the anxiety for the church” (2 Cor. 11:28). I have slept better in the last seven years than I did the years previous! As the other three recently voted-in elders and I took our pastoral oaths last night, I felt this heaviness settle back onto my shoulders. Not in an ominous or otherwise negative way; not at all. But simply as a sobering re-reminder of the noble task (1 Tim. 3:1).
But then the congregation stood to recite their oaths to love and support us. And at every loud, resolute, resounding “We will” and “We do,” I became a little emotional, as I could hear the Spirit in my heart assuring me the burden is beautiful. Not because pastors are more special than anybody else. Not because there’s anything inherently great about pastors. But because there’s something supernaturally special and eternally great about the Church.
So while I have and will continue to joke along the lines of the iconic Michael Corleone line from The Godfather, Part III, “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in!,” I’m grateful for the pull. And if you’re a pastor, you should be too. I know some of you reading this haven’t had seven years off. Some of you haven’t had seven days off! And I acknowledge the distinct load of those who labor vocationally or bivocationally or who labor in solo pastorates without the benefit of seven(!) other godly men to help tend to Christ’s precious lambs. I acknowledge that many of you feel beat up and thrown about, especially after the last few years of absolute polarizing weirdness in evangelical churches, disparaged, discouraged, or even depressed. But the pull is something to thank God for. He has appointed you for such times as these. He has stewarded this time, these churches to us.
There are a lot of weird churches out there, places with a lot of problems, a lot of hurt, a lot of baggage, a lot of sin. But, this side of heaven, that’s just normal, brothers. And because heaven is where her citizenship is held, the Bride is nevertheless perpetually beautiful. Your church might be a mess, but the Church is glorious. And if we’re for the Church, by God’s grace we’ll do what she says.
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.
— 1 Corinthians 7:17