It’s not the first time for us. I came into the office the other day to find a desk where my brother has faithfully worked, now cleared.
Empty desk. Empty chair.
For years we have worked with, watched, and tried to train our brother for the work of ministry. We’ve learned together, laughed together, laboured together in prayer and in the day-to-day tasks of leading a church.
But now he’s gone. Gone to the work to which God has called him.
Looking at the empty desk, I can’t but wonder if we’ve done enough. There are so many things that remain untaught, unsaid. So many things I wish we could have talked about. So many ways I wish I could have been a better example. So many things I wish we could have better prepared him for.
Looking at the empty desk, I’m touched by sadness. This brother and his family have been so faithful, and grown so close to our hearts as individuals, and as a church family. Now they’re moving far away and who knows when we’ll be able to see them again?
Many of you earnestly desire to hear your pastors preach better sermons. While you can tell that he labours away, you long for more passion, more earnestness, more deliberateness, or more clarity. That’s understandable. Most preachers would like to grow in these ways as well. (And the ones who don’t really need prayer.)
One of the best ways you can help your pastor’s preaching is by praying for him. But did you know you can do even more than that? And it’s not that difficult, either.
Let me say this plainly: I love the people of Grace Fellowship Church. I totally felt what John Piper was saying in a recent interview on his experience as a pastor at Bethlehem:
I never felt that I was the church’s privilege, but that she is mine. To be at Bethlehem was gift, all gift.
I have felt that to be my reality in increasing measure since we planted, almost three years ago now. And I know that Paul, my fellow pastor, feels the same way.
That being said, I have known enough churches and enough pastors over the years to realize that the relationship between pastor and congregation isn’t always exclusively a love-in. Even in the privileged ministry that the Lord has given me, there have been opportunities for anger, strife, malice, bitterness, and all the rest of that to take root.
So how do we fight those temptations when they come? Here are some ways I’ve found helpful to grow in love for the members of the church:
1. Eat with Them
Erik Raymond wrote an excellent post last year commending the practice of eating lunch regularly with members from the church. Here’s some of the benefit:
This is your opportunity to hear them. Ask them questions that help you to better know them. Ask them about their families, hobbies, jobs, etc. Ask them about how they met their wife, where they are from, what they do for work, what their extended family dynamic is like. Ask good questions and just listen.
I would add my ‘amen’ to that. When you hear about someone’s life and get into their world, you can’t help but find your love and compassion for them increasing.
Maybe it’s because I’m naturally a pessimist, but the most natural way for me to figure out how I can grow as a preacher is to identify what mistakes I most commonly make and try to work on improving those, by God’s grace. For the purpose of self-evaluation and ‘fanning into flame’ the preaching gift that I have, I decided to list out the mistakes I most often make in sermon preparation and delivery.
I imagine that I’m probably not the only preacher who makes some of these mistakes with regularity, so I thought I’d share them here in case my list ends up helping any of you brothers who are working on preaching evaluation / improvement as well.
Top Mistakes I Make in Sermon Preparation
1. I Don’t Pray Enough
This one is simple. There are more weeks than I care to admit when there is very little by way of earnest, extended times of prayer for the ministry of the preached word. This reflects self-reliance, and a disturbing amount of trust placed in my gifts rather than the one who actually has the power to do spiritual work in the hearts of the hearers. This one is first because it’s clearly the worst offence.
2. I Don’t Study Enough
This doesn’t happen quite as much for me, but sometimes I think my sermons are lacking in power because I just simply haven’t studied broadly enough. If I’m not absolutely confident that ‘this’ is what the text says, then I can’t preach it with absolute conviction.
Many pastors I know have a love-hate relationship with reading and writing. We love reading and we hate that we can’t read more. For the most part, that’s across the board: though there are exceptions, most pastors love reading soul-invigorating, heart-stirring, theological-reflection-inspiring books.
Writing, on the other hand, creates a little more of a divide. While some pastors seem to find all kinds of time to write (some even blog everyday, and write books on top of that!), other pastors can’t seem to scratch out the time, and others just don’t want to.
Lately I have been reflecting on the pros and cons of writing in the life of a pastor as I try to discern whether or not God is calling me to do more of it. Because I haven’t been convicted of my need to write I hardly ever make any time for it. And yet, I always seem to sense a unique blessing in my spiritual life and a help to my pastoral ministry when I devote more time to writing.
But is that just feeling-level hoogly? Am I just putting too much weight in sentiment and what I feel when I write? Is my writing what will really benefit the people of Grace Fellowship Church the most? Those are tough questions. That’s why I’m so thankful that in the most recent edition of Themelios Peter Schemm Jr. has taken the time to write-out some very convincing reasons why pastors should write.
In his very helpful article, Schemm answers at least three questions that I think every pastor would do well to think through for himself:
1. Why would I write when I’m no Augustine or Luther or Calvin or Lewis? Will anyone care?
Surely this is one of the first things I have to work through in my heart. I’m no Sproul or Piper or Challies. Why write when it’s unlikely I’ll get published and even more unlikely that anyone will read what I write, even if I did get published? Schemm answers in two ways:
I am not suggesting that every pastor ought to publish journal articles and books. I am suggesting that pastors write. Writing is a spiritual discipline that holds promise for all pastors. This should not, I think, be said of publishing.
This is a busy study week for me. In the Lord’s providence I’ll be preaching three very different messages over the next few days, so I’m studying lots in preparation.
Tonight as I finished working my way through another commentary and compiling notes I had a funny thought:
Even on the most productive of days, a pastor often has nothing tangible to show for all his labour.
I worked hard today. I laboured to stay on task, I made my way through a lot of material, and I think I understand the word of God better. I think I’m better prepared to teach God’s people what they need to hear from God.
But there’s nothing yet tangible to show for it. Nothing in the world (apart from a few files on my computer) are any different now, despite a full day of work.
By Whose Standard?
Honestly, that can be a little discouraging. By way of comparison, I could spend 30 minutes pushing a lawn mower and it looks like I’ve done something productive. But now I spend an entire day at a desk, working hard, and it doesn’t look like I did a thing.