Take heed unto thyself

As long as a plumber can fix their leaky pipes, most people don't care what kind of person he is or what he does in his free time. But for ministers, performance and skill alone are not enough for success.

B. Russell Holt is the executive editor of Ministry.
I have sometimes wished that our church favored the clerical collar and distinctive garb adopted by some denominations. I know there are drawbacks, but such a uniform does one thing. It constantly reminds the wearer that his vocation and his personal life are inseparable. This is true of no other calling as it is of the ministry.

If you need heart surgery, do you look for a physician whose character is above reproach? Or do you look for one who has repeatedly performed this particular operation successfully? I know which I'd choose. I'd take the experienced surgeon no matter what his character might be! Does a plumber really have to be a born-again Christian to make sure your pipes don't leak? Woodrow Wilson put it like this: "You do not have to be anything in particular to be a lawyer. I have been a lawyer, and I know. You do not have to be anything in particular, except a kindhearted man, perhaps, to be a physician; you do not have to be anything, nor to undergo any strong spiritual change, in order to be a merchant. The only profession which consists in being something is the ministry of our Lord and Saviour and it does not consist of anything else. It is manifested in other things, but it does not consist of anything else."

In no other calling is there such a close connection between what the individual is in the inmost being and what he is called upon to do in the carrying out of his profession. And that must be the order of priority; what we are as ministers must always take precedence over what we do. This is not always easy to remember when in nearly every other experience of life the priority is reversed. Performance counts in the world. The experienced surgeon, the skilled plumber, the person who can catch the ball, fix your car, sell your house, or deliver you to your destination safely and on time—these are the persons who are considered successful regardless of character. The temptation, of course, is to see ministry in the same terms.

Is not the successful pastor the one who can baptize the largest number, who can preach the best sermons, who can chair effective board meetings, who can reach the goals, who can build beautiful churches? Is not the successful conference or union administrator the one who can show membership and tithe gains at constituency meetings, who can inspire his associates to greater efforts, who can point to a growing program in his field? Performance is important even in ministry. We should never be content with a low standard or ineffective skills. But ability is not the most important indicator of success. What we are will always be more crucial to ministry than what we do. Haven't we all seen the minister who could baptize large numbers, but whose manipulative techniques in doing so neutralized any real benefit? The golden-throated preacher who could charm with his words, but whose sermons failed because his life shouted down his eloquence? The administrator who could skillfully guide a proposal through to an affirmative vote, but whose political maneuvering caused such resentment that nothing good was accomplished? Skill and performance, by themselves, are no indicators of true success in ministry.

This, I think, is what Paul must have had in mind when he wrote to the young pastor Timothy: "Take heed unto thy self' (1 Tim. 4:16). The ministry is people oriented. We are always taking heed to people—their needs, their spiritual condition—but we don't always take heed to ourselves. We think that because we are doing spiritual things, we must be spiritual. I sometimes wonder if we don't welcome the ringing phone, the filled appointment book, the late-night committees, and all the rest of the frenzied pace as evidences of our spirituality. They are welcome because they keep us from facing the fact that our own spiritual life is being rapidly depleted without being replenished. It's all right, we tell ourselves, that we don't spend personal time with God because we spend so much time in church work. Activity can become a substitute for being.

What Paul urged upon Timothy he followed himself. To the Corinthian Christians he expressed his concern to maintain a connection with Christ "lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway" (1 Cor. 9:27). Apparently it is possible to so divorce what a minister does from what a minister is that no connection remains. How else can we explain the infrequent (though not infrequent enough) situation in which a minister can be living a hidden life of flagrant sin yet continue to stand in the pulpit and perform all the other spiritual duties expected of him? Is it too basic to say that our own relationship with the Lord is of the utmost importance? And yet, no doubt, a number who have preached salvation will at last find themselves without Christ.

"Believe it, brethren, God never saved any man for being a preacher, nor because he was an able preacher; but because he was a justified, sanctified man, and consequently faithful in his Master's work. Take heed, therefore, to yourselves first, that you be that which you persuade others to be, and believe that which you persuade them daily to believe, and have heartily entertained that Christ and Spirit which you offer unto others." —Richard Baxter, in The Reformed Pastor. Quoted in Spurgeon, Lectures to His Students, p. 19.

We are human, and few people expect us to exhibit sinless perfection. They, and the Lord, will be forgiving not only of honest mistakes and unintentional failings but of more serious sins as well. But they, and He, expect us to be examples to the flock, showing that what we do issues from what we are.—B.R.H.

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B. Russell Holt is the executive editor of Ministry.

March 1984

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