To be a pastor means to love others more than one’s self. But that was my problem: I did not love others more than myself. Two of my uncles were pastors. One was erudite and self-sacrificing; the other was a key leader in the church, loved by many for his Christlike spirit. I was not like either of them. I rather liked my opinions and self-centered ways. I loathed the idea of acquiescing to people, just to be nice. I wanted to serve—a blessed concept inculcated by the life example of my own parents—but I preferred serving on my terms.
Still, I could not shake the idea that I had to seriously consider becoming a pastor. It seemed to me so out of place. Some of my friends went into the ministry, but they were gracious, patient, and willing to smile, even when they did not feel like it. I was a straight shooter. I esteemed efficiency and fairness over political correctness. And yet, I could see how God was at work when I visited with people, answered Bible questions, or gave a sermon.
What is a sinner to do?
My major at a denominational university in California was music, with a minor in theology. After two years there and a third in France, I decided on theology, but I still was not sure whether I qualified as a pastor. I spent a summer as an assistant pastor in a local church. I could not quite understand why people benefited by my ministry, but I had to admit I was blessed doing ministry.
Maybe that was it. Maybe ministry was more about being blessed in the engagement rather than being particularly good at it. Weeks before my graduation with a BA in ministerial studies, a conference president offered me a call; actually, two presidents did.
After I had pastored for two years, some of my doubts persisted. I was growing in my role as a pastor, but I felt I should have been ahead of where I was. After seminary, I spent four months in evangelistic training in Chicago. It was then that the curtains of my mind opened wide and the light of God’s wisdom poured in.
The real purpose of ministry
Pastoral ministry, I realized, was primarily, not about caring for the saints but seeking the lost. Then, the principal task of the ministry was a teaching one, not one of public or religious performance. Empowering members to see what God sees when He looks at a world lost in sin was not going to be easy but would certainly be worthwhile. My ministry focus changed from member maintenance to soul saving. Even members needed soul saving. Religion is not only not enough, it may actually be a distraction from the real thing, which is a vibrant, growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
What a difference that new perspective made.
I was, for sure, not “holier” than I had been before. I had donned the proper glasses, and now I could see what pastoral ministry was about. My spiritual life began to thirst for more of Jesus because I saw Him at work more clearly. My churches began to grow. I began to understand why the focus of the Gospels at the end of Jesus’ ministry was on the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20; Mark 16:15, 16; Luke 24:46–49; Acts 1:1–8) more than it was on staying close to Him (as strange as this may sound). He wanted His followers to see the need the world had for a Savior, which, in turn, would prompt them to personally long for more of the Savior to give to the world.
The power of prayer
My days were spent meeting with people to study God’s Word. Often, I would forget to eat, being so full of the joy of the Lord at seeing people take a hold of faith. I rejoiced every time I saw a sparkle in their eye as they realized some wonderful truth from God that applied to their life. At the church, we organized ourselves into ministry teams to more efficiently reach out to people. We even went door-to-door in our neighborhood to pray for people, simply because we loved them. Young adults began to get excited about a God who was becoming real to them.
My prayer life also changed, as did that of our members. When prayer became more about others than about my personal needs, perspective ensued. And then, one morning, I realized that I did not know how to pray. My prayers were still immature, even self-centered: much on the surface and little of actual conversation with the Almighty. So, I announced I would do a series of sermons on prayer.
In my study, I learned our—my—two greatest failures in prayer were lack of it (as simple as that) and praying faithless prayers. At the end of the seven-week series, the church woke up, and so did I. We got serious about corporate prayer. I invited my church elders to join me for prayer at the church any time on Mondays from five o’clock to seven o’clock in the morning, and seven of the ten did. Deacons asked to join the group. Deaconesses followed. We added Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings to this prayer adventure. Any member was now welcomed. We added the remaining three days, and, yes, this once Laodicean church became a praying church. It did not do so for its own sake; it did it for the sake of the lost, the sad, the overcome. And that was the key to the enduring aspect of this five-o’clock-in-the-morning folly. Lives mattered, and we were invited to enter into God’s throne of grace to petition on their behalf (Heb. 4:16). By God’s grace, we would then do it.
The church grew in the way Paul talks about it to the Ephesians: spiritually and numerically (Eph. 4:11–16). Fasting and prayer weekends were held twice a year, and we had up to 800 participating when the membership of the church was only 400. Life transformation became a church expectation. Multiple ministries developed for the sake of the community. Most of the members were part of one or more of those ministries. Without a church school from which to draw youth for baptism, the Lord led 194 people to be baptized as new believers.
The real power for ministry
Whatever happened to the young pastor full of doubts about ministry? He disappeared. After years of field ministry, he was asked to teach pastors, which he did for 23 wonderful years. The person God can use is not the pastor who has it all together or the one who is so politically savvy that he or she keeps everyone around him or her content (or even the one who makes no visible mistakes). The pastor who keeps growing is the one whom God can use. David made mistakes. He made serious mistakes. But God never tires of “bragging” about His servant David, whose heart was after His own (Acts 13:22).
I discovered, as George Müller had over a century before, that the secret of effectual prayer was effectual communion with God’s Word. He wrote, “The primary business I must attend to every day is to have fellowship with the Lord. The first concern is not how much I might serve the Lord, but how my inner man might be nourished. . . .
“The most important thing I had to do was to read the Word and to meditate on it. Thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, and instructed.
“Formerly, when I rose, I began to pray as soon as possible. But I often spent a quarter of an hour to an hour on my knees struggling to pray while my mind wandered. Now I rarely have this problem. As my heart is nourished by the truth of the Word, I am brought into true fellowship with God. . . .
“. . . As the outward man is not fit for work for any length of time unless he eats, so it is with the inner man. What is the food of the inner man? Not prayer, but the Word of God—not the simple reading of the Word of God. . . . No, we must consider what we read, ponder over it. ... “. . .
Through His Word, our Father speaks to us. . . . The weaker we are, the more meditation we need.”1
Claiming Isaiah 50:4, 5, I have been waking up each morning when God summons me to meet with Him. This has happened for most days of the past 30 years. I remember one morning, sitting by a lake in Nevada, the light of the full moon being so clear I could read the Word at three in the morning. I remember the joy of being with Him—the thrill of Creator and creature walking together, as if nothing else in the universe really mattered.
I also remember one day in Tennessee, reading the greatest book ever written on the life of Christ outside of the Gospels, The Desire of Ages, and being literally struck with the force of the immense and undeserved love of a God who would go to the cross just for me.2 Years later, I related to Charles Finney’s conversion experience when reading about the “waves and waves of liquid love” that were poured upon his soul by a God who would not let him go.3
I remember, recently, walking through narrow streets in Tokyo, asking God as my loving, generous Father to grant my request on behalf of people I was sharing the Gospel with. The next day, the answer came, to the amazing glory of God—and they were saved to the uttermost.
God is good. God is real. He is more than real. When we catch a glimpse of His greatness and superb love tailor-made for each of us, we stand in awe, quietly tearing, our hearts full of profound thanks for a God who would care so much for each of His children. We wonder how much more there is to Him than we have been able to perceive. Paraphrasing the psalmist: When I consider Your character, and your generous nature, the wonders you make available to us, “What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him?” (Ps. 8:4, NKJV).
God is everything that we need, and without Him, we simply cannot do anything worth doing (John 15:5). Recently, I visited a lady in great pain. We explored her issues, via a translator, for most of two hours. The picture was grim, the cloud dark. That was until we looked at God’s Word and we saw a different picture. God kept insisting that there was a beautiful blue sky above the dark cloud, with the sun shining on it. What mattered was not looking at the cloud but believing that the sun and sky were above. “Talk faith, and you will have faith.”4 Fifteen minutes of His Word changed two hours of gloom. The translator, the next day, was in awe of the transformation.
My greatest flaw is not my inherent selfishness or my favorite, recurring sins. Those are great weaknesses, indeed. But my greatest flaw is my lack of faith. And, if we paid a little attention to the stories of the Gospels, we would discover this to be so for most of us. All Jesus needs from me is me. All He wants from me is me, warts and all. All He really cares for is me. When I am His, I am a fisher of people. When I am mine, my net and my boat are full of holes.
Keep looking up
It has been more than 37 years now since I began professional ministry. I have been a congregational pastor, a university and seminary professor, an academic administrator, a missionary, and our denomination’s pastors’ pastor in the most populated and secular area in the world. I still have doubts, but they are only about myself. I no longer entertain doubts about God or what He is able to do. But some days, strangely, I hide my face from Him, causing Him, no doubt, untold pain and disappointment. But I also know that He loves me, not because I am lovable but because He is love (1 John 4:8). And as Paul says, “Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8 NKJV). God will finish what He has started in me (Phil. 1:6), not because I feel it but because He said He would. And my Savior has yet to break a promise.
The book of Hebrews was written by a well-educated pastor, theologian, and missionary. In chapter 11, we find the commonly known Hall of Faith. By faith we know the worlds were made by God, by faith Abel obeyed God, by faith Enoch walked with God, by faith Noah prepared the ark, and so on. Then it says, “By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were encircled for seven days. By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish” (Heb. 11:30, 31, NKJV). The author ends his Hall of Faith with these glorious words: “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:1, 2, NKJV). Those “walkers by faith” were constant doubters, and the woman was a harlot. But they all chose to look up. They chose to center their attention not on their sins, misgivings, or failings—but on what God maintained He could do. I made the same choice. And, God helping me, I have been blessed to experience the purpose and power of ministry.
1 George Müller, The Autobiography of George Müller (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1984), 139, 140.
2 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1898), 755, 756.
3 Charles G. Finney, The Autobiography of Charles G. Finney, ed. Helen Wessel (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1977), 10.
4 Ellen G. White, “The Light of the World,” The Signs of the Times, October 20, 1887.