Second Part of Address to Baptist Ministers’ Refreshers Course (25th September 2012 @ The Hayes in Swanwick)
In my first blog post, I looked at the need to keep Jesus at the centre of everything we are and do as church leaders. If we are to stay fresh in ministry, then we must also remember the call of God on our lives. David Livingstone once said, ‘If a commission by an earthly king is conisdered an honour how can a commission by a heavenly king be considered a sacrifice.’ So often, when we face hard and difficult times as church leaders, the only thing that keeps us in post is the conviction that God called us to ministry. I can think of nothing else more powerful when it comes to staying the course than simply remembering that Jesus asked us to do this. C.H. Spurgeon would tell those who came to him in exploration of their ‘ministry’ that they should only enter pastoral and church leadership if they knew that they had no choice but to obey the call of God.
Paul’s language about God’s call.
The Apostle Paul was clear that he was ‘called’ or ‘commanded’ by God to his apostleship. As an older man writing to his young protege, Timothy, Paul could say, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith’ (2 Timothy 4:16). His language in his letters indicated that he considered himself to be a ‘slave’ or a ‘servant’ of Christ, called by his Master into the work that Paul gave his life to. A glance at the way in which he introduces himself to many of his audiences, tells us how deeply he felt this sense of vocation (Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:1,11-12,15-16; 2 Corinthians 1:1). As he thought of his life and purpose, Paul traced it back to the conversion experience he had on the road to Damascus and he referred to this calling on a number of ocassions (Acts 9:15, Acts 18:9; Acts 22:17-21).
In a very real sense, the apostle felt ‘constrained’ to his ministry. Of course in one sense, Paul had a choice to say ‘no’ to what God wanted, but in another he had no choice at all. One of my favourtie works on Paul is the biographical tome by F.F. Buce entitled, ‘Paul – The Apostle of of the Free Spirit.’ What a beautiful title for a book about this great leader of the early church. Paul was ‘free’ precisely because he was fulfilling the purpose for which He had been made. In answering the call of God, Paul became the person God wanted him to be – there is no freerer place to be.
What about us?
So much can be made of having the right qualifications, ticking the right boxes, knowing the right things, having been adequately trained. I agree with all of that. The almost Luddite tendencies that sometimes sweep movements or churches when it comes to training, preparation and investigation of call are disappointing at best and downright foolhardy at worst. For me, preparation, submission to goldy counsel, ‘proving your ministry’ and continually learning, developing and changing are vital indications of a genuine call. Do we ever stop learning? I’ll pick this up in another post shortly, but is there ever a sense in which we ‘arrive’ in our knowledge and experience of God? I hope not. We must be continually being changed and being open to learn and grow.
The problem for me is. however, that all the learning and all the studying and all the preparation in the world will not create or give you a call to pastoral and church leadership if you do not already have it. Of course, study and development may hone a call – but I am convinced that they cannot create a call. Now here is the controversial thing I want to say – there are many, many people who ended up pastoring and leading churches who have not been called to do it. They are to be commended for their stamina, but they are pursuing the wrong path.
You see it in the eyes of those who have become cynics. The women and men who look on their churches as their property, or talk about ‘them’ and ‘us’. You hear it in phrases like ‘this church doesn’t understand me’ or ‘these people will never change’ or ‘this is driving me into the ground’. Of course there are times when our ministries feel overwhelming. Moments when we feel our preaching is useless, our prayers are powerless and our leadership is futile and fruitless. Yet we can, if we are not careful, allow the negative, the difficult and the hard to swallow us up – it is the ‘call’ of God that keeps us when everything else has gone. We do this because if we do not, we will not ‘be’ trully ourselves.
Personal lessons in calling.
There have been a few ocassions in my own life when I have been ready to quite this vocation. I have even, on one or two days, asked God to take the call away from me so that I can do something else. Yet I cannot. On one ocassion, many years ago, I wrote my resignation and was about to post it – but simply could not do it. Why? Because deep down in my gut, like a rock in my stomach, I knew that I was doing what God had made me to do – I still know that. It’s what keeps me going in the hard and difficult times. God made me for this.
I’ve pastored and led churches for nearly twenty years now. I have made many mistakes. Said things I wish I had not, done things that I regret. I admire people who look back on thier lives and say that they would not change a single thing. I admire them, but I also wonder about them, to be honest. It feels a little bit like reverse pride to me, but that is another story. There are things I would change in my ministry. There are decisions I would have made differently, situations where I made a wrong response. I don;t look back and bemoan my utter failure and hoplessness, though. I look back and thank God that He never once walked out on me. He believed in me enough to stick with me when I got it wrong and teach me how to get it right. He has never stopped believing in me – and that has made all the difference. It’s kept me going. It keeps me going. It inspires me.
I said ‘yes’ again today.
I think I haver learned that at the heart of my own calling (and I cannot speak for anyone else) lies a simply yet powerful conviction. Every day I have to say ‘yes’ again to Jesus. About a year ago I was leading a meeting in Gold Hill. There were about 200 people present and in the middle of a time of worship, I felt the Holy Spirit was asking me a simple question. ‘Malcolm, if I ask you to stay here for 25 years and nothing changes, will you still pour out your heart to these people? Will you love them and care for them and shepherd them whether they love you or not? Will you hold them in your heart, even if the weight of carrying them feels as if it will break you? Will you weep with them, laugh with them and challenge them?’ It was a powerful moment for me that no-one else knew was taking place. I looked around the room and I saw a woman whose husband was dying. A man whose mother had died recently. I say someone with learning difficutlies. I saw an older couple who have poured their whole lives into God’s Kingdom. I saw two elderly ladies who are like missionary exorcet missiles but who are having to adjust to limitied circumstances physically. I looked long and hard at this small group of people and thought about what serving them for the next 25 years might mean. As tears rolled down my face, in my heart, I said to God, ‘Yes – I will do whatever You want, just give me the grace to do it.’
Now I do not know if God has axctually asked me to stick around here for that length of time – but I do know that He has asked me to be willing to. Since then we have had a blast as a church – but it has not all been easy. We have made big decisions, we have lost beautiful people to disease and sickness. We have baptised many, dedicated a lot and buried a good number. There are times when it is hard and there are times when it is easy. This is the thing that keeps me here, though. This simple clear commitment that God asked me to make when He called me. I said yes to Him because He called me. I remind myself of it every morning. If I don’t, I know I will end up looking at things the wrong way. I’ll use the wrong lense and apply the wrong logic.
Freedom in ministry springs from saying ‘yes’ to Jesus not once, but every time He asks you to do something.