Searching for Greatness in Ministry

Zack Preaching Spurgeon Fellowship 2016

Zack speaking to Pastors and Ministry leaders in Portland Oregon, March 2016.

This two-part audio series “Searching for Greatness in Ministry,” is taken from Zack’s recent visit with pastors and ministry leaders who participate in the Spurgeon Fellowship in Portland, Oregon.  Out of his daily life in local pastoral ministry, Zack seeks to encourage us in our common vocation in Jesus.

Part 1: What do you want Jesus to do for you?  (begins at the 40 minute 20 second mark)

Part 2: What is the greatest thing you can do in ministry?

A Monastic Echo for Pastoral Training

Pious men customarily prepared themselves by monastic discipline to govern the church, that thus they might be fitter and better trained to undertake so great an office.[1]

            I was not trained for local church ministry “by a monastic discipline.” A monastic way was something that for years I had mostly (and unknowledgably) critiqued.  So, when I first read these words written by John Calvin, I was intrigued. I was intrigued because of my particular struggle serving these last twenty years in the pastorate. My struggle has rarely related to theological preparedness. I was trained well by a good seminary. Once I became a pastor, I was more equipped in the gospel, the Bible, and the questions of our generation than I realized. What I have struggled with has had to do with the way of being that is conducive to what a day in a pastorate more often requires.

The Pace Required Becomes a Way of Life

In seminary I worked two jobs and went to school full-time to handle the financial cost (and this with generous scholarships). In addition, the reading load alone required that I read fourteen to twenty books (outside of the Bible) in thirteen weeks. Add to this, the papers, tests and exegesis and all of this unwittingly forged a habit of quantity that suggested skimming rather than meditation as a norm for succeeding each day. This quantity and pace tutored me in how to manage my heart, my family and my time. “Getting the work done,” so that I could get on to being somewhere other than where I was in order to finally do God’s work; subtly worked its way into my life as a “rule” by which to organize my day.

Training for a Marathon by Sprinting

This rule mentored me for three years. This way of doing a day (quantity, speed and grade preservation) unwittingly forged daily disciplines and scheduling practices designed to fit a person for doing something large, in a notable way and as immediately and successfully as possible. The problem for me and for many of us, is that the pastoral vocation, is more often dominated by doing small things, in ways that go unnoticed, with little immediate gratification over the slow passing of days in the same old place. It is like I had prepared for the ministry as a man who soon will have to sprint, win, and rise to cross the finish line, only to find that the pastorate is meant for marathon runners. My required pace for training did not fit me to run the same bored streets over and over again, in a race with few trophies, and only an occasional cheering section. Ask me to stay somewhere a short time with a quick pace and a great deal of productivity and I am mature for the task. Ask me to stay somewhere a long while, with a slow pace, and offering more presence than productivity and I am profoundly immature. The pastorate has winded me, aches in my bones.

Augustine’s Clergy School

In the context of expressing his serious concern about the monastic movement as a whole, Calvin paused to praise the monastic quality that Augustine had practiced long before, and to set Augustine’s purposes in contrast to what monastic practice in Calvin’s day had become.  Calvin identified what Augustine practiced as a “monastic college, seminaries of the ecclesiastical order.” As Calvin saw it, Augustine, “shows us in his day [that] the monastaries usually supplied the clergy for the church.”[2] As a pastor, Augustine formed a monastery of clergy and future clergy who lived with him.[3] They did not have to unlearn how they did a day in order to transition from what their theological training required to what most pastorates require. Succeeding in the “classroom” was founded on the same habits and norms that foster success in the pastorate.

Unlearning the Rule of Big, Notable and Now

A husband and wife tell themselves in seminary that their frenzied pace and fatigue is worth it. While they are working, she is with the kids, and he studies late in the library. They consume where they are to get somewhere else for God. But two years into their first pastorate their schedule looks no different, their sense of distance feels the same and they started their ministry fatigued and worn with each other. Why? Because “getting the reading done,” mentored them into a habit of how they approach “getting the sermon done.” Being in the library instead of at home to study became a habit even though there are no more exams. He simply does not know how to be at home instead of the library in the midst of ministry. He wasn’t taught. Amid slow change and unnoticed days, he begins to feel an anxiety to move on. When one finally gets to where he or she is going they must learn how to stay there. How does one stay somewhere when they’ve never been taught what staying somewhere requires? Prayer is hard to find and to work into the schedule because prayer has never been the practiced organizing principle of their day around which everything else must fit in. Hospitality to visitors, strangers, and neighbors causes tension because it has been so rarely practiced. It is new to them at this level. Personal doubts, questions and confusions, are hidden beneath appearances because safe communal space for such questions was hard to find when trying to preserve grades, networking and job prospects.

Jesus our Healer

Our days became oriented around the training, rather than the training being oriented around the day—and this even at our best training. Perhaps Calvin alerts us to a monastic echo—a rhythm of training more resonant with what our pastoral vocation will require of us.  We learn what we are equipping ourselves for, not just by the content we study, but also by the way of life that such study is requiring us to establish. These ways of life we take with us. Getting the grade is a practice run enabling us to get to our next phase. But the way of life we cultivate while getting the grade is not practice—it is the real expression of who we are and day upon day, year upon year, it forges who we are becoming. Jesus is the balm for worn out professors, haste-driven students, and restless pastors. Maybe Jesus has help for some of us in the best echos of a monastic rhythm.


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 2, Book IV.8 (The Westminster Press), 1262.

[2] Ibid.

[3][3] See for example, Edward L. Smither, Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders (2009).

Trying to find a pastoral way of life

“We learned how he lived.” Reading these words gave me pause. They were written by the famed poet, Donald Hall. Donald wrote these words about his pastor. (Life Work, 6) His pastor’s name was Jack.

The words gave me pause because I had never heard of Jack or the small New Hampshire church that he pastored for years until he died. Unknown to the world and flawed he was nonetheless known by Donald and his wife Jane and a small community of people who came to follow Jesus. “Unknown to the world.” “Hmmm,” I ponder. “This fact is never a good measure of a pastor’s worth or place. Known by God. Known by those he served and loved where he was called. These, more local and mundane relationships and labors are truer measures of the pastor, the man, the call,” I think to myself.

The words also gave me pause as Scripture words plunge and splash into the pond of my thoughts.  “Remember your leaders . . .consider the outcome of their way of life . . .imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7) “A pastor’s way of doing a day is meant for apprenticeship,” I think to myself. “My way of life is supposed to promote thought and to invite imitation among those I learn to serve and love in Jesus.” Pastoral ministry is a vocation of apprenticeship in a way of life.

At this point, Anxiety began to pound its fists upon the door of my pause. “But I live a split life” I protest. The “way of life” that people encounter with me is public and oriented toward the strengths and surfaces of my days. People have my strengths to imitate: I preach Sunday, I teach on a weekday morning, I answer questions or offer counsel in my study, I lead monthly leadership meetings. People have my surfaces to imitate: how I smile or don’t, the music or movie I listen to or don’t, the way I hold my wife’s hand or don’t, the way my kids behave or don’t in the hallway after the service. “But these are moments of public doing, not personal and daily ways of being, not daily rhythms for doing a sustained life,” I counter within myself. “Is it just my moments of strength and surface that are meant to promote reflection and imitation among those I pastor?,” I ask. “Surely it isn’t less, but what about my daily weaknesses and depths?” “But people don’t want or respect a pastor’s weaknesses, ordinary rhythms or personal depths,” I counter. “To invite them there is to drop church attendance or to invite pain,” I say. “But what if people respond this way because they’ve been poorly apprenticed?”

At this point, frustration and self-righteousness crash into my pause. “What about me?!” I shout almost out loud. “How can I serve as an apprentice in a way of doing life if the pastors and leaders I’ve had offered their strength and surface, their pulpit and their handshake, as the thing I’m supposed to imitate and strive to make a norm?” “No wonder I’m hollowed out, emphasizing and chasing strengths and surfaces as a way of doing pastoral ministry! This is the normal model!”

A sense of quitting now joins the crowd of thoughts and questions and self righteousness that have infiltrated my pause. Somehow Paul offered those he served not only his teachings, but his patience, his sufferings, his daily life and his daily way of doing work for their view and imitation. (2 Tim. 3:10-11; 2 Thess. 3:7) “It had to be grace right?” I ask. “I mean, the One who let the disciples live with him and then said at the end, “love as I have loved you;” this One offers more than strength and surface for us to learn how a day can be inhabited, right?”  “Jesus paid and purchased this kind of apprenticeship for pastors and people at the cross and by His grace didn’t He provide this for us?” But what will it mean if I start to order my day in such a way that I account for more than strengths and surfaces? What will it mean if I view, not just my public performances, but my daily ways of doing life as an open book for imitation?

I will freak out and enter a kind of detox for a while. Yep. I will lose some church attendance too perhaps. For many of us, giving not only the gospel but our very lives; teaching not only by offering information but also by invitation into relationally and actually practicing the work itself, is a foreign category. Since surface and strength is what we’ve been apprenticed in, some of us won’t know how to recognize the gospel health of weakness and depth that is being offered to us. Slow, steady, authentic, incomplete, imperfect, spiritual practice amid the actual alteration of the way we approach a day isn’t sexy, quick, or noticeable. It fidgets us and there is a church down the street that likely won’t require of us this discomfort of health. I will grow, so will others and so will the way pastors pursue their vocation. But those who stay and who want to learn a way of life . . . consider its outcome . . . and imitate it, will encounter a way of life with Jesus that they never knew existed beyond the strengths and surfaces.

In order to move toward this idea of apprenticeship and imitation as a pastoral way of life, I think I’ll have to reconsider the way I currently structure a day and the way I teach,” I say to myself. “What does that look like?” I think I’ll try to begin to address that in my next couple of posts. There is a lot here to think out and learn. What do you think?

Life, ministry and “wasting time.” HELP!

I’ve become confused about what it means to waste time. This confusion is making a mess out of my ability to do life as a human being, as a family man and as a pastor. To waste time means that we squander what we’ve been given. Careless with seconds we prove inefficient through misuse of minutes.

Clock-Time Anxiety and Guilt

And this, I think is where my agitation begins. I find that I habitually measure waste by the ticking of a clock. Too many clicks and anxiety pounds upon my door demanding to be let in. Guilt sees me driving too slow. Highways are made for fast transit so guilt bangs on its horn. It tailgates me. It rolls down its window, gives me the finger and hollers, “Get off the road you %*# turtle!” Speedy completion equals well used time. Slow completion equals misuse and waste. Being on the move equals making progress. Busyness is focus. Slow advance is distraction.

Don’t get me wrong. Getting things done fast by using a hasty deadline-frenzy to motivate us makes sense when the task before us involves making sales calls, or changing diapers, or getting to surgery in the ER. Likewise, we have to “get a move on” as my people used to say, when getting the cows in, or staining the deck, or completing a building project, or finishing our homework. Waiting too long before getting a sleeping bag to the homeless in winter, or before mobilizing a swat team in crisis or before rousing a battle squadron amid ambush can have fatal consequences.  Act too slowly to roll up your car windows and the afternoon rains will soak your seats.

I Want to Get There Quickly

But right here a dilemma confronts me. Moral, psychological, physical, vocational and relational growth, by their very nature, often require massive quantities of time. This is where my confusion comes in. As a human being, unless I’m a prodigy, learning the piano is going to take years of awkward mistakes and uncomfortable practice. When we say “I do” at the altar with our spouse this does not mean that “we are done.” The trust required to say “I do” is substantial. But things await us in life that will require that our trust grows even deeper. Growing trust rarely happens hastily. If I ask my eight year old to carry the container of juice boxes from the car into the house its all good, but physically he isn’t able yet to carry the sound system speakers for worship-team set-up on Sunday morning. Not because there is something wrong with him but because there is something right. He has to be eight before he can be twelve. Likewise, my first sermon can make a huge difference in God’s hands, but that doesn’t mean that I can apply the Scriptures the way a pastor of twenty five years can. And just because I can start ministry programs and build a church building in two years does not mean that the spiritual growth of the congregation (or our own spiritual maturing) will go at the same speed.

Haste and the Pastorate Cannot Co-exist

I’m trying to say that most of what I do as a person, a family man, and as a pastor, involves entering the kinds of things that require years and lifetimes to complete. The nature of love, growth, sanctification, thought and skill requires that I give hospitable room to the time commitments these worthy depths require of us. When I try to apply clock-time measures of waste to these slow-advancing treasures I get flustered, I impatiently pressure others, I feel like a failure and incompetent.I quit way too soon. Speedy measures of accomplishment cannot mentor us in the skills of waiting, persevering and longsuffering. Without these skills we will rarely experience the abiding joys and satisfactions that only a long labor can produce.

Many of those in our congregation can do their jobs with the motto, “Speed equals value and success.” But the nature of what we are called to do as pastors will require us to throw this motto out. It cannot work for us. Human beings simply do not grow in their love for God and each other in this way. And no matter what our job is, it is a damaging thing to translate this motto into the way we make a home and make love with our spouses, the way we parent our kids, or the way we personally relate from our hearts to God. Maybe we’ve been giving up too soon on weighty things because we’ve tried to use haste as our means of accruing weightiness. A life or ministry of substance cannot happen quickly. Dear friend, using your days to give people the hospitable room that their growth with Jesus and each other will require, is no waste of time! It is a noble way to spend a life. 

Do Not Be Discouraged

With this in mind, I’d like to share an old story with you. It is told by an old hermit.

A man had a plot of land. Through his carelessness, brambles sprang up and it became a wilderness of thistles and thorns. Then he decided to cultivate it. So he said to his son, “go and clear that ground.”

So, the son went to clear it and saw that the thorns and thistles had multiplied. So, his resolve weakened and he said, “What alot of time I should need to clear and weed all this.” So he lay down and went to sleep. He did this day after day.When his father came to see what he had done he found him doing nothing. He said to him, “Why have you done nothing until now?”

The boy said to his father, “I was coming to work father when I saw this wilderness of thorn and thistle and I was too intimidated to start and so I lay on the ground and went to sleep.” Then his father said to him, “Son if you had cleared each day the area on which you lay down, your work would have advanced slowly and you would not have lost heart.” So the boy followed his father’s advice and in a short time the plot was cultivated.

The hermit then spoke about the grace of God and added, “do a little work and do not be discouraged.” (The Desert Fathers, Penguin Classics, 72-73)

When Pastors Feel Overlooked

“With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel.” (2 Corinthians 8:18)

Most of us who serve all of our lives in ministry will not be asked to speak at a conference or write a book or give a radio interview. For the majority of us, our ministries are a long obscurity among the local and unheard of. In a celebrity and consumer oriented church culture this fact can take its toll on a pastor. We wear down as the autograph lines always form outside another’s door and never our own. It is no wonder that amid these cultural pressures even Jesus preachers can be tempted to use their ministries as a means to compete with and outshine others. (Phil. 1:17). The thought of an overlooked life knocks the wind out. Maybe this is why I come back to these sentences of Paul.

After all, when Apollos preached the place was packed. But when Paul came to preach some people slept in. Seats were left vacant. It was hard to find enough volunteers for the nursery on the mornings Paul preached. The apostle’s pulpit presence was simply unimpressive. Closeness to God and measures of generational relevance were tied to the towers of oratory, spectacular influence and gathered crowds. Why bear with Paul when you could go down the street as it were and hear Apollos?

And now, with these words, Paul reveals that there is yet another preacher more impressive in the eyes of the congregations than Paul. It is almost like when the churches of that generation held a conference this famous brother would have likely been the keynote preacher, Apollos would have preached prime-time on the alternating nights, and Paul would have given a workshop or break-out session. But what some believers overlooked in Paul at times, Jesus saw clearly.

And what about Titus? It sounds rather humbling when we re-read the sentence. “With him,” (that is, “with Titus,”) we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches.” Titus was perceived by many as a lesser pastor all of his life. When he was with Paul people would have thrown their attention to Paul first, not Titus. When Titus was with this famous preacher or in the vicinity of Apollos, they and not Titus would likely get the first invites for interviews. Titus had years of experience in the ministry-trenches of Jerusalem, Corinth, Dalmatia and Crete. He had a great deal to offer. But in these Corinthian circles it was often others they would naturally prefer for their bible and missions conferences. Corinthian Christians tended to overlook the non-sexy daily love of a man’s character toward them. They seemed to forget that part when talking about the best sermons. What some believers overlooked in Titus at times, Jesus saw fully.

The irony here is that those the Corinthians tended to prize are relatively unknown to us today (Apollos and the famous one). While those the Corinthians tended to overlook are in Jesus our sure guides today (Paul and Titus).  “What then is Apollos? What then is Paul?” “Servants . . . as the Lord assigned . . . neither is anything . . . but only God who gives the growth.” (I Cor. 3:5-8)

So, by grace, we don’t let the celebrity opportunities that pass us by or never come, break us. Likewise, saturated in the grace of Jesus, we learn to discern that living a known life doesn’t necessarily equal having the kind of influence Jesus values. By grace then we don’t let the celebrity opportunities that come our way fool us either.

Questions rise. “If, for all of your labors and gifts and efforts for the gospel, you will remain unknown in your generation, why serve at all?” “Are you being tempted to give the Corinthian “over-look” to the unknowns or unimpressives? “Are you being tempted to believe that if you don’t matter to everybody you matter to nobody?” “Or because you matter to some you matter to everybody?” “Are you starting to believe that the praise or disrespect of some is synonymous with God’s view of you?”  Obscurity tempts us to believe that no celebrity equals no lasting influence.  Celebrity tempts us to believe that no obscurity means lasting influence. What if Paul provided more grace in this statement than we first realized? “Timothy,” he said. Preach the word in the sight of God.(2 Tim. 4:1) Oh, the gracious eyes! The present presence! No pastor in Jesus goes unnoticed. None are unheard of. Our obscurity is His table. Our celebrity is His place of humbling prayer. There we sup with Him day by day.

Cultivating a Stamina for Waiting

Sowing in rowInstant video streaming, on-demand programming, twenty-four hour grocery, credit-cards, texting, and next-day delivery are wonderful. They reward my desires instantly. Immediacy befriends me. Entitlement invites me to come over. We party at once and without delay. So, when I crave a food, want a mood from a show, or need aspirin from Walgreens at 3:00am, I feel quite grateful for this split-second, on the spot way of life.

But ask me how long I can handle no response after I’ve texted or emailed somebody before I begin to doubt whether they like me, or think I’ve done something wrong to offend them or ascribe negative judgments about their character, and you can begin to see through me into an area of weakness. (more…)