Some weeks, it’s tough to know if you’re making any progress or even heading in the right direction. When Jesus walked on the water of the Sea of Galilee, the disciples “were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them” (Mark 6:48).
That captures something for us: Some stretches of ministry feel like we’re in the deep of night, every bit of headway is painful, and the wind itself is against us.
My natural inclination is usually to pull harder at the oars to make it through. This shows up in many ways in ministry. We can use all the help we can get, so we turn to methods and techniques from a wide variety of fields and sources.
Pastoral and seminary training is typically too light on organizational principles. It’s important to learn good leadership from the business world, good therapy and counseling techniques, and to glean some understanding of social science. And yet, running the church’s business is almost always in tension with the essentials of pastoral ministry.
In church planting, that reality is exacerbated because a planter must develop every system from the ground up. As Eugene Peterson said, “I don’t want to end up a bureaucrat in the time-management business for God or a librarian cataloging timeless truths. Salvation is kicking in the womb of creation right now, any time now. Pay attention.”
In an ever-changing culture, the tools of our trade are forever unchanging: We offer the hope of eternal life in Jesus Christ through the Word and sacraments. Only the presence of Jesus will bring transformation, comfort, conviction, and peace. Pastors and church planters must remember that these tools—the Word and sacraments—are not just for other people’s lives, they’re for us. We never outgrow the need for Jesus. We never graduate to other means of God’s grace.
Immerse Yourself in God’s Word
If every passage you read jumps immediately to a sermon outline, your soul will dry up, and your preaching will follow. It takes discipline to remain saturated in Scripture, both in and outside of work. In sermon preparation, make sure there’s enough time for the Word to soak in and speak to you before jumping too quickly to what it means for the church you serve, and preach out of that overflow. There’s a unique vulnerability in standing behind the pulpit and believing that the same Word God used to speak to you also applies to his people that day. Lean into that.
And don’t limit your time in Scripture merely to sermon preparation. If you’re running dry spiritually—parched from the hard work of steering a boat with the wind against you—turn to the Psalms and turn them into prayers. Let Scripture itself give words where you fall short. Whatever you do, don’t neglect consistent saturation in the Word of God.
Remember Your Baptism
Baptism unites us in Jesus’s death and resurrection. It marks us as God’s people. But it’s possible to joyfully baptize others, welcoming them into the covenant family of God, and forget our own baptism and place in that same family. In this forgetting, we step onto the relentless treadmill of trying to work our way into God’s favor by what we do for him.
Like Peter, who was bold enough to step out of the boat, we can get distracted by the strong headwinds and threatening waves and lose sight of Jesus. We can forget that he accomplished our salvation and secured our place in God’s presence, and neither our success nor failure can ever separate us from God’s love in Christ. Remember your baptism and keep your eyes on Jesus, and the wind will become quiet and the waves still.
Join the Church in Communing in the Lord’s Supper
It’s also possible to serve the Lord’s Supper weekly—calling God’s family to come to the Lord’s Table, encouraging them with the hope of our future eternal feast, reminding them that reconciliation has been secured both with God and one another through Jesus—and miss enjoying the celebration ourselves. The Lord’s Supper is God’s gift to us all to confirm, nourish, and strengthen our faith amid life’s stormy darkness, and that means for those of us who administer it as well. It’s the reminder that “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet. 5:10).
One gift during this pandemic is the solidarity of knowing we’re all fighting strong headwinds. We may not be in the same boat, but we’re in the same storm together. It’s hard, draining, and scary not to know when we’ll have solid ground to stand on again. We can find help from all kinds of sources, but we can only find hope in Jesus.
The old, trodden, narrow path to refix our eyes on him is to turn, over and over again, to God’s Word, to remember our baptism, and to feast with God’s people at the table of our king. Don’t lose sight of Jesus, our true and only hope.
Written by: Bill Riedel