The movie, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens is a classic. Ebenezer Scrooge, a ruthless businessman, is visited on the night of Christmas Eve by his old associate Jacob Marley. Marley confronted Scrooge about his life choices and warned him that three other spirits would visit that night—the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.
Ministry brings its own ghosts along the way. This is why Advent is so important. As Fleming Rutledge said, “Advent teaches us to delay Christmas in order to experience it truly when it finally comes. Advent is designed to show that the meaning of Christmas is diminished to the vanishing point if we are not willing to take a fearless inventory of the darkness.”
Just as Scrooge was confronted with his past, present, and future, we face the same realities today. We must acknowledge their importance and diligently work through the things that may be haunting us.
The Ghosts of Co-laborers
Scrooge was terrified of Marley. It’s easy for us to feel the same way toward former friends in ministry. Relational breaks with people who have meant a lot to us in ministry are anguishing. But this is nothing new.
Paul and Barnabas started their church-planting ministry together but reached a breaking point in Acts 15 over John Mark and the direction of their ministry. Luke, the author of Acts, called this a “sharp disagreement” (Acts 15:39). It must have been a painful break, but both Paul and Barnabas continued their ministries for the sake of the gospel. Paul didn’t let the ghosts of past disagreements lead him to bitterness.
By the end of his ministry, he showed a deep tenderness toward Mark (2 Tim. 4:11). If you’ve been haunted by the strain of former relationships, ask God to grant you the same generosity of heart to extend to those who you once labored alongside.
The Ghosts of the Past
If you’re human, you’ve messed up. The ghosts of our past haunt us as we carry deep shame about our shortcomings. Like Scrooge in his old schoolroom, the past can invade our dreams like instant replays of events and conversations. We can’t allow voices from the past to occupy our minds rent-free, but ignoring the ghosts of the past isn’t the pathway to freedom from their haunting, either. As we look back, we need to see both the dark valleys and the bright light of God’s grace along the way. In time we can join Paul in saying, “By the grace of God, I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).
The Ghosts of the Present
Scrooge was shown a complete picture of the world around him and was left powerless to change it. In ministry, our ghosts of the present are our own inadequacy, insecurities, and lack of control. We’re haunted by the present when we constantly revisit and question our calling. We may be inadequate in some areas, and we’re certainly powerless to change many things in life, but these truths are actually good news in light of the gospel. It’s in our weakness that we hear the voice of Christ saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Especially as church planters and pastors, may we continue to preach the Word both in season and out of season (2 Tim. 4:1–5).
The Ghosts of the Future
The most fearsome of the ghosts that appeared to Scrooge was the ghost of the future, shrouded in darkness and mystery. The past few years have proven that all of our plans must be held loosely. As James wrote, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). As a younger church planter, I had lots of plans and believed most of them would work out. Life, ministry, experience, pandemics, and disappointments temper that into wisdom. Staring into the dark void of the future gives us the desperation to call on God to move, trusting that he is sovereign and good.
One of the most crippling aspects of the future is pondering potential. People try to offer encouragement by saying, “God has big things ahead for you!” But that often backfires when we feel it hasn’t come to pass. What feels good in the early days of ministry can become a curse later—making us feel like we never fully lived up to our potential. We must not forget that Jesus is the true vine, and we are just branches that bear no fruit apart from him.
Our joy is found not in our ministry success or impact, but in knowing that our names are written in heaven (Luke 10:20), and we’re known as children of God. As we face the ghosts of ministry behind and ahead of us, let’s remember to take a fearless inventory of the darkness. Ebenezer is the name for a stone of remembrance, a marker of God’s faithfulness. The only hope we have to avoid being the stingy, bah-humbug Scrooge is to embrace our call as Ebenezers. We’re tangible representations of God’s faithfulness who are characterized by love and generosity, and we carry this truth with us as we face our own ghosts.
Written by: Bill Riedel on December 21, 2022
Bill Riedel is the founding and lead pastor of Redemption Hill Church in Washington, D.C. He was formally trained at Trinity International University (BA) and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (MDiv) and has served in ministry since 1998. He is also on the board of the EFCA. You can follow him on Twitter.