Can I confess something? I used to hate going to pastor’s conferences.
To be clear, this was never the fault of the conference. Most that I’ve attended have done an incredible job of trying to offer a place of rest and encouragement for those in ministry. It wasn’t an issue with the content, who was speaking, or the accommodations available.
The problem was that going to a pastor’s conference meant I was going to have to be around other pastors. Again, the problem wasn’t with any of them. I love pastors, and I’m thankful for how they sacrifice and work hard to shepherd God’s people well.
The Problem of Comparison
The problem was me. For many years, anytime I got around a group of pastors, I couldn’t help but compare myself to them.
How did the size of my ministry stack up to theirs?
How did our baptisms, staff team, and budget measure up to what they had going on?
How did my accomplishments up to this point in my life compare to their accomplishments at a similar age?
The comparisons were endless. Was this person a better preacher than me? Had he already written a book? Where did he go to school, and what was the highest degree he had achieved?
It was exhausting. It got so bad that my wife started dreading going to these events together because she knew how miserable I would be the entire time.
Maybe some of you can relate to some of what I was feeling, or maybe you can’t comprehend how someone could be so wrapped up in thoughts like this. I can remember multiple days early in my ministerial career when I would look up and print out resumes of pastors I admired to see if my resume could keep up with where they were at my age. (FYI, don’t compare your resume to Jonathan Edward’s resume. It only leads to discouragement). This obsession led to many days of dejection. I was a failure because I was already so far behind these successful pastors.
This way of thinking was not a recipe for long-term fruitfulness in ministry, but I didn’t know where to turn for help. The irony in all of this was that every Sunday I would stand up before my congregation and remind them that their deepest need was for the gospel. Because of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, they could be secure. They had a new identity. They could know that they were loved. These things were gloriously true…for everyone but me.
Several years into chasing success as the source of my identity, I was completely burnt out. Our church had been through several difficult seasons of ministry, and it drove me to work harder and harder. How was I supposed to find all of the contentment and joy I was seeking from my ministry when these obstacles kept getting in the way? Again, it never dawned on me that in spite of everything going on, the real problem was in my soul.
Eventually, my wife lovingly went to our elders and let them know that I was killing myself on the altar of ministry. They sat down with me and lovingly but firmly told me that it was time to take a break. For several weeks, I was completely removed from ministry, and it was the best thing that could have happened to me. It forced me to be quiet and grapple with some important questions. Who was I? Why did people care about me? Where was my value? How could I answer any of these questions without a church to serve?
Through a series of conversations, reading, and time away, the answer began to dawn on me. Admittedly, this is still a work in progress for my own life, but what I needed most was the same thing I told my people they needed every Sunday morning. I didn’t need a new philosophy of ministry. I didn’t need to return to a life of trying to grow my ministry and platform at all costs.
I needed the gospel. I was ten plus years into ministry, leading a growing church, was confident in my spiritual maturity, and I had forgotten the gospel.
Remember and Believe the Message of the Gospel
Joe Thorn notes that preaching the gospel to ourselves is, “Calling ourselves to return to Jesus for forgiveness, cleansing, empowerment, and purpose. It is answering doubts and fears with the promises of God.” This is what I needed to hear. This was the hard work I needed to do. I knew the promises of Jesus. I could teach them to others, but I didn’t really believe them for myself.
I needed to return to the gospel message to remember:
1. My identity isn’t found in my church size, denomination, programs offered, budget size, or staff team. Rather, it is rooted in the truth that out of God’s love for me, he has made me one of his children (1 Jn. 3:1).
2. My purpose in life isn’t to build as big of a platform as I can or make a name for myself. Rather, it is to know God, who is inviting me into an intimate relationship with himself through the work of Jesus (Jn. 17:3).
3. My value isn’t found in the quality of my sermons and content or what I can do for the people in my church. Rather, my value is grounded in the fact that Jesus loved me and gave himself up for me (Gal. 2:20).
These are simple lessons. They feel like Sunday school answers. And yet, pastors need to be reminded of the gospel every day as much as the people who hear their sermons. Without the gospel, ministry becomes a one-way path to discouragement, disappointment, and frustration. However, when a pastor not only teaches the gospel but really begins to believe it, then he can serve, give, preach, teach, lead, and encourage. The pastor does so not as a means of validating his own importance but out of the overflow of the love which God has shown him through Christ.