Pastor in progress: Four marks of a faithful servant
If you find that you are not a perfect pastor, do not be surprised or dismayed. Recalibrate your expectations and be grateful for the progress God is making in your own heart and soul.
I could tell he was nervous. My oldest son Timothy and I had been working on his catching and fielding skills for months, and it was the first T-ball practice of the season. As much as I tried to temper his expectations, he wanted nothing more than to show his coach and his team how well he could play. The coach called out his name and told him, “Here it comes!” Timothy broke down into his “action” stance and readied himself. Pop! The ball sailed across the ground toward the pitcher’s mound. Timothy was laser-focused and every inch of his four-foot-tall self displayed a dogged determination to stop the ball. Just before the ball reached him, Timothy stumbled and the ball went rolling past him. He was in shock. His disappointment in himself was evident, and it continued until the end of practice.
Shepherding my child through his disappointment and helping him set new expectations for future practices showed me how much I needed to reevaluate my own expectations in ministry. As a young pastor of an established church, I had to learn (and am still learning) that disappointments and frustrations are inevitable. Whether these unmet expectations are my own or others’, pastoral “missed grounders” and “strikeouts” are simply part of the game.
I needed to learn the very same lesson I was trying to teach my son after his first T-ball practice: we should not expect perfection, but progression. Just as Timothy needed to recalibrate his expectations from being a perfect player to being a progressing player, I needed to know that I am not called to be a perfect pastor but to be a pastor in progress.
What makes a good servant of Jesus?
If anyone could succeed in ministry it was Paul’s disciple, Timothy. He had the best credentials; not only was he associated with and commended by Paul, he also had experience working with churches in key cities including Thessalonica, Macedonia, and Corinth. Though he was young, he had already helped Paul write a number of Christian books—2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon. And yet, even with all his credentials, experience, and background, Timothy was not spared disappointments and frustrations.
Timothy’s ministry in Ephesus was fraught with dangers both from inside and outside the church. On the one hand, Ephesus was known for its hostility toward Christians. Acts 19 tells of a silversmith named Demetrius who incited the entire city in a riot against the teaching of Christians. On the other hand, Ephesus was home to rogue teachers like Hymenaeus and Alexander who were drawing aside people in droves. Whatever expectations Timothy might have had in coming to Ephesus, they were no doubt shattered. So, what did success look like for Timothy when everything around him seemed to be falling apart?
Paul answers this question in 1 Timothy 4:6-1. In the process, he offers hope and encouragement for those of us who struggle with perfectionism in ministry and are often left in the wake of the disappointments that follow. We young and idealistic pastors need to be reminded often of God’s expectations for his servants. People may leave. Budgets may diminish. Buildings may deteriorate. And yet, success in ministry—even a difficult ministry—is possible. What was required of Timothy is still required of pastors today. So, what makes a “good servant of Jesus?” According to Paul, there are at least four things.
- A good servant preaches truth
Paul defines a “good servant of Jesus” as someone who “puts these things before the brothers” (v. 6). Specifically, “these things” refer to all the instructions Paul has just listed out to Timothy in chapters 1-3, all of which show how people should conduct themselves in the household of God. Paul instructions were no less countercultural in Timothy’s day than they are now. Following Paul’s commands, Timothy had to confront the legalistic Judaizers for their errors in teaching the law as a means of attaining righteousness. He was to call men to be holy prayer leaders and women to be submissive to the teaching. He was to outline the qualifications of church leadership and give a reason for why women could not teach or exercise authority over the congregation. As awkward and difficult as his task was, success in serving Jesus depended on Timothy putting forward the truth—even when it ran counter to the surrounding culture.
2. A good servant emphasizes godliness
Paul goes on to tell Timothy he must “have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths” but instead he must “train [himself] for godliness” (v. 7). In ministry, it is tempting to focus on the hearsay, the gossip, the rumors, speculations (1:4), evil suspicions (6:4), and what Spurgeon called the buzzing of “Mrs. Grundys.”“Have you heard what [so-and-so] has been saying?” can at times be the most disturbing words to a pastor’s peace. This why Paul says to avoid silly myths: do not let them distract you from your real goal, which is to grow in godliness.
3. A good servant immerses himself in the Word
Along with putting forward the truth and training himself in godliness, Timothy was to engage others in the truth both publicly and privately. On the one hand, he must “command and teach these things” (v. 11), which also necessitated that he set the example for how the believers should apply the things Paul commanded (4:12). In addition, Timothy was to “devote [himself] to the public reading of Scripture,” complete with public preaching (exhortation) and teaching.
However, Timothy was not only to engross himself in the word publicly. He was to do so privately as well. Later in 2 Timothy 2:8 Paul encouraged him saying, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel.” This exhortation to personally “remember Jesus” was intended to encourage Timothy in faithful public preaching. Healthy pulpits are aided by the pastor’s personal health in the private presence of God. To be sure, a pastor may preach a good sermon on Sunday, and fail to apply or experience the truth personally. This why Baxter warned his readers against “build[ing] up an hour or two with your mouths, and all week after pull down with your hands.”Good servants of Jesus teach in public the truth they have come to believe personally.
4. A good servant knows practice makes progress
Paul’s encouragement continues in verse 16, “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.” Notice Paul does not say, “Practice these things…and you’ll become perfect.” In fact, when comes to ministry, practice never makes perfect; but practice does make progress. A good servant of Jesus—though never perfect in this life—will be known for his progression. The faithful pastor grows. He gradually becomes godlier, holier, more loving, and more patient. The fruits of the Spirit increase and multiply in his life. All of this is the result of him coming into contact with the word of God and the Spirit doing his sanctifying work. If you find that you are not a perfect pastor, do not be surprised or dismayed. Rather recalibrate your expectations and be grateful for the progress God is making in your own heart and soul. I am convinced that the large number of “ministry dropouts” is not primarily due to the hardships in ministry. Instead, the problem is that our expectations for success are simply not in line with God’s. Before a pastor makes goals for a church’s growth, he must first look to his own growth in the gospel.
At my son’s next baseball practice, Timothy returned to the field with a big grin. The coach called his name and told him to get ready. The ball came sailing toward him, his glove went down, and the ball rolled gingerly past his mitt. He looked up at me, smiled, and gave me a thumbs up. That was the progress I wanted to see. Whether he caught the ball, dropped the ball, struck out, or hit a home run, my son was learning to have joy in playing the game. When it comes to gospel ministry, may we never forget that true progress and growth comes as we progressively grow in our joy in Jesus.