A reminder about this series: We are seeking to always cultivate leadership that is effective and displays the compassion of our Lord. We asked pastors to choose a book that has influenced their leadership and tell us how they use it. These are not book reviews, and therefore the men will not qualify what is wrong or what they didn’t like in the book. We are making the disclaimer up front that some of these books are from non-Reformed and unbelieving authors. There are things in the books that wouldn’t apply to church life. That disclaimer now taken care of, the men share how the books have helped them.
(You can find the other posts in this series here: “Lessons in Leadership”)
Here is our fourth installment, from Jody Morris, pastor of Redeemer OPC in Carlisle, PA.
“I’m Perfect–The Imperfect Pastor” by Zack Eswine. Such an honest title! And don’t we know them? Our imperfections I mean! So what does he mean by the title’s beginning–“I’m Perfect?” I think he means to get at the way we want to be and the way we want others to see us. Some of Eswine’s best work in this book is the way he gets at things like the motivations, ambitions and images we have of ourselves and our ministries. He writes to turn our idea of what it means to be great in ministry upside down. He aims to make what seems great to us not great at all, and what isn’t great to us truly great. I might even call it a Heidelberg Disputation for ministry today. Right? A theology of glory finds greatness in a ministry of extension. A theology of the cross finds greatness in ministry with limitations.
If you’ve read, Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being, then you’ve already covered some of what is included in, The Imperfect Pastor. His latest publication includes several new chapters. I recommend it.
The subtitle is very telling of much of the books content. In just two words in the subtitle, “Our Limitations,” Eswine sets up, approaches, addresses and re-addresses the reality of our limitations as human beings in pastoral ministry and then contrasts those limitations with learning to be an apprentice of Jesus. He even shows the way Jesus himself lived with limitations. For example, John chapter 7 tells about the way Jesus limited himself to doing his Father’s will at the expense of popularity, influence and power in Jerusalem. His brothers wanted him to be great saying, “Show yourself to the world!” (John 7:3), but Jesus would not do it. Should we be surprised that what we want for ourselves was what Jesus’s brothers wanted for him–to show ourselves to the world? In a section titled, “The Fame Shyness of Jesus,” Eswine asks himself, “Do I possess a stamina for going unnoticed? Can I handle being overlooked? Do I have a spirituality that equips me to do an unknown thing for God’s glory?” (p. 61)
While reading I told myself, “I don’t want to be great.” I thought I had no desire for greatness. After all, I have no ambition to write books, do conference tours, or pastor mega-churches. But I’ve since learned I have had a desire for greatness that hasn’t always blessed the people in my life. Ambition in ministry takes many forms. The difference between my desire for greatness and someone with a desire for name recognition and fame is not found in the desire itself, or lack thereof, it’s found in the way I have defined greatness. Greatness for me, as I’ll show later, has been pastoring a church with the right kind of worship, enjoying the respect and popularity of church members, and even being a successful and respected leader in presbytery. All good things you say. Maybe. That is unless I’ve traded my interest in successful ministry for the more important thing.
The book is presented in 4 helpful sections. Each section can be read as a stand alone, but to get the most from it, the entire book should be read as a whole. The progression of thought in the titles of each section, make this clear. Part 1 is titled, “The Calling we Pursue” and is about our misplaced ambitions in ministry. Part 2 is titled, “The Temptations we Face” and is about our misguided energy and activities in ministry. Part 3 is titled, “Reshaping our Inner Life” and is about discovering and embracing God’s desire for our ministry. Finally, Part 4 is titled, “Reshaping the Work we Do” and is about putting our energy into activities in ministry that are meaningful and lasting.
Part 1 struck me most personally. The following thoughts are focused there. On page 41 and 42 under the subheading, “Preaching Barefoot” Eswine writes,
When a couple enters ministry, the young love of ordinary life can get pressed out of them. She has often just given birth to a child. Or maybe they are newly married. But mostly they are already exhausted from their Bible-training pace, starting the work of ministry as those who already need a break. But to start work for God offers little time for residual fatigue. So the spouse goes with her ministry leader without roots to a new place with a new child and a newer job. The church expects him to hit the ground running. He wants to show that he is worth their hire. He overworks all hours for the sake of Jesus while his new bride and newer baby try to learn to trust Jesus amid the dishwater and Sesame Street, with no local friends and no firsthand knowledge of street names.
This was us with our newborn son C. James when we took our first call to Redeemer OPC in Carlisle, PA. Belinda had just given birth the month before. We’d also just finished a challenging yearlong internship, and Belinda left behind a blossoming career to come along with me “without roots” to a new place and my new job.
Could we have done things differently? Could we have made the decision not to come to Carlisle? Would waiting to take a call until our newborn was older have changed things? Would taking a call in a church closer to home or pursuing an associate position somewhere have made the difference we needed? Maybe? Probably not. But why not? Because the problem wasn’t the location we came to (the members of Redeemer in Carlisle are the best there are), or the timing of the call and not even the type of call we accepted. The problem was that I was asking the wrong questions and not listening to the right questions for this occasion in our life. Thinking back, I remember that Belinda was.
I was eager to begin ministry. I was ready to go out and serve the Lord. When Redeemer invited me to candidate, I had lots of questions. I wondered, “Does Redeemer have the right kind of worship service? Are they honoring the regulative principle? Is the session adequately Reformed in their Christian worldview? What’s their position on this hot button doctrine or that seminary level debate?” What I should have been asking is, “Will this give Belinda the time she needs to heal from giving birth last month?” and, “How do you feel about leaving your career here in Sedro Wooley to move 2600 miles to Carlisle, to a new state where you’ll have to recertify and find a new job, all while raising a child?” or “How do you feel about living in a new town, with no local friends and no first hand knowledge of street names?” and, “What about settling into a new social norm among strangers as the pastor’s wife?” Instead, I had my mind on my ambitious future. I may as well have said, “I’m doing the Lord’s work and you’re my helpmate. God will give you the strength you need to adjust.” My actions certainly bore that out. I certainly wasn’t asking the deeper and more sanctifying questions Eswine asks himself, “Do I possess a stamina for going unnoticed? Can I handle being overlooked? Do I have a spirituality that equips me to do an unknown thing for God’s glory?” Eswine brings his point home with clarity later in Part 1. He says that ministers ambitions hide:
“the realization that one can receive accolades for preaching Jesus, yet at the same time know very little about how to follow Jesus in the living rooms of their ordinary lives. They could communicate love to a crowd from the pulpit or in an office or a classroom, but when called upon to give themselves (and not their gifts), they were fumble prone. I see this in me.” (pg. 25, 26).
I know one thing: my questions today and the discussions and decisions Belinda and I would be making about ministry would look very different now than they did 13 years ago.
Eswine asks a great question at the end of Part 1. “What Do You Want Jesus to Do for You?” That was the question Jesus asked James and John. “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:36) And in Eswine’s words, “James and John had bucket lists.” “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” they said. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10: 35– 37). They saw their opportunity for greatness with Jesus. And their desire for greatness caused serious problems with the people closest to them. (Mark 10:41)
So Jesus offers the brothers an answer to their ambition in the form of a conversation with a blind beggar. He was poor and blind, and in Eswine’s words, “Jesus offers this poor orb-shattered man the same powerful question that he gave to those who were a “big deal” and traveled with him: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10: 51) Then Eswine brings the point home: “Right here, the grace of Jesus humbles us in the contrast of desires he unearths. James and John were in the thick of ministry with Jesus and among Jesus’s prized pupils. Yet this was not enough for them. They wanted better seats. Meanwhile, the poor man asked Jesus only for two things, and the first thing was mercy. The second was sight.” (pg. 30)
When I finished seminary, I was in such a hurry. I already had so much, but I wanted more and I wanted it now. Maybe we will serve God and show love for others in those deeper and more meaningful ways when we slow down, accept our limitations, put our hearts into love that goes unnoticed, and even rest comfortably in the place God has presently placed us. Instead of asking Jesus what the brothers asked of him, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” maybe we should ask, “Please show me mercy, and give me sight.” Perhaps that is all that we truly need.
Eswine concludes the thought:
There is a way of desiring to go all out for the ministry that will split you in two, cause pain to those you serve, and reveal how far off from Jesus’s definition of greatness you’ve drifted. I know this firsthand. But I’m learning something else too. There is more grace and more hope here than you may yet know— a vocation of pastoral work among the greatness of slow, overlooked people and places can become in God’s hands, all gift, true joy, abiding contentment, and good life. Why? Because this is Jesus’s way. Where Jesus is our portion and desire, we lack no true treasure. (Pg. 30, 31)