I was led to Christ at the age of fifteen through the influence of my tenth-grade Sunday school teacher, though I do not remember a single word she taught us. Her husband, the pastor of our church, was my most formative early spiritual influence, though I do not specifically remember a single one of his sermons, powerful though they were.
My spiritual father in college was an Old Testament professor who “adopted” me when I was a freshman. He attended my ordination, my father’s funeral, and my wedding. Though he died several years ago, his influence is still enormously significant for me. However, I do not specifically remember a single one of his lectures, brilliant though they were.
My guess is that your story is similar to mine: the people who have most influenced you for Christ did so more by who they were than by what they said. This is consistent with God’s plan for spiritual leadership: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).
Notice what the writer did not say. He did not say, “Remember your leaders’ sermons.” He did not say, “Consider the outcome of their words.” He did not say, “Imitate their homiletical technique.”
The wisdom of J. I. Packer
We know that God promises his word “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). My point is that the “purpose” of God’s word has far more to do with life change than with memorable rhetoric.
Paul reminded the Corinthians, “I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:1). To the contrary, “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (vv. 4–5).
The apostle wanted to impress people not with his words but with the “Word” of God (John 1:1). He knew that if people remembered his rhetorical brilliance they would likely miss the message by focusing on the messenger.
J. I. Packer was wise to note: it is impossible at one and the same time to convince you that I am a great preacher and that Jesus is a great Savior.
What church members have never asked me to do
This fact is especially relevant given the clergy scandals of recent years. Tragically, only 39 percent of those surveyed recently said clergy have high or very high honesty and ethical standards, down from 67 percent in 1985. In fact, Americans’ positive opinions of the ethics of pastors have declined in eight of the last ten years.
By contrast, God calls us to live in ways others can not only appreciate but emulate: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17).
For our people to “obey” and “submit” to us requires that we lead and influence them in a way that leads them to our Lord. Only in this way are we “keeping watch over [their] souls.” Only in this way will we be rewarded by God when we “have to give an account” to him (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:10).
By contrast, the writer of Lamentations explained the fall of Jerusalem this way: “This was for the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed in the midst of her the blood of the righteous” (Lamentations 4:13). If spiritual leaders do not follow God, those who follow them will be led into judgment as well.
Clearly, therefore, our first responsibility to the people we lead is to be led ourselves by our Lord. Our first calling is to personal holiness; our second calling is to public usefulness.
This is not an order of priorities the culture or even the church understands very well. In the four decades I have served as a pastor, not once has a church member encouraged me to spend more time in personal prayer and Bible study. Not once have I been asked about the health of my spiritual life. But I have been asked often to attend more meetings and lead more programs.
All of that to say, if we will not take responsibility for our souls, no one else will.
“The grace to see life whole”
Today’s thoughts were inspired in part by a sermon by St. Gregory (AD 540–604, pope from 590–604). Often called “the Great” to reflect his status as a communicator and a leader, he spoke honestly about the spiritual challenges he faced as a result of his manifold responsibilities. See if his admission feels familiar to you:
“My mind is sundered and torn to pieces by the many and serious things I have to think about. When I try to concentrate and gather all my intellectual resources for preaching, how can I do justice to the sacred ministry of the word?
“I am often compelled by the nature of my position to associate with men of the world and sometimes I relax the discipline of my speech. . . Because I am weak myself I am drawn gradually into idle talk and I find myself saying the kind of thing that I didn’t even care to listen to before. I enjoy lying back where I once was loath to stumble.”
Despite his enormous stature in his day, he added, “I do not stand on the pinnacle of achievement, I languish rather in the depths of my weakness.” But here is the good news: “And yet the creator and redeemer of mankind can give me, unworthy though I be, the grace to see life whole and power to speak effectively of it.”
He concluded: “It is for love of him that I do not spare myself in preaching him.”
The challenge we face every day
St. Gregory reminds us that we are just as finite and fallen as anyone we serve. Like him, we can each admit that we “languish rather in the depths of [our] weakness.” At the same time, we are called to live in a way others can imitate to the glory of God.
The key is to seek from God’s Holy Spirit “the grace to see life whole and power to speak effectively of it.” When we do, our words and our lives will draw others to Christ “in preaching him.”
Balancing the eternal significance of our calling and our constant need for God’s grace in fulfilling it is the great challenge—and opportunity—every pastor faces every day. The Scottish minister John Baillie therefore prayed: “Do not let me embark on anything today that is not in line with your will for my life, nor shrink from any sacrifice that your will demands. Suggest, direct, and guide every moment of my mind, for my Lord Jesus Christ’s sake.”
Will you make his prayer yours today and every day?