How To Long-Suffer In Pastoral Ministry

In my home office, over the wine fridge filled with Topo Chico, coconut water, and a few good bottles I’m saving for those “new wine” moments, hang two frames. 

One is a map with our family of six churches scattered across the Greater Fort Worth landscape. The other is a black and white photograph I had professionally taken as a gift to my staff after all their hard work moving us into our new building — a building that literally changed the skyline of downtown and, more importantly, a gathering place for a people that literally changed the spiritual landscape of the fastest growing city in the US. 

This is a testament to God’s faithfulness — even the Topo Chico. 
Jesus has done this in 12 years. 
I can hardly imagine what he might do in 28 more.

I want to squeeze everything I can out of the 40 years God gives me.

A Park Named Trinity

I couldn’t see any of this in year three. 

I was burned out, a tired, cranky church planter, and I wanted out. I found myself at Trinity Park with a bible and journal, ready to wrestle with God — me and Jacob, a tag team of fools with little faith. 

Little faith is all he needs, though.

Kidney stones, shingles, and church discipline cases were the triumvirate of thorns in my side, and I pleaded with God to take me out. To find another ministry job where the grass was greener, the artificial turf kind, always green, never needs mowing. I had never been in one place for very long, and the Texas summers are pretty hot. I was feeling “called” somewhere else. 

But he who sits in the heavens laughed and called me to more. 

“I didn’t call you to plant this church so you could be comfortable! This isn’t supposed to be easy!” Looking back, I wonder if he didn’t have a little grin when he said it, a look in his eye that would have said, “Just wait, son, I got you.”

That very moment, on hard, yellowing summer grass, I committed to long-suffering, long-term ministry in one place. 

I decided I needed to get everything healthy — organizationally, spiritually, emotionally, physically, financially, maritally — I wanted to make it to the end. To see all that God might do. He took my little faith and sparked a fire with the dry grass of Trinity Park. I was lit aflame. 

Hands to the Plow

I bookmarked an excerpt from a Tozer sermon years ago. Preached on the text from Hosea 10:12:  Break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the Lord, till he comes and rain righteousness upon you. 

He said this:

“The power of God comes only where it is called out by the plow. It is released into the Church only when she is doing something that demands it.”

In the drought-ridden hard soil of North Texas, I needed to do the hard work of the farmer (2 Tim. 2:6) and prepare to receive whatever ministry blessings Jesus had for me. I can’t make it rain, but I can plant the necessary seeds and pray the fruit will grow.

By the grace of God, I worked even harder (1 Cor. 15:10), not trying to do the work only God can do but the work he called me to do. 

We dreamed and planned and prayed organizationally. I grew as a leader, shepherd, and teacher. My wife and I went to counseling. I grew in my emotional intelligence. We worked hard to build healthy friendships in the church. I committed to my devotional life. I upped my financial IQ. I got in better shape and realized I’m a better pastor (and husband and father and leader) when I eat well, sleep better, and exercise. I asked God for huge things.

It wasn’t easy.

There were more terrible church discipline situations, moral failures on staff, tough seasons in marriage and parenting, that time we decided to gut a 100-year-old house and remodel it ourselves. I faced constant discouragement. Disappointing building pursuits. The 2016 election. My own sin. Don’t even get me started on Covid. 

Taking the plow in hand, digging up the rocks and hard ground, there’s bound to be blisters and busted shins — but God.

But he is faithful. 

Under-Estimating God

The game we play is called Faithful, and I want to make it to the end. Scoreboard. That’s the win. Just get there. But what I’ve found thus far is that his faithfulness covers a multitude of faithless moments, and he’s fruitful, too.

I’m not sure where I first heard it, but I’ve repeated it a hundred times: Young leaders tend to overestimate what they can accomplish over the short term and underestimate what the Spirit can do through us over the long haul.

Everyone’s story is different. I’m not saying yours will be like mine or that mine is somehow better than yours. (If the game is Faithful, does it matter?) But I know this: God doesn’t do anything in us if we don’t try. Jesus only needs mustard-seed-sized faith, but he demands we do some plowing first. Faith without works is dead, so we gotta work a little. 

So keep your hand to the plow. 

Maybe he’ll call you into something else completely; surely that happens. But whatever that is will take plow work, too.

Why not keep digging where you are?