Maintaining Intimacy with God in Ministry
Twenty-five years is a long time to be married . . . to the same church . . . as the senior pastor.
It’s pleasantly surprising they want to keep me longer! At a celebration for this milestone of ministry, people expressed appreciation for the personal care, love, and faithful preaching. I thought, “How could this be?!” How could someone so tilted toward self-righteousness and self-centeredness make it this long without blowing things up?
My initial ministry experiences were broadsided by the epic failures of the two senior pastors over me. When I became a senior pastor I was so fearful of personal failure that I would pray, “God help me not hurt your name, my family, or your people.”
That’s a good prayer at the beginning of ministry, but how do you maintain intimacy with God over the long haul?
You cannot consistently love people without loving God. You cannot help others encounter God in the text unless you are encountering him there. Unless you maintain intimacy with God, you will never have the necessary second wind for an enduring and endearing ministry.
Anyone can fake it for a while. But unless your tilt toward self-righteousness and self-centeredness is regularly confronted by the gospel you will blindly serve yourself in the name of serving God and others, and it will become painfully obvious to them before it will be obvious to you. You will be too blind and bitter to see it.
To that end, here are some habits I have cultivated in order to maintain intimacy with God. The first two are more personal and the second two are more public.
1. Develop and maintain a vibrant devotional life.
While I employ various tools like journaling, Scripture memorization, singing, and devotionals, I am always in the habit of reading through the Bible. I have found that it’s fruitful for me to read daily portions that I am not teaching. Otherwise it’s easy for me to fall into the rut of only considering how a text should be applied to others instead of how my soul needs its weight and joy (not that one should approach a sermon text that way—see the next point).
It is also critical to pray. Therefore, I carve out specific blocks of time in my calendar so that I have the time to actually pray. This is easier now that my children are raised, but even when they were young and private time was rare, I would get up in the middle of the night to be alone with God and then go back to bed. Hearing from God in his Word and speaking with him in prayer has both guided me through troubling waters and safeguarded me through much discouragement.
2. Study with a desperate dependency upon God.
Sunday feels like it comes every three days. I am constantly under the weight of preparing for the next sermon, class, talk, or funeral message. It is easy to find a system that works and treat the process like a plug and play. But, your people are not machines, and your heart is not an app. We are pastors! Our task is to feed our sheep with the heart-changing, mind-engaging, sense-overwhelming Word of God. In order to be a conduit of that in the pulpit, I must experience that in the study.
Therefore, when I study for my sermons, I pray to God for enlightenment and I ask God to overwhelm my heart with his promises and evidences of his power. God has faithfully given me many “aha” moments when the light bulb went on and I see why the Spirit of God directed this text to be written. In those moments, I’m so excited for my people to see what I have seen that Sunday cannot come soon enough.
Sermon preparation is hard work. It is soul work. It is physically demanding and mentally draining. It’s tempting to simplify it, but when your heart is overwhelmed by God in private and your people experience the same thing in the pew, you will not only come back for more, so will they.
I cannot help but think of certain people when I am studying. I desperately want them to be rescued from their sin, discouragement, or fear. At times, I will go to the place in the Worship Center where they usually sit and pray for God to meet them and arrest them with his Word that next Sunday. He often has.
3. Confess your sin and needs to your church.
Here are some things that I have confessed to my church over the years.
- I preach better than I live.
- I fear your rejection at times more than I fear God.
- I am afraid that if you get too close to me that you will not like what you see.
- I am tempted to use my busyness as a foil to keep others from really knowing me.
- I need this sermon more than you do.
- I do not want to need you (or God).
- My wife told me that she is tired of feeling unneeded in our marriage.
- I do need you (and God).
- I need your prayers.
- I am a sinful, broken, desperate man who wants to think that he is self-righteous and worthy of respect.
- My sister just committed suicide.
It is one thing to say that the ground is level at the foot of the cross and another thing to stand there next to everyone else.
4. Employ the care of your leaders.
Weekly sermon evaluation by the ministry staff is humbling and helpful, both of which are always good. I preach better because of it. Honest-to-God conversations and times of prayer with the elders about weaknesses, fears, failures, and goals are not only beneficial to me and our relationship, but they have helped cultivate an atmosphere of honest-to-God relationships in the church.
Twenty-five years is a milestone, but it is not the finish line. By God’s grace there are still many miles left in these ministry shoes, and by his grace I will run them with even more joy and gospel-driven humility. May God grant you the same and more!