Reflecting on 30 Years of Ministry at the Same Church
This summer marked 30 years for me as pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida. It has been a wonderful experience mixed with great blessings and severe trials. John Newton’s hymn, “A Minister’s Burden,” resonates with me more now than ever. The first verse says,
What contradictions meet
In ministers’ employ!
It is a bitter sweet,
A sorrow full of joy:
No other post affords a place
For equal honor or disgrace.
As I have reflected over my tenure at Grace, several lessons come to mind. I want to highlight five of them below.
1. Cases that seem hopeless over weeks or months are often shown to be otherwise over years.
Any pastor who understands the gospel and is thinking rightly realizes there is never a legitimate reason to give up on anyone. Yet, the temptation is sometimes strong to do just that. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to see God intervene in people’s lives over decades in ways that were not observable over years. It’s a reminder that God is always doing more than we can fully measure at any given moment, that his Word never returns to him empty.
Recently, I’ve heard even more testimonies of work that God was doing in individuals’ lives years ago when it appeared nothing was going on and that all efforts to evangelize them were completely fruitless. Since our God raises people from the dead, we should never write anyone off as beyond help. As long as there is breath, there is hope.
2. The Bible is deeper and richer than I could ever have anticipated at the beginning.
I remember as a young man, freshly called to preach, that I feared running out of material after a few years. It didn’t take long before I was disabused of that silly notion. But it did take longer for me to begin appreciating the depth of the riches found in God’s Word.
Now, as I approach the last laps of my race, I feel like there are dimensions of God’s revelation in Scripture that I’ve barely touched in my preaching. The wonders of a crucified, risen, and reigning Savior have become more amazing to me through the years. I have a much greater appreciation for Paul’s doxological outburst at the end of Romans 11:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
3. My greatest challenge has not changed but has become more obvious to me over time—my heart.
Early on, I learned that problems rarely sink a church. Rather, it’s the poor handling of problems that do it. Slowly, eventually, I came to learn that my poor handling of problems is due to the perniciousness of the sin that remains within me.
I’m now more convinced than ever that consistently applying the grace of God in the gospel to my own heart is the most important and most difficult responsibility that I have as a pastor. When I fail at this, it doesn’t matter what other “success” I might have. As Robert Murray M’Cheyne reportedly said, “My people’s greatest need is my own personal holiness.”
4. Godly elders are a tremendous gift to a church and pastor.
It’s hard to calculate the joy and strength that come through serving with godly men who are bent on shepherding a local church with you. The work of “eldering” provides opportunities for both strengths and weaknesses to be exposed, and it’s been a great gift from God to have men in my life who have encouraged the former and help shore up the latter. They’ve seen matters more clearly than I have at points, and as a result, have served both me and the church very well. The fellowship of elders has been a great means of grace in both my life and the life of my family.
5. A godly wife is more valuable than I can possibly conceive.
Pastoral ministry is tough on pastors’ wives. They’re often forced to see the worst in a church and yet are in a position where they can’t engage church issues the way other members might. In addition, a pastor’s wife is compelled to listen to the preaching of a man whose flaws she knows intimately—week by week, year by year, decade after decade. To be able to do so joyfully and profitably while growing in devotion to Christ is a massive display of God’s grace. I’ve been greatly blessed to have my wife, Donna, by my side for the past thirty years in the same church.