It was just after I’d preached my first placement sermon whilst studying at Oak Hill and the pastor of the church, Joe Kapolyo came over to me to give me a little bit of feedback.
“Well I’ve got some good news for you. It wasn’t perfect.”
My initial mental response was
“Well if that’s the good news, I don’t fancy hearing the bad news!”
Yet, Joe was spot on, the good news I needed to hear was that I wasn’t all that. It was good news when giving feedback to the sermon, but it was also good news in general for pastoral ministry to come.
Pastors can easily become enslaved to a form of perfectionism. They set themselves high standards. Those standards may come by comparison to others such as the belief that they must complete 30-40 years of service with the same church or that they need to see church membership at least double within 5-10 years but those metrics are often self imposed.
We feel it when we’ve preached a sermon that sucked … or even not sucked, just didn’t seem to hit quite the right spot, the main point wasn’t as sharp as it could have been, the application didn’t seem to land, the jokes weren’t funny and you didn’t even manage to finish on time.
We feel it even more keenly when we’ve spent so long seeking to counsel someone over many years whether trying to urge them to resist temptation or help them to overcome their doubts and they still end up walking out on the Gospel or maybe just keep going through the same cycle of fruitlessness. Part of that pain is caused because we haven’t just invested time but love as well. We care deeply about those we pastor and so we pour our hearts into ministering to them. However, if we are honest with ourselves, then we must admit that part of it comes out of a little bit of pride and self-confidence. We know that we have some gifting in reasoning, explaining and persuading so we end up believing that we can convince anyone with an open Bible and enough time. Yet our confidence isn’t in the open Bible but in our open mouths.
I was asked a couple of times to teach at the Midlands Training Course, the topics I was given were “Suffering” and “Failure.” I appreciate that those topics were on the agenda but I wonder if we give enough time to training pastors in those areas. Perhaps every-seminary course should start each term with those subjects and a reminder that these are going to be your business for the next 30 years! When I do talk about failure, I come back to one crucial point. The thing we need to hear before we fail and after is the same. We need to hear about grace again.
Every time I fail and don’t meet my own standards or those set by others, it should remind me that I’m human and of all that comes with that finitude, frailty and fallenness. I need to be reminded of grace.
Grace means that when I fail through sin that the sin is already forgiven. Christ paid the price on the Cross. The penalty has been taken and I am justified. I am loved.
Grace means that when I fail to meet self-imposed or other imposed legalistic standards that God does not love me any less. God does not turn his back on my in disappointment. Grace means that my identity, status and worth is not in my achievements or perfection but in belonging to him. I am in Christ, I am adopted, I am a son. I am loved.
I’ve spoken with a few people recently and read a few articles about pastors struggling to last the course, feeling the weight of ministry and wondering if they can or should go on. What will help you persevere for the long-haul? The answer is grace.
We need to preach grace to our congregations but we also need to preach it to ourselves. I need to remind myself daily that God loves me in Christ, that I’m forgiven and that this is a free gift, not by my works. And sometimes I need to hear that from others too. Often it seems that social media is the place where crushed people who know they are failures go to be condemned by others. Could we turn that around. Could twitter and Facebook be places where we preach grace to ourselves and each other?