Monday, January 3, 2011

On The Other Side of the Pulpit - A Request For Prayer

John Piper has just returned from an eight month sabbatical, which was really an eight month fast from all public ministry and productivity, in order to focus on his soul, his marriage, his extended family, and his future in ministry. His published report can be found here.

I found reading the report very encouraging, because I'm at the beginning of a projected year (or so) of 'working sabbatical' from pastoral ministry. I have stepped out of the pastorate after six blessed years serving Binbrook Baptist Church, and am seeking employment to provide for my family, but hopefully, that will also allow for me to take a true break in order to keep going in pastoral ministry for the decades to come. My passion is still the advance of the gospel through the local church, and my primary gifts are still preaching, evangelism, teaching, and shepherding. But after much prayer and talking to those closest to me, a break was clearly the best thing right now. (On that note, please pray that God provides the right source of income to help us in this time of transition, and that God begins to prepare, even now, the right ministry fit for us, even as we stop thinking about vocational ministry, at least for the first half of this break.)

Back to John Piper's report, one can understand why I found his writing so helpful on this front-end of my own sabbatical. For this post I'll share three paragraphs he wrote under 'soul' and two key lessons I learned from them.

First, Piper modeled the need to settle into a specific local church. He wrote:

Our normal place of corporate worship has been Sovereign Grace Fellowship, led by Rick Gamache, who used to serve on the Desiring God staff and is one of the best preachers in the Twin Cities.

I find it totally weird that so many men who step out of ministry fail to root themselves in a local church. They go around, preaching from church to church, but have no formal accountability to one specific body. Not that itinerant ministry is bad. But every Christian should be under the authority of a specific group of elders. Even a senior pastor is not to be a lone ranger, but is accountable to the elders with whom he shepherds his church. So why do so many step out of ministry and accountability, and into no accountability? Piper did well to get himself into a local church!

Second, Piper's experience under the regular ministry of the word was a positive one. He desired it to be, but a preacher will only know that he loves God more than the ministry, as he sits under another man's ministry for a season. Over the past six years I've preached, on average, 45 sermons per year, led about 40 Sunday Evening Interactive Bible Studies per year, led in 40 Wednesday evening devotionals per year, and taught about 15-20 adult Sunday School lessons per year, not to mention the odd outside speaking engagement and the recent addition of evangelistic small groups. In other words, I've been swimming in God's Word in order to give it out to others, and this has been an incredible blessing. Through all of this I've kept up private, personal devotions in the early mornings, and I've been learning generally through other reading and iPod lectures. But my main focus has been on giving out the Word. In six years of ministry I've had only one stretch of three consecutive weeks with no public ministry (in year one!), and five stretches of two consecutive weeks. On this side of my sabbatical I've now spent two Sundays in a row with no preaching and I'm refusing all invitations to do so for at least two months. How did Piper handle the long-term on the other side of the pulpit?

This was a soul check: Will I flourish spiritually in corporate worship when I am not leading or preaching? O how sweet to experience the answer to this question! I sang and I soaked. And it was not a chafing to be on the front-side of the precious pulpit of God.

I have to confess that for two consecutive Sundays I've been tempted at times to think through how I'd do things differently (and in my warped imagination, better), than the preacher. On both Sundays I've sat under preachers who are far more mature, have had far more fruitful ministries, and who are far more gifted than I am. But I still daydreamed at times about how I'd put a certain point, or expand or contract or illustrate or apply in a way that would wow the masses. Pride is a sick sin, and it sounds really silly when one admits it in writing! But, thanks be to God, for two Sundays my dominant response has been thankfulness. I get to sit under God's word, grow in him, and worship him, as I rest. For two Sundays I've walked away worshiping God and clinging to Christ in a way that I was not when I walked into the building. Pray for me that this only grows, and that the species of pride are put to death quickly in me! Pray that my calling would be authenticated as I go through this. Again, Piper is a great model:

I love the word of God, and to have it cascade over me with clarity and depth and power has been authenticating to my faith and my calling. My faith, because I really did enjoy communion with Christ in worship. I experienced afresh that I love God, not just talking about God. And my calling, because I was on the joyful receiving end of the power of the preached word. Yes, I want to preach like this. I want to do this for people.

So, praise God for the godly model of John Piper, and pray for me, that I'd follow his faithful example and be refreshed for the purpose of a lifetime of ministry ahead.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Ian. I've always been surprised when I hear pastors say that they couldn't attend church if they weren't the pastor. Something is seriously wrong when that is the case.

    I've caught myself going to other churches in analytical mode. Most of the time the hunger in my soul takes over and I find myself a worshiper rather than an analyst, but I can appreciate the struggle. It's not bad to evaluate, but it's important for us pastors to learn how to worship and to hear a sermon rather than just to lead worship and preach ourselves.

    Great word, and great to see you yesterday.