Category Archives: Pastoral Ministry

Calvin: Ministers Ought Not to Steal

I’m reading through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  For the first time.  Yes, shamefacedly, I have to admit that I have never read the work from cover to cover.  I’ve grazed here and there.  I’ve used the handy index to look up what Calvin said on particular topics.  But never, since buying it in 1992, have I had the discipline or desire to digest the whole enchilada.  I’m glad that I’ve finally begun to do so.  Calvin has some remarkable insights, many of which have been noted by others (the law as a mirror, the Word of God as spectacles, etc.).  But frequently you stumble across something which, it seems to me, others may have overlooked.

In Book 2, Calvin works his way through the Ten Commandments.  He approaches them as the guide for the life of a Christian redeemed by God’s grace in Christ.  As part of his explanation of the Eighth Commandment (“You shall not steal”), he points out that this commandment also means that Christians are bound to fulfill whatever duties they have been given, “to pay their debts faithfully” so to speak (Institutes 2.8.46).  He applies this to various callings in society:  rulers, parents, children, and servants.

Interestingly, he also applies the Eighth Commandment to pastors:

Let the ministers of churches faithfully attend to the ministry of the Word, not adulterating the teaching of salvation, but delivering it pure and undefiled to God’s people.  And let them instruct the people not only through teaching, but also through example of life.  In short, let them exercise authority as good shepherds over their sheep.

In other words, pastors obey the Eighth Commandment when they fully discharge their calling.  Particularly, we’re to proclaim the gospel with fidelity.  Anything less is to be considered as theft.  We are robbing God of what he is owed and we are robbing the people of God what they are owed from us.  I don’t think I’ve ever encountered that application before!

But, according to Calvin, sermon imbibers can also be thieves:

Let the people in their turn receive them as messengers and apostles of God, render to them that honor of which the highest Master has deemed them worthy, and give them those things necessary for their livelihood.

When parishioners fail to honor their pastors by listening to them and providing for them, Calvin points out that this is actually robbery.  But by attentive listening and loving support for their under-shepherds, Christians are following the Eighth Commandment.  Have you ever thought about this in those terms?  Didn’t think so.  But it makes sense, right?


Top Three Marriage Books

Over my years in the ministry, I’ve taught many marriage preparation classes.  From time to time, I’ve also counselled couples with marriage problems.  In my preaching, I’ve had many opportunities to speak about marriage.  Besides all that, I’ve been married myself for what’s going on to 23 years.  All these things give me a vested interest in good books about marriage.  I’ve read a few.  Almost all of them have something worthwhile, but there are some that really stand out.  Here are my top three, in order of importance:

When Sinners Say “I Do”: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage, Dave Harvey.

This one tops the list because of the author’s relentless focus on the gospel.  Written in a warm, personal style, Dave Harvey helps couples come to terms with the biggest problem that all marriages face and the solution to this problem.  Along with some of the other topics one would expect in a marriage book, he also discusses one you don’t often encounter:  death.  If you’re going to read just one book about marriage, make it this one.

Strengthening Your Marriage, Wayne Mack.

Are you ready to get to work on your marriage?  Then this is the book you’re looking for.  It’s not just a review of biblical teaching about marriage, but a very practical workbook.  It contains a variety of exercises for husbands and wives to complete.  The idea is that they would be done with a pastor or counsellor, but certainly couples could benefit from doing them on their own too.  I use Wayne Mack’s book Preparing for Marriage God’s Way for my marriage preparation classes and I appreciate his biblical approach.

Each for the Other: Marriage As It’s Meant To Be, Bryan Chapell with Kathy Chapell

I really like this one for three reasons.  One is that it includes the perspective of a woman.  Another is that it has great stories and illustrations to drive home the points of the authors.  Finally, I value the clear explanations and applications of biblical submission and headship.  This book also includes discussion questions to go with each chapter.

Book Review: Zeal Without Burnout

Zeal Without Burnout

Zeal Without Burnout: Seven keys to a lifelong ministry of sustainable sacrifice.  Christopher Ash, Epsom, UK: the Good Book Company, 2016.  Hardcover, 125 pages, $17.99 AUD.

This book includes several stories of pastors and other Christian workers who’ve experienced burnout.  One of them, Dennis, tells of how he was preaching one evening and had his life suddenly turned upside down.  He just packed up his notes and walked away in the middle of his sermon:

I had just had it, and I wasn’t going to take it anymore.

I drove home thinking, “I’m not going back.  I’m finished with ministry.  In fact, I may even be finished with church.”

By the time I got home I couldn’t stop crying.  I shut myself in our bedroom and didn’t leave the room for three days.  My wife came in and prayed, but I knew I was done with ministry.  (90)

Many others have had similar experiences.  According to the author, “it is estimated that some 1500 people leave pastoral ministry each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure.”  That figure is in the United States alone!  Sadly, we know that our Reformed churches are not immune to this phenomenon.

Zeal Without Burnout is about addressing this phenomenon with a basic, biblical, constructive approach.  The author aims to help prevent burnout amongst those involved in Christian ministry.  The intended audience includes not only pastors, but also other Christian workers.  For a Reformed readership, this book could also be very helpful for our elders.  After all, they often have to juggle responsibilities in the church with regular full-time work and family priorities.  We should not think that burnout only threatens to sideline pastors.

The heart of Ash’s approach is found with his “seven keys.”  These are seven basic biblical teachings which, when taken seriously, will help readers to avoid burnout.  I’m not going to share all of them — I want you to read this book for yourself! – but let me just mention the first:  We need sleep.  While it is good to work hard for the Lord, a lack of attention to adequate sleep will soon catch up to us.  Moreover, because our service is from and for the Lord, we can sleep.  Says Ash, “You and I sleep because we do not believe that the project of building the people of God rests upon us; we sleep because we know that God never slumbers or sleeps” (49).

This is a small, but well-written book.  The author writes out of his own personal experiences getting near burnout, but also out of the experiences of others.  The author has also included an appendix, “What Exactly is Burnout?” written by a trained psychiatrist, Dr. Steve Midgley.    This appendix helpfully explains the precise nature of what is commonly termed “burnout,” as well as the warning signs and practical steps that can be taken to avoid it.

Who should read Zeal Without Burnout?  For starters, definitely my colleagues in pastoral ministry.  Brothers, for the sake of the gospel you love and preach, you need to read this little book.  Elders should also read it, not only for themselves, but also for the sake of the pastors they work with and oversee.  In some instances, perhaps also deacons would benefit from this volume.  In fact, I could see consistories profitably reading and discussing this book together.  Though a small book, it punches well above its weight.  Highly recommended!

What Separates the Sheep from the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46?

Sheep and Goats

Matthew 25:31-46 contains words that are often used to support general works of charity.  In this parable, the King is quoted as saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”  So, the argument goes, when you feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit prisoners, you are doing good towards Christ himself.  But what if we’re getting this text all wrong?  If you’re open to considering a better explanation, I would urge you to carefully read an article by the New Testament professor at CRTS, Dr. Gerhard Visscher.  The article is entitled, “So What Does Separate the Sheep from the Goats? A Closer Look at a Misunderstood Parable (Matthew 25:31-46).”  It was published in the October 11, 2002 issue of Clarion and it can be found online here.  It begins on page 501.

This was Dr. Visscher’s inugural address when he became NT professor in 2002.  I remember hearing it and finding it quite persuasive.  I still do.

How to Consider a Call

Confused man

If you haven’t heard, I have another call.  In addition to the existing call to the Providence CanRC in Hamilton, I have received a call to the Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania.  One of my friends from the Philippines asked me to write about this mysterious process of considering calls.  I’ve only gone through this five times, so I’m not an expert.  Moreover, I’m quite positive that there is not just one way to go about it.  Other pastors probably have different approaches and I’m not judging them.  So here I’m just going to outline my basic approach.  It may give some ideas to other pastors in a similar situation and it may also give parishioners some idea of how (some) pastors reach a decision.

The first and most important element of considering a call is prayer.  Throughout the process you have to regularly bring this before the Lord and ask him for wisdom and insight.  The importance of this needs to be stressed.  While I have a process that I follow, it is not a mechanical process where I leave the Lord out of it.  No, if I’m going to honour him with this process, he needs to be involved from the beginning to the end.  We have to acknowledge him in all our ways and that means proceeding in prayerful dependence, even while we use the mind he gave us to discern the direction to go.

There are two major steps in my approach.  Sometimes it happens that after the first step everything is clear and the second step can be either skipped or abbreviated.  Both steps involve serious and prayerful reflection on yourself, the existing call, and the call presenting itself.

First, I have what I call the “Obvious Red Flag” step.  There can be signs in your existing call that you’ve passed the “best before date” and  it’s time to move on.  Perhaps your ministry isn’t as fruitful as it once was.  Perhaps there are factors endangering the fruitfulness of your ministry in the future.  You have to listen to what’s being said by the office bearers and congregation members.  Sometimes the writing seems to be on the wall.  But there can also be red flags in the new call.  To detect them, I believe it’s very important to travel to that church and ask some very well-designed questions of the consistory and congregation.  You need to spend time with the people, not only to become familiar with their needs, but also to discern whether there would be anything that would stand in the way of you working fruitfully there.  Sometimes you’ll visit and afterwards it will be crystal clear that you’re the wrong man for that particular church.  Then the decision could be clear.  But it could also happen that the existing call has all the red flags and the new call has no red flags.  Again, the decision could be clear, so long as other factors are not at play.

But what if there are no red flags in the existing call and no red flags in the new call?  What if it seems that you could work fruitfully in either context?  That’s where the second step comes in to play.

I’ll call the second step,  the “Factor Weighing” step.  You draw up a list of pros and cons associated with both the existing call and the new call.  Not only do you have to list all the factors, they also have to be weighed and given priority.  I assign a numerical value of 1-10 to each of the factors, 10 being of highest importance and 1 the lowest.  The sub-total of the cons get subtracted from the sub-total of the pros.  You’ll get a value for each call and that gives you some quantitative idea of what you’re facing.  It’s not that this necessarily decides it in a final way, but it can help to give you some clarity.  This second step of the process should be reviewed regularly during the time of consideration.  New factors might present themselves and need to be weighed.

Throughout both steps, I would be in constant conversation with my wife and kids.  They’re also a very important part of the picture and their needs and situation need to be considered.

Even though it’s sometimes hard to discern the direction, an answer will usually start to form.  Once you’ve gotten there, it’s good to sit on it for a week or two in order to be sure you’re at peace with it.  Of course, you pray about it and ask the Lord to give you peace of mind with it.  Then it’s time to inform the churches.  That can be hard too, because most likely you’re going to disappoint someone somewhere.  It’s a gut-wrenching process, to be sure.    But we need to trust that the Lord will guide our decision-making and have us where we need to be.