A life in ministry can be filled with tears, sleepless nights and insecurity. But remember: God doesn’t make mistakes. The reason pastors often lose the right perspective on ministry is that they focus on themselves, rather than God, says Cynthia Hale.
Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached Feb. 12, 2010, in Duke Divinity School’s Goodson Chapel for worship at Triumph & Truth, the 40th anniversary of the Duke’s Black Seminarians Union.
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If anyone had told me how crazy this thing called ministry is, I probably would not have believed him or her. Not that I would have doubted the validity of their testimony or questioned their wisdom of the matter. It is just hard to imagine that one could go through all that we do in order to be faithful to the call of God upon us to serve God’s people.
My father tried to tell me to get a job and forget about going to seminary. But “what did he know?” I said. He’s just a layman. He couldn’t possibly understand intimately what it means to “take up the cross daily and follow Christ” to the extent that those of us in ministry are called to do.
The truth of the matter is, when I came to Duke, I was so excited, so idealistic, so anxious to fulfill the awesome call of God on my life that I may not have taken anyone seriously, even if they had tried to tell me.
But, 30 years later, after countless tears and sleepless nights, after having persons question the appropriateness of my being in ministry -- especially as a women -- and my adequacy for the task; after having to defend my motives and my methods, I can testify that the very thing that makes me incredibly happy, fills me with unceasing joy and a sweet sense of satisfaction can at the same time drive me absolutely mad. Can I tell the truth up in here?
Ministry can be crazy! And if there is anyone in the room that has not yet been made aware, you need to know that, although ministry is wonderful, there are those times when it can drive you over the edge.
I don’t mean any disrespect calling ministry mad. I just thought we could be honest with each other, since we’re all in this thing together. There’s no sense in keeping secrets, pretending that things are always cool when they’re not, acting as if we have it together 24/7 and we got this when we don’t!
Whether you are in the embryonic stage of ministry, preparing to go there or you have been doing ministry a long time, there are moments when you have to admit that you wonder if you shouldn’t go back to doing whatever you were doing before you said, “Yes, I’m available” to God.
Don’t sit up in here acting like you don’t know what I’m talking about. Some of you are wondering, right now, if you can or should go on. What’s the point? If God doesn’t speak to you today, not tomorrow, you are not sure what you will do.
We need to be real so that some of you can be healed, set free and encouraged to accomplish the ministry that God has so graciously entrusted to you. You don’t need to be afraid; you just need to be aware, so you won’t take it personally. Thinking it is somehow your fault, like I have a habit of doing. Ministry has always been this way.
The apostle Paul, first-century preacher, pastor, teacher and church planter, makes this clear in his second letter to the church in Corinthians.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
Paul’s second letter to the saints in Corinth was, no doubt, a difficult one to write. Some folks in the church were denying his apostleship; some pious people were accusing him of being deceptive and distorting the word of God. His motives were being misinterpreted, his actions misconstrued, his words taken out of context.
Paul found himself in a position of having to defend himself. He dearly loved the folks, was committed to serving them, but he could not and would not let anyone question his apostolic authority. He needed his authority to keep on fighting the apostasy that threatened to take over the church universal.
It would have been easy for Paul to succumb to the pressure and the accusations. It’s not easy to listen to others talk about you, register complaints and criticize you and/or your work. It is painful when persons question our worthiness, our legitimacy in ministry, our ability to write, to think theologically and to acquire a master’s degree. It puts us on the defensive. We begin to question ourselves: Did God really call me?
The truth of the matter is, it doesn’t take much for some of us to start questioning ourselves. Insecurity, a lack of confidence and low self-esteem plague many of us in ministry. The gifted, the chosen, the anointed seem to have this proclivity towards analyzing, minimizing and making light of that which has been entrusted to us.
Whenever anyone questions the legitimacy of our ministry or our adequacy for the task, we wonder if we made the right decision; did we do the right thing? Did we hear God right? Did God make a mistake? Did God know what he was getting?
Of course God knew what he was getting. He says the same thing to us that he said the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Before you were born I set you apart.”
Like the prophet Jeremiah and all the other prophets who have been provoked to question the legitimacy of their ministry by sometimes-harsh people and hard times, we have to remember that God chose us before the foundation of the world. Before we were born; before we were even thought about, God called us and set apart for God’s exclusive use.
God made no mistake when God called you; God doesn’t make mistakes. God knew exactly what God was getting. God knows everything there is to know about us. The good, the bad and the ugly. Our strengths and weaknesses, abilities and inadequacies. God knows us! It is for this reason that he says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”
This refers to God’s sovereign election or choosing of you and me. The thing about election is no one can understand it nor regulate it. God can choose whomever he wants for his divine purpose, and he does.
Before we were even conceived, God had a plan for our lives. He already knew what we would need to carry out our assignment, the lives that he would use us to influence, the corners of the world that would be impacted by our presence and our prowess in preaching, teaching and the spreading of the gospel in whatever ways we are uniquely gifted to do so.
God not only foreordained our lives and ministry; he predetermined the gifts and graces that we would need for our special kingdom assignment. We have everything we need; we are tailor made for our task. God formed us and gave us the genetic structure we needed to fulfill the purpose, the ministry to which he has called us.
This point is poetically expressed to us also in Psalms 139:13-16, a prayer of David in which he articulates his discovery of who he is and what he meant to God.
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”
Who we are is no accident. He created our inmost being -- shaping us emotionally, intellectually and spiritually for our purpose. You have the personality in line with your purpose. You are intellectually equal to the task. You have been spiritually equipped through your new birth for every good work. You are shaped for significance and made for ministry.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made!
Now the positive side of our constant analysis of who we are is that we don’t become prideful and think more highly of ourselves than we ought. The negative side is that we expend too energy dealing with fighting and fears within and without.
There are accusations without; feelings of inadequacy within; criticisms and complaints without; comparisons within. Why am I not like so-and-so? Why is he so gifted in that area? Why does she preach better than I do? Why didn’t you give me a voice like that? Why does he have a bigger following, a more successful ministry, a greater anointing? Why did you bless her with a larger building? She doesn’t seem to have the same struggles I have. His ministry looks like such a breeze. Is there something wrong with me? Am I not worthy?
Let me remind you of a few things: Looks can be deceiving. Everything that glitters ain’t gold. Every time you see success, there was a price paid. The bigger the ministry, the bigger the headache and heartaches; the greater the anointing, the greater the pain; the greater the price paid. My grandfather used to tell me all the time: No cross, no crown. Someone else said: No pain, no gain.
No ministry is a breeze. All of us struggle with something: Balancing life and ministry, the needs of family and friends, fulltime jobs and supposedly part time ministry, living single and alone. Every one of us is dealing with something.
God gifts all of us in unique and awesome ways. No two of us are alike. Each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made. We dare not compare ourselves to anyone else. Each of us is a person of dignity and worth.
“Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9:20-21)
You need to know who you are. Claim and celebrate your uniqueness, gifts and abilities. There is no one in the world like you, no one suited, and uniquely qualified for the assignment that God has given you. Be you! No one can beat you being you. No one can excel to the heights to which you are gifted to excel. Do the work, master the subjects, earn your degree with honors.
No one can preach like you preach, teach, lead, administer the affairs of that ministry, evangelize, nurture, pray, bring down strongholds, deliver folks from the throes of the enemy like you.
In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes a powerful affirmation and defense of the ministry in a straightforward way, stating the truth clearly and poignantly, commending himself and his ministry by taking the focus off himself and putting it where it belongs -- on Jesus -- helping us to see what enabled him and what will give us the power to hang on in there.
Ministry is a divine appointment. I just told you, we were chosen by God for ministry.
Paul makes that clear in 2 Corinthians 4:1: “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.”
How easy it would be for us to think that our ministry doesn’t really matter. Ministry can be so frustrating, so discouraging at times. It’s frustrating to give all you have to a people who sometimes seem so indifferent and apathetic to the gospel and its claim upon our lives, so unaware of the vision and what God is doing through you, especially during this postmodern time, when anything and everything goes and some are coming to simply be entertained.
It is frustrating to say the same things over and over again to the same folks and wonder if they got it. It is disheartening to be aware of our own human limitations to change their lives, which constantly eats away at our self-confidence. This is crazy, you know. We couldn’t and can’t change ourselves -- what makes us think we can change anyone else?
We are not supermen or women; we cannot do everything, be all things to all people, and please everyone. We will make mistakes.
We will disappoint others and ourselves. We cannot possibly live up to everyone’s expectations, so we need to stop trying. We have to reach a point where we are no longer trying to prove ourselves and defend who we are. We cannot make everyone happy. We are not called to make folks happy; we are called to make them holy.
We have been called, chosen for this ministry, not because we have it all together, because we always know what to say, how to say it and what to do. We were not chosen because we are perfect.
Nor are we in ministry by accident. Our ministry is by divine appointment. It was God’s choice. I just told you, God knew what he was getting when he chose us. When I think about who and what I was when God called me, I am clear that God is merciful. God loved me enough to forgive me and use me. Hallelujah! It’s deep!
One songwriter put it this way:
“Something beautiful, something good
All my confusion; he understood
All I had to offer him was brokenness and strife
And he made something beautiful of my life.”
I know all too well and so do you the condition that we were in when God found us. God loved us when no one else would and saved me when no one else could.
When Paul considered what God had done for him through his love and mercy, he became clear that he could not give up. No matter what anyone said, he said in Romans 8:31-39, “If God is for us, who can be against us? … Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died -- more than that, who was raised to life -- is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”
Therefore, he needed to do all that he could in response to God’s having loved, forgiven and redeemed him, a blasphemer. He said as much in 1 Timothy 1:14:
“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out upon me abundantly.”
God in his mercy had granted him the privilege to be in ministry. Ministry is a privilege.
Therefore, like Paul, we have every reason to be confident in our ministry. 2 Corinthians 3:4-6:
“Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant -- not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
We have this ministry through God’s mercy. As [UMC] Bishop [Greg] Palmer told us yesterday, it’s not about us. It is by God’s mercy that we have been called into ministry.
Our validation for ministry comes from God. He chose us, handpicked us out of a crowd for a major assignment. You may not think your ministry assignment is major, but there are no minor assignments in the kingdom. Every assignment is designed to make the world in which we live different.
Paul goes on to say that our ministry is not only by divine appointment, but also by divine empowerment.
“We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
The King James says, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.”
The reason why we often lose the right perspective of ministry that leads to discouragement is that we focus on ourselves, rather than God. And people do the same thing. People are looking at us and not God. Expecting us to act like God, perform our ministries like God, flawless and faultless. Ain’t no way!
In an effort to help the people get the right focus, Paul said in verse 5, “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.’”
Our responsibility is to help others see Jesus. We must preach Christ. It is through the preaching of Jesus that people’s lives are changed and rearranged. When we preach Jesus, broken hearts and homes are put back together again, people are set free, healed and made whole.
There is no other name given among men and women whereby they must be saved. There is healing in the name of Jesus, there is deliverance in the name of Jesus, demons tremble at the mention of that name. There is power in his name!
It is through the preaching of Jesus that transformation takes place. We need to help the people see and follow him.
We have this treasure -- the message of salvation through Christ in jars of clay. We are just the vessels; clay pots. Someone called us “cracked pots.” But there is inestimable treasure that God has placed in us. The vessel is made valuable by the contents.
Paul chose to focus not on the perishable container but on the precious contents. Paul chose to focus not on himself, but on God. That’s where the power comes from. We have power -- God’s power -- inside of us.
It’s a paradox. The gospel is full of paradoxes, isn’t it? The first shall be last and the last first. Whoever would be great must be servant of all. If we want to save our lives we must be willing to lose them. Treasure in jars of clay.
The fact that God would chose sometimes-fragile, weak, insecure human beings and fill us with himself is a paradox. It’s a paradox: God’s power working in and through us; the valuable message of salvation in Jesus Christ being entrusted to those who themselves needed saving. To show that the all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
Treasure in jars of clay to teach us to trust God and not ourselves. Remember that sermon you preached that had “flunk” written all over it! Humanly speaking, it wasn’t one of your best; nevertheless, the word went forth, and God. God’s word never returns empty or void but accomplishes the very purpose for which he sent it. You may never know how many people were helped, healed, and set free by that delivered and set free, by that word.
Treasure in jars of clay to teach us to depend on him and not ourselves. Paul had a thorn in the flesh that he asked God three times to remove, but God refused, saying,
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Paul then concluded, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power my rest on me. That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
All of our mistakes, humiliations, challenges, indiscretions and weaknesses are opportunities for Christ to demonstrate his power and presence in and through us.
Just when you feel like all hope is gone and you can’t go on, we are reminded by Paul through a series of paradoxes that contrast our weakness and God’s power that under ordinary circumstances we would have been brought to defeat, but because God’s power has been evident in our lives in the most ominous situations, we triumph.
We are hard pressed on every side, hemmed in, looks like there is no way of escape, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not in despair. There is a play on words here in the Greek, which translates “perplexed but not perplexed to the point of complete despair.”
We are persecuted, but not abandoned. God never leaves us or forsakes us; God is always standing by. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
We may be knocked down, but not out. Our situation is never hopeless because God rescues us, even when we can’t see a way out.
Treasure in jars of clay teach us to focus on God and not ourselves or others. Paul was committed to serving the people despite the fact that they often hurt him, disappointed him and did not live up to his expectations. It is only by God’s power that we are able to keep on loving the unlovable; leading those who we aren’t sure will follow, forgiving those who have tried or continue to try us.
There is a divine purpose in the madness of ministry; it is making us like Jesus. God uses our trials, our disappointments, our trying experiences, to trim off the rough edges, to buff, polish us and make us smooth. Tried in the fire, we’re coming out gold.
We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in us. We face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
Remember that it was when Jesus was at his weakest, his most vulnerable, as he hung and died on the cross of Calvary that the greatest good for humanity was accomplished. It was through his death that we now have life.
As Paul suffered, as Paul faced the challenges of his own life and ministry, both the death and life of Jesus were manifested in his body. In Paul’s dying to self through his suffering, life was at work in the believers. Through his suffering the power of God in his life was intensified. Through his suffering, the glory of God was manifested. And we triumph! We are more than conquerors through Christ who loves us.
There is a point to this madness in ministry. God uses it to teach us to trust him, to lean and to depend on him, to transform us into the image of his son so that when we stand before, set the example for and lead the people, they will begin to see none of us, but all of him. So that in all things and at all times Jesus is glorified through us.
It does not yet appear what we shall be, but when we see Jesus, when we see Jesus, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Hallelujah!