Thursday, March 01, 2007

William Wilberforce and Pastors who Change History

To all of my non-pastor readers: I ask you to please excuse the following post, and indulge me a bit as I share a moment of comeraderie with my brothers-in-arms. And although this post is for the purpose of encouraging pastors, I encourage you, as a non-pastor, to read on. Perhaps what is written will help you to pray more intelligently for your pastor as he seeks to make the difference I am convinced he can make!

Every month in North America, approximately 1500 pastors leave the ministry. . . .for good. The casualty rate among those called to ministry is high. 4 of 5 who graduate from a theological seminary this spring will no longer be in ministry by 2012. While many of these casualties are explained by moral failure, many more are simply the result of discouragement, depression, and exasperation. Many pastors simply feel as though their ministry makes no difference.

The worst kept secret in Christendom is that the Pastorate is often a thankless job. Furthermore, those who enter ministry with dreams of striking it rich have altogether lost their concept of reality. Everyone knows that if money is what you seek, ministry is, generally speaking, NOT the place to find it. So while there are a few co-dependent golddiggers lurking in a few seminaries, most called to ministry understand the sacrifice they are making. Still, a few years into ministry, they feel as though something is missing. They signed up for this because they wanted to make a difference in people's lives. They wanted to transform their church and its surrounding area through the power of the Gospel, and after years of waiting for such, many seem to think to themselves "this simply isn't what I thought I signed up for."

As an associational servant and 15-year ministry veteran, I have heard these thoughts from a few pastors. Many more exist, I am sure, who feel the same way, and simply choose to conceal their pain. And as I think back over my own experiences, many have been the times when I have thought in regard to my own ministry: "What good am I accomplishing?"

These experiences came to mind as my wife and I decided to take in the new movie "Amazing Grace" during its opening night last weekend. The film chronicles the road to the abolition of slavery in Great Brittain as it was led by William Wilberforce. While Wilberforce had always been an opponent of slavery, it was after his conversion to Christianity in 1785 that his distaste for the barbaric practice became empassioned. Together with then Prime Minister William Pitt, Wilberforce faced in Parliament a super-majority of politicians who were themselves the beneficiaries of the slave trade. The first time he instroduced his abolition bill, it went down in flames, by a vote of 163 to 88. For the next sixteen years, Wilberforce faced defeat on this issue.

During this trying time, Wilberforce leaned on the advice of Anglican pastor John Newton. Prior to his own conversion, Newton had himself traded in human life; profiteering from the slave trade as the owner of a slave ship that transported newly captured human commodities to the British Isles. Later in life, it was Newton's own conviction over the sheer evil of his own actions that led him to encourage Wilberforce to continue the battle in Parliament. The results of Wilberforce's determination came in 1807, as slavery was abolished in Great Brittain.

In addition, Wilberforce took great encouragement from the writings of another abolitionist pastor by the name of John Venn. Parliamentary records show that during the height of the debate over abolition, Wilberforce actually took Venn's sermons on human rights into Parliament and read them to this legislative body as a way of saying "this is why the slave trade must be outlawed."

Last Friday night, as I watched the cinematic version of these events, it occurred to me that two relatively unknown pastors were faithful in discipling a young member of Parliament, and changed the world as a result. Venn's name is obscure even in the annuls of history, and Newton is known more for "Amazing Grace" than for his relationship with Wilberforce. But there is no slavery in Great Brittain because these two men were faithful in carrying out one of Paul's most impassioned pleas to Timothy:

And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (-2 Timothy 2:2 ESV)

Paul knew that the Gospel would only permeate culture if it were replicated, and it would only be replicated if entrusted to those who would commit themselves to passing on the Faith once delivered to others. A few simple things are required for this:
1. A genuine conversion; Timothy himself had to be taught, and had to accept the Apostolic teaching.
2. An evangelistic passion; Once converted, you want to share this life-changing experience with others. As John Newton said to William Wilberforce, "I'm a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior."
3. A mind for equipping others; You don't just want to be an evangelist. You want others to be evangelists, which means you are not satisfied until those you have led to Christ are actively sharing Him with others.

These three simple things will result in the transformation of a community, a city, or even a nation. Accompanying that transformation will be the jettisoning of cultural evils like slavery, racism, abortion, sexual deviancy, murder, and social injustice.

The problem is that many pastors, in moments of discouragement, are tempted to judge their ministries based upon those moments: the low-attendance on Sunday, the low offering in the plate, the seeming cultural insignificance of his local church. When we focus on such things, we lose sight of what really matters to God; namely, whether or not we are doing what He has called us to do. Faithfulness to the task of equipping faithful men with the tools neccesary to impact their spheres of influence with the Gospel IS success to God! So if you are a pastor who wonders whether he is making a difference, don't ask yourself about church attendance, or budgetary limitations, or building prominence. Ask yourself how your present actions, your schedule, your priorities, and your passions line up with what Paul commands of us all in 2 Timothy 2:2. Are you growing in your relationship to Christ? Are you in turn passing on what you are receiving to faithful men? Are these faithful men in turn passing that on to others? If the answers to these questions is "yes," then take heart. God is pleased with your ministry.

This year, the sons and daughters of former British slaves are celebrating 200 years of freedom because two men of God were faithful to their calling of equipping one young member of Parliament, and discipling him well. When I think of this as the Director of an Association of 56 Baptist Churches I have to ask: If two faithful pastors can have this effect, what kind of impact could 56 of them make?

My prayer is that this will be read by pastors who are discouraged; who are tempted to voluntarily become one of the 1500 who will leave the ministry in March 2007. I pray you will commit yourself afresh to your calling, because your faithfulness to that calling will change the world!


jasonk said...

Great article. Thanks for writing it.

I am a former pastor, who left the ministry in 2001. Sometimes I miss it. Most of the time I do not.

The only issue I take with what you wrote is that you seem to distinguish between people who leave the ministry, and those who leave the ministry as a result of moral failure. I want you to know that often, it is both. Sure, there are pastors like Haggard and Latham who leave because it turns out that the entire time they were living a double life. But many are like me, down in the depths of despair, truly susceptible to schemes of the enemy. That is what happened to me, anyway. I'm not saying it was not my fault--it was. I sinned, no buts about it. As soon as it happened, I took my leave of the ministry. It is important for people who are in the ministry to remember that often, moral failure of any kind (including internal lust, pornography, etc.) is often the result of the discouragement one feels.
Thanks again for a great article. I can't wait to see the movie.

Joe Kennedy said...

i needed this, joel, and i haven't even graduated seminary yet.

Marty said...

The call to faithfulness is all that has sustained me a few times in almost 18 years of "full time" ministry. You are more than correct (can one be?) that basing our contentment or success on the number in the seats or the bank is a quick way to looking for another line of work.

Another thing that has held me true over these years was that I did not go from college to seminary to the pastorate. I had a number of years in "secular work" before answering the call, so I've never doubted God's plan for me even in the darkest of valleys (and, boy, have there been some).

It does seem to me that unrealistic expectations may be more to blame than we know. A friend of mine, a year out of seminary, was astounded that his church was not responding to him and growing; he was, after all, preaching expository sermons. His seminary experience had all but convinced him that alone would be the foundation of a growing church.

I think the single issue that drives men out of ministry is that sheep bite, they bite often, they bite hard and they don't mind biting the wife and kids. The "I didn't get into it for this" is less about the lack of money and more about "I can't allow my family to go through any more of this."

My 2 cents, anyway.


kelly said...

I am a first time reader, and appreciated your blog. "Faithfulness to the task of equipping faithful men with the tools necessary to impact their spheres of influence with the Gospel IS success to God!" What a great line! I pray that all of us who lead will take this to heart.

Joel Rainey said...

Thanks for the clarification. I certainly didn't intend to create a false dichotomy, and I know that often, moral failure is often preceeded by depression. I was simply trying to point out that for many pastors, there is no moral failure when they leave. They are simply tired and burned-out. Thanks for posting, and I pray God continues to use you in mighty ways.

You are in one of the hardest areas in North America, and katrina has only served to make it much worse. I'm thankful you found this encouraging.

If anyone can be "more than correct," I can. ;)
Seriously, guys like you who graduated from the "seminary of hard knox" are an inspiration to guys like me, and you have much to teach these young guys coming up. Stay faithful.

Kelly, Thanks for your comments. I'm glad to know I have another reader who is edified. I thank God for that.

Alan Cross said...

Great post, Joel. It was an awesome reminder of what we are in this for. Thanks.