Church leaders, here’s a simple question: why are you in ministry?
Worship leaders, what motivates you to gather a band, get up in front of people every week, and lead them in songs?
Pastors, what makes you want to prepare and preach sermons, train leaders, and participate in the daily grind of emails and ministry meetings?
If you are in ministry, God has entrusted a group of people to you to lead and pastor. And if you’ve been in ministry for any length of time, chances are you’ve struggled with these questions on more than one occasion.
Recently I was hospitalized over the course of a few days (I’m better now, thanks!), and laying in a hospital room alone allowed me the opportunity to just sit and read the Bible with no distractions and allow it to guide a bit of self-reflection. I came across Paul’s words to the Thessalonian Christians in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-7, and I began reflecting on what in Paul’s mind characterizes godly motivations for pastoral leadership in the church. The text reads,
“For you yourselves know, brethren, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2 but after we had already suffered and been mistreated in Philippi, as you know, we had the boldness in our God to speak to you the gospel of God amid much opposition. 3 For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. 5 For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness— 6 nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. 7 But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children.”
As I reflected on what Paul says about his ministry, I saw three main things jump out at me that should define godly pastoral leadership in God’s church.
Paul first points out that his ministry to the Thessalonians was characterized by purity (verse 3). This served as the foundation for all of Paul’s ministry. I had an older, African American preaching professor in seminary who used to say to us in his booming, gravelly voice, “Too many pastors out there can preach the paint off the walls, but they are living rickety lives.” In other words, they’re gifted, they’re talented, sure, but the foundations of their lives and ministry—their private thoughts, words, and motivations—are impure.
My preaching professor’s words have been ringing in my ears for decades now. When I was younger, I was so concerned with the results of my ministry. The older I get, the more I realize that God is not looking at the results of your ministry, He is looking at the foundation of your ministry.
What is your ministry built on?
Is the foundation of your life in ministry pure?
Worship leaders, are you as impassioned about reflecting God’s worth and glory off the stage with your band mates as you are on the stage during a worship set? Pastors, are you as concerned about your own holiness in speech and thought on a Tuesday as you are about your congregants’ holiness in your preaching on Sunday?
Paul continues in verse 4 to point out a second characteristic of his ministry. He says he conducted himself in ministry as one resting in the approval of God and not striving after the approval of man. For Paul, when it comes down to it, there are only two things that will propel and empower your ministry. The first, Paul tells us, is the approval of man. Like a horse being drawn forward by a carrot, a minister fueled by the approval of man wants to get something that always seems to be dangling right in front of him, just out of reach—usually it’s applause, recognition, or praise. Your ministry advances and moves forward based on gaining those intangible, always-out-of-reach, never-satisfying carrots the approval of man promises you.
The better alternative Paul gives us from his own life and ministry is the power and motivation that comes from the approval that we already have in God. Paul here is basically saying, “I performed my ministry not from a place of seeking the approval of man, but rather from resting in the approval of God that I already have.” How do you know which power is driving you? In verses 5-6, Paul offers three characteristic traits of those ministering for the approval of man:
The tone and outcome of Paul’s ministry as an Apostle of Jesus Christ and minister of the gospel included none of these things.
Worship leader, pastor, do any of these things mark your ministry? Do any of these creep into your heart or find their way into how you conduct yourself in ministry?
In verse 7, Paul finally says what his ministry did look like: a nursing mother. This is perhaps an odd metaphor for many in church leadership to consider for themselves. I, along with all of my male ministry colleagues, can confidently say that we have never nor will we ever nurse a child. However, I have witnessed my wife nursing all three of my children, and here’s what I’ve noticed: the mother doesn’t receive anything from the experience. The baby is doing all the taking and the mother is doing all the giving. The only thing that you could say the mother takes away from the experience is the joy of being able to give to this child.
Brothers, ministers, and fellow church leaders: that is what our ministry to our flocks should look like. You are not where you are, at the church you are at, around the people you’re around, in the position you’re in, to take from these people.
So wherever you find yourself leading in God’s church, whether that be on the stage leading thousands in worship or leading a nursery full of screaming children, let purity be the foundation of your ministry. Rest in the approval God grants His children, and do not burn yourself out or disqualify yourself seeking the approval of man. And be to the people God has entrusted to you as a mother nursing an infant, experiencing joy in fully giving yourself to your people with the expectation of receiving nothing from them.