Pastoral Reality: Ecclesiastes-Style
I've noticed a growing trend in ministry. I highly doubt that it is something new. It manifests itself in things written or said by pastors in large, seeker oriented churches that have been "successful"--from the world's point of view--and it surfaces in things written or said by pastors of small, theologically robust churches that have been "successful" in not doing what large, seeker oriented churches do. It's what I like to call "a slot machine approach to ministry." It usually comes in the form of pastoral counsel or coaching that gives you the impression that if you just do such and such, then everything should turn out well. If you can avoid all of the pot holes you will have a smooth ride.
When it comes from the pastors of the larger and more outwardly successful churches, it gives you the impression, "if I just make the next right move or hire, the outcome will be growth, health or impact." When it comes from the pastors of the smaller, theologically robust churches, it often comes with the promise, "If you just faithfully preach the Word and pour yourself out in prayer everything will work out for the spiritual life of the congregation." It is a mechanistic approach to ministry that tends to leave the struggle and the painful providences out of the equation. It leaves out of the equation the fact that every congregation is different and made up of different sinners with different dynamics. Of course, none of the men writing the books and giving the counsel would ever dare say that pastoral ministry and leadership is easy or that there are not enormous struggles. But often, the principles they set out (principles that often work, I would add) are not offset by the reality of the painful providences of God in this fallen world--providences that are completely out of our control and that often seem to undo all for which we have labored.
I have come to believe that some of the most helpful pastoral reminders for any man preparing for ministry comes from the book of Ecclesiastes. After all, it was written by "the Preacher!" (Eccl. 1:1). Here are five valuable lessons from Ecclesiastes to remember in pastoral ministry:
1. Ministerial Success Doesn't Satisfy.
"For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow" (1:18).
"I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made myself water pools from which to water the growing trees of the grove. I acquired male and female servants, and had servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds...I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun" (2:4-11).
"Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind" (2:17).
2. The Outcome of Ministry Isn't Your's to Determine.
"The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all" (9:11).
“As it happens to the fool, it also happens to me, and why was I then more wise” (2:15)?
3. No Ministry Lasts Forever.
"Then I hated all my labor in which I had toiled under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will rule over all my labor in which I toiled and in which I have shown myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity" (2:18).
"I perceived that nothing is better than that a man should rejoice in his own works, for that is his heritage. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him" (3:22)?
4. The More You Excel in Ministry, the More People Will Dislike You.
"For all toil and every skillful work a man is envied by his neighbor. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind" (4:4).
5. The Only Thing that Ultimately Matters is What God Thinks About Our Ministry.
"Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether good or evil" (12:13-14).
While there are many, many more lessons in Ecclesiastes from which pastors will get a much needed reality check, those that we have briefly considered suffice to show that no matter how diligent, knowledgeable, wise, skillful and gifted a man may be there is no mechanistic approach to pastoral ministry. God has promised to bless the faithful ministry of His word and sacraments for the edification of His church and the salvation of His people, but has not promised ministerial success so defined as we often define it. God has promised to save His people through the preaching of the message of Christ crucified, but he has not promised that diligent, knowledgeable, wise, skillful and gifted preachers will have an easier time navigating the challenges of ministry. In fact, He has promised that His ministers will be subject to suffering, difficulties and affliction as He uses them as vessels of mercy to carry the Gospel to a lost and perishing world--a world of fallenness and vanity. The more we remember these truths, the more resolutely we can face challenges and disappointments in ministry--even as we press on to seek to faithfully and skillfully minister to His people in the church.