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Keeping a Close Watch: On Cultivating and Maintaining Godliness in Pastoral Ministry

In March 2020, the world was rocked by COVID, its physiological consequences, and the compounded political upheaval that was already present in the country. At the time, I was not yet voted in as an elder at Emmaus but was in the applicant stage. So, I was in conversation with the elders on a few matters, let alone the natural friendships that were already present. The pastoral burdens were looming large.

At the time, the elders were praying, and encouraged the church to pray, that the Lord would use the time of isolation and uncertainty so sins that have been swept under the rug or self-justified would be brought out to the open and dealt with. The Lord not only answered that prayer swiftly in our own congregation, but also throughout sister churches. And now two years later, we’re pleading with the Lord to grant peace and holiness.

The falling of public figures has been happening since our father Adam. However, it seems more pronounced in the last two decades or so. It had always felt like an “out there” sort of thing for me until the last five years. Some local leaders that I had some sort of friendship with had fallen; it had even come within my own family. Now, the potency of sin and its effects were all the more real. I was sobered to the core.

This caused a lot of uncertainty and self-analysis in my own life. I know firsthand that the problems aren’t merely leadership failures or personal disagreements. Rather, it’s the assaults of hell coming after Christ’s church through her under-shepherds and through division and discord within her members. Part of which has birthed this short reflection and even a Sunday morning class at Emmaus on the Christian virtues. These are some reflections that I’ve been pondering on lately and pray they stir us on to keep a close watch on our life and doctrine.

Practice and Immerse Yourself in the Mystery of Godliness

Paul’s exhortation to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:6-16 should be a passage that pastors return to often as a check on their life and doctrine. The imagery in verses 7-8 of training and repeated in verse 15 is clear that the mystery of godliness is definitively true of us but there still remains flesh to be killed and assaults of hell to subvert. In fact, Paul tells Timothy that in practicing and immersing himself in the mystery of godliness, other will see his progress.

When the Spirit applies the work of Christ to us and unites us to him, we begin to see how immersed in sinful patterns we are. The Spirit is the Gift of God that empowers us to turn from those patterns of the flesh and establish patterns of the new creation that God has made us to be. Click To TweetThe Spirit is the Gift of God that empowers us to turn from those patterns of the flesh and establish patterns of the new creation that God has made us to be. Peter picks up on this in his first epistle where he exhorts us to practice what we are.

Further, Paul tells Timothy that he is the one to set an example to the believers in godliness. Despite his age, he is to demonstrate godliness in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, or in purity. Acting in godliness isn’t legalism; it’s being who we are. This should be even more sobering for the pastor as he is the under-shepherd demonstrating the way of the Chief Shepherd. The groaning and toiling of killing sin and subverting the assaults of hell is valuable and worthwhile “because we have our hope set on the living God.”

For pastors, it means that we are held to a higher standard and will be judged accordingly. Not only should we pastors be cultivating and maintaining godliness in a personal manner, but this should be the basis for how we shepherd the flock of God. Am I habituating myself in godly speech and not coarse joking? Am I immersing myself in godly conduct and not the passions of the flesh? Am I practicing godly love and not self-regard? Am I imitating godly faith and not self-justification? Am I occupying myself with godly purity and not secret immorality? The Hillbilly Thomists’ song Good Tree begins aptly:

You can’t gather grapes
From a bramble bush
Or pick a fig from thorns
Oh, would I like to be
Oh, to be a good tree

Way of Wisdom and Way of Folly

I was reminded recently of the fox metaphor on the Life and Books and Everything podcast. There, DeYoung asks questions like: Where have we allowed the metaphorical foxes to creep into our lives that erode our holiness and sanctified common sense? Where have we habituated ourselves to the point of danger? In the Matt Chandler situation, it was noted that the actions weren’t seen as unhelpful and stupid. This is a crucial question to ask ourselves, our wives, friends, and fellow pastors. Are there areas in our life that are being eroded by foxes? Are there areas in our life that we are blind to sinful patterns growing? Are there areas in our life where we are justifying our thoughts or actions, not calling sinful indulgences for what they are?Are there areas in our life where we are justifying our thoughts or actions, not calling sinful indulgences for what they are? Click To Tweet

In my office, I have one of my favorite John Wooden quotes written on my dry-erase board: “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” This may seem like too basic of a fact, but therein lies the irony. It’s the basics or the fundamentals that stabilize and empower as one moves forward. Christ’s conquering of sin and death applied to your account, pastor, is what stabilizes and empowers you. Christ’s ascension to God’s right hand is our pleasure forevermore. You can’t move forward or see progress unless the fundamentals remain the fundamentals. Which, as a silly example, is why the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker-Popovich Spurs were so dominant. Many jokes still make their rounds today about Tim Duncan being the “Big Fundamental” but there’s a reason why that crew won so many championships.

Though there are doubtless more, there are two areas of concern I want to briefly reflect on: use of the tongue and self-sabotage. The dangers of the tongue, which are really manifestations of the inner man, are prevalent throughout the Scriptures. James interestingly begins chapter 4 with a warning that not every brother should be a teacher because the tongue can bridle the wild horse or set a forest ablaze. Paul also has strong words against the unrighteous use of the tongue in Ephesians 4:29; 5:4. This is the more elusive of the foxes that erode our foundation. Sarcasm, crude joking, or gossip are far too pervasive in the life of the church, let alone those who teach. May the Lord have mercy on us and grant us a thankful heart.

The second area of concern is what I want to call self-sabotage. Christ’s conquering of sin and death applied to your account, pastor, is what stabilizes and empowers you. Christ’s ascension to God’s right hand is our pleasure forevermore. Click To TweetTo be fair, this is a bit more subjective. However, more and more pastors are experiencing burn out, over work, and they are even potentially being called to another vocation. All of which are not necessarily bad or wrong. And not all burnout is self-sabotage. However, there is an overwhelming pressure, and possibly an unhealthy expectation, to remain committed and faithful to Christ’s church, no exceptions. And as such, they are looking for a way out without shame or scrutiny. Thus, a brother may self-sabotage in a variety of ways to get out.

Now hear me clearly that the pastoral office is a high and demanding one, and rightfully so. There should be a holy pressure and expectation. All of which is why there are particular guardrails such as a Chief Shepherd, plurality of elders, strict qualifications, and not every brother should be a teacher. Of course burnout still happens with these guardrails. But the way of folly leads to destruction when the ‘little things’ and the guardrails are set aside and neglected. LaPine recently wrote a helpful reflection on pastoral self-destruction. Now, this reflection is on the connection between pastoral abuse and the lack of relational reciprocity. LaPine asks some helpful diagnostic questions at the end that are worth considering. However, the lack of the relational habits of vulnerability and trust, or even the faux presentation thereof, can lead to destruction.

Pray for your pastors and leaders

The tone of this reflection seems a bit dim. And while I don’t necessarily prefer that, I’m not sure we can avoid it either. When close friends or family members are on the way of folly toward destruction, it should cause us to be sorrowful and sobered. The habitual foxes are elusive and erosive. However, we bring our sorrow and sobriety before the Lord, pleading with him to restore those on the path of folly back to the path of wisdom, and to keep us on the path of wisdom.

So, please, pray for your pastors, encourage them in the faith, love their families, and be an easy sheep. Then, go listen to the masterful Hillbilly Thomists’ Good Tree, whose next to last verse is a fitting conclusion.

Even when I’m old
I will still be
Still full of sap
Still green
That’s what I want to be
Oh, to be a good tree

 This post was originally published at For the Church

Joseph Lanier

Joseph Lanier is a PhD student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a pastoral resident associate at Emmaus Church in Kansas City. He is joyfully married to Kristen.

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