Keeping the gospel in your sights in pastoral ministry

Flickr: Prayer by Chris Yarza

Late last year, our ministry team looked at 1 Timothy 3 and 4. We noticed how, smack bang in the middle of these chapters on Christian leadership, is “the mystery of godliness”: that is, Christ our Saviour (1 Tim 3:16 cf 4:10). In other words, to be faithful in pastoral ministry, you have to keep your eyes on Jesus. You have to fight to keep your eyes on Jesus.

And what a fight you will have on your hands.

I start the year with good intentions. This year I won’t get so swallowed up by everything that needs to be done that I’ll forget the gospel. But by the end of the year I’m in coping mode, and when I’m in coping mode, the gospel is that last thing to come to mind. In this desperate race to the finish line, surely it’s my own efforts that will get me there. If I just knuckle down and get these Bible studies written. If I stay in control. If I keep on top of things. If I wake up earlier, go to bed later. If I…

And in all that busyness, the gospel slips from view, and I’m on a treadmill, endlessly running to keep up.

So how do you keep your eyes on the gospel? Our leadership group brainstormed and came up with some ideas. Here are eleven of them (please add your ideas to the comments!).

  • Read the Bible for the sake of your own soul. I try to read something every day that has nothing to do with preparing anything. Or when I must read to prepare – and let’s face it, there are times like this – then I try to turn what I read into reflection, repentance, praise and prayer. At the moment I’m preparing Colossians, and I’ve found it helpful to add a psalm to my Bible reading each morning.
  • Do evangelism. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that reminds me of the wonder of the gospel like seeing it light up someone else’s eyes for the first time. As I read a gospel with a friend, the very passages that seem odd or embarrassing to me are the ones that impact her most deeply, and I’m convicted afresh of the beauty and power of the gospel.
  • Pray. Prayerlessness is a vicious cycle: I don’t pray because I’m trying to do things in my own strength; then I have to do things in my own strength because I’m not praying; and, before long, I’m running to keep up, God is out of the picture, and it’s all about my own efforts to stay in control. Prayer reminds me that it’s God’s grace that changes people, not me.
  • Invite others to teach and admonish you (Col 3:16; Heb 10:24-25; James 5:16). It’s good to confess our struggles to wise, mature believers who hold us to account. Over the years, I’ve prayed with a couple of friends who know me well, comfort and challenge me, and keep my eyes on the goal. I meet with another group of women to pray for our non-Christian friends; this keeps us sharp and gospel-focussed.
  • Meditate on the gospel. Some ways to bring the gospel to mind include reading, memorizing, meditating on and praying through Bible passages about Jesus;1 listening to gospel-centred music;2 and deliberately making the cross and resurrection part of our daily thanksgiving and prayer.
  • Let life and leadership be cross-shaped. Like our Lord, instead of lording it over others, we serve (Mk 10:42-45). We choose humility over pride and ambition (Phil 2:3-11). We work hard and endure patiently (2 Tim 2:1-61 Pet 2:20-25). We lay down our lives in love (1 Jn 3:164:7-12). Our leadership becomes a living mnemonic, a reminder to us and others of the cross. And it’s a wonderful, non-vicious spiral: we live this way because of the cross, and living this way, are driven back to the cross; for who can live like this apart from the strengthening grace of God? (2 Cor 4:7-12Phil 4:11-132 Tim 2:1-6)
  • Rest. Every night my head hits the pillow, I’m reminded that I am not God, who alone ‘neither slumbers nor sleeps’ (Ps 121:2-4). A regular day’s rest, enjoying God’s good world and his gift of family and friends, reminds us that God sustains our life and provides all good things. Over-busyness, of course, has the opposite affect: it’s a symptom of I’m-running-the-universe disease, and leads to burn-out and loss of energy and purpose.
  • Read books about the gospel. I aim to read about one a year. At the moment, I’m slowly working my way through Timothy Keller’s King’s Cross. Others that have helped me are John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, CJ Mahaney’s The Cross-Centred Life, and Nancy Guthrie’s Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.3
  • Set aside a few regular hours for deeper reflection and prayer. Once a week or once a month, I sit in a cafe with an open Bible, a Christian book that I reserve just for this time, and a journal to write down thoughts and prayers; then I go for a long walk and pray. It keeps me refreshed and ready to serve, and the act of writing orders my thoughts and re-orients them to the gospel.
  • Make teaching gospel-centred. Not in a forced “every Bible study has to end with Jesus” kind of way. But the gospel should be where God’s word drives us. I don’t think I’ve really understood a Bible passage until it brings me back to the gospel naturally, of its own accord, by its own route.
  • Keep training and leadership gospel-centred. My husband, who heads a ministry team, makes sure that every staff meeting includes time, not just for administration, but also for encouraging each other from the Bible, praying, and discussing big issues from God’s word. It’s a great model for keeping the gospel on the agenda.

Christian ministry is hard, hard labour. It’s a marathon, not a sprint; but sometimes we can feel like we are sprinting! In the constant busyness and exhaustion, it’s tempting to turn to other things besides the gospel for comfort, like alcohol or inappropriate intimacy. It’s tempting to think we can do it all ourselves, until we crash and join the long list of those who’ve left pastoral ministry. I pray that we can remember God’s words to us:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Heb 12:1-3)

How do you keep your eyes on the gospel?

  1. You’ll find some suggested passages and methods for memorization in my posts A three-course banquet of Bible memorization and A smorgasbord of Bible memorization methods.
  2. For example, Sovereign Grace’s Songs for the Cross Centered Life.
  3. Others I’d like to read include Don Carson’s The Cross and Christian Ministry; Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey and Andrew Sach’s Pierced for our Transgressions; and JI Packer and Mark Dever’s In My Place Condemned He Stood.

7 thoughts on “Keeping the gospel in your sights in pastoral ministry

  1. Hi Jean, Thanks helpful article.
    I think a very helpful way to stay focused on Jesus all the way is the way is suggested by Jesus – “Take this …. in remembrance of me”. Our evangelical forefathers were often very keen on Lord’s Supper in way my tribe has childishly reacted against. Many of us are caught in an odd fad of downplaying the Supper. I am a mad protestant, no Rom Cath or high churchman or anything – but there is a very good reason our Beloved sets up this meal – and it is strangely forgotten

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    • Hi Joshua – perhaps it was unnecessary – but i fear, for good reason or not I can’t judge, that if you speak in favour of the Supper or Holy Communion you might be “dismissed” as “oh Ian’s gone all churchie on us” – hence my little disclaimer. One of the high privileges of being an Anglican minister is whispering into peoples hearts “take and eat, remembering He died for You…. or drink knowing the blood of Christ has freed you from all your sins” What an honour to speak that and to have it spoken to me is great and focuses us back on the Cross

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