I've been "struck" by the rather strong words the apostle uses in this section of the letter in his instruction and encouragement to Timothy. "Devotion" appears several times throughout the chapter, whether it's the devotion that some will show to "deceitful spirits" or the contrasting devotion that Timothy is to have to public Scripture reading, exhortation and teaching. Also, Timothy is to "train" himself in godliness, to toil and strive. The image of sweaty exertion is strong. The ministry is labor. It's work. If we approach it thinking of ease and self-centered convenience, we will be run over and flattened by the rushing traffic of responsibility, hardship, difficulty, sin, disappointment, apparent failure (ours and others), death, disease, and all the other things that accompany fallen human life. Ministry is labor.
And like any labor, it requires routine, trial and improvement. Paul says to Timothy "practice these things." By these things I take him to mean the things that he mentioned in the previous verses:
- Warning the people of false teachers;
- Avoiding false doctrine and myths;
- Training himself in godliness;
- Hoping on the living God;
- Commanding and teaching;
- "Keeping his head up" as a young pastor;
- Setting an example in life;
- Public reading of Scripture, exhorting and teaching again; and
- Using his gifts.
One way to maintain a proper focus is to realize that ministry takes practice. It takes concentration, meditation, action, and evaluation. And good practice requires strong devotion. Anyone with a child who begged to play a musical instrument knows what I'm talking about. My high school basketball coach always chimed, "You will play the way you practice." It goes without saying that our practices were rigorous affairs. And we probably watched as much film of our practice as we did our games. We were to be focused, prepared, on task, and this is critical... willing to be coached or evaluated. All of that comes under the header of "practice." If we take Allen Iverson's attitude toward practice (sorry non-sports fans), our ministries will stall, lag, falter and decay and we will not win the prize, because we lack the necessary preparation, focus and evaluation.
Some thoughts about "practice" in ministry.
1. Approach the study as though it were the game.
The study is not optional. We will pastor the way we practice. In the study, we're to be running the routines and plays that make our "game time" performance smooth, efficient and effective. When my study if off, so is the rest of my game eventually. My counseling isn't as sharp or rigorously biblical as it should be. I find myself at a loss for how to respond to things I know I know. When my study is off, my discipling of other men tends to be shallower. When my study is off, my preaching is more self-reliant and wrongly emotional. I can preach to some effect, deliver more-or-less wise counsel, and come alongside men when my study is off. But if I do, it will sooner or later show up in the "game" of their real lives; I may be eloquent but I will not be useful. A good pastor needs to approach the study as though it were game time because "game speed" in ministry requires someone that is focused, prepared, and well coached.
2. Find yourself a good coach.
This is essential. There is no deserted island like that of pastoral ministry. For many of us, being on the island alone is lonely; some of us are just find with our own company. But for all of us, the deserted island creates a most tragic condition: little or no evaluation of our work. We're left to the cruel clutches of self-evaluation, which is notoriously one-sided. Few of us offer balanced appraisals of ourselves. We're prone to fall off one side or the other--either everything is great and everyone else needs to get on board, or everything is terrible and the sky is falling. Neither is accurate. And neither is good evaluation. A good coach, a godly older man in the ministry, a godly and discerning peer in the ministry, who will give us unvarnished but loving feedback on our habits of thinking, our preaching, our counseling, our services is essential. To practice, as Paul says here, we need to "watch film" with someone who knows the plays and can point out strengths and weaknesses. A good pastor seeks that kind of feedback. He meets up with other pastors for this purpose.
3. Cultivate humility.
Since I'm working on this myself, let me just make one observation and one recommendation. My observation of my own heart and mind teaches me that this is harder than it sounds. Pride is a hydra-headed monster that asserts and inserts itself in so many diverse ways and at so many varied times. At times it can feel a little like trying to nail Jell-o to a wall. Warring against it, for me, will be life-long. I have some imperfect knowledge of my own heart... and from what I can see, pride has deep roots there. Given my observation of my own heart, one suggestion. I would urge every pastor to get to know the Sovereign Grace pastors in their area. Spend time with them. See how they build accountability into the very fabric of their churches. Watch how they model warring against pride and cultivating humility. C.J.'s book, Humility: True Greatness, is a must-read, but walking with some of these men is even better. If you don't live near any Sovereign Grace churches... move! Just kidding :-) Look around the area very intentionally and carefully for men who are evidently and universally regarded as humble. They're probably not leading the new, hip, fast growing church in the area. They're probably laboring quietly in relatively anonymity... which is probably partially why they're on speaking terms with humbleness of heart. Cultivate humility by watching these men, following them as they follow Christ, and confessing/exposing your pride to the light of Christ's face. The practice and the coaching will not be the aid it's meant to be, if we're not teachable and able to receive godly feedback... in other words, if we're not humble.
Well, a good pastor does all of this, we're told, "so that all may see [his] progress." A couple observations to conclude.
1. If all are seeing the good pastor's progress, it suggests that his people already knew some of his imperfections and flaws. A good pastor must delight in that! It's liberating to know that others know you are not "da man." You can go on with the project of being a fallen creature redeemed by grace. Don't cover your faults, wisely, with godly edification in view, confess them. Let the people know you had a life before Christ, and that since coming to Christ, you've discovered how much you need to grow in grace and holiness. They know that. Remind them of it, and in most cases you will find added liberty and grace, especially if we extend the same to our people.
2. A good pastor is to be progressing. That's obvious, I know, but it's helpful to state it. Growth is normal in the Christian life, and that's no less true for the good pastor. We should be growing. If we're not, we should be exploring potential reasons with our coaches and trusted saints. We should pray fervently for a reversal of course and pick up good books like Don Whitney's Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Life or Octavius Winslow's Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul. A good pastor is to grow and to aim himself at personal growth. On that point, a good pastor would work to make sure that the church's budget reflects this desire for growth by supporting participation in a couple of great conferences a year (check out Challies for an excellent list) and by offering a good "book budget" to fill out the library and reading diet.
3. A good pastor's growth is to be seen. "All" are to see his progress. I think this is part of what it means to set a good example. A good pastor wants his people to grow and so he should grow himself. This is the purpose statement for why a good pastor practices and is devoted, "so all may see his progress." Perhaps this suggests that one thing we should hear at the doors after service or in conversation with people is that they can see how we've grown over time with them. Now, of course, this means good pastors need to stay in one place so that people will have time to see the progress. But having stayed, folks should be able to see his growth in godliness, grace, preaching, spiritual strength, love, faith, and the other things Paul calls to attention in this passage.
Let us be devoted and practice the essentials of the ministy so that we might grow and set a good example for our people.