A Call to the Higher Standard
In mentoring his son in the ministry, Paul challenged young Timothy with these words, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12, ESV). Throughout his Holy Spirit-inspired counsel to this young man in the ministry, Paul stressed the need for a transparent character, an excellent reputation, a humble integrity which would allow others to see Christ in and through him.
In his Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon left virtually no stone unturned while impressing the need for private integrity which leads to public credibility upon his college students. From prayer to “keeping the tools sharp,” to the work of the Holy Spirit, to the ways in which a pastor/teacher might use his voice, Spurgeon understood and emphasized that ministry leads us to a total investment of ourselves into the work of the ministry.
With that in mind and with a significant degree of trepidation lest he be found wanting in any of these areas personally, this author will raise some areas for consideration and even discussion in regard to the need for a high standard in personal conduct among ministers of the Gospel. Most readers would readily agree that certain issues of morality, ethics, and character are “no brainers.” Adultery is (or should be) a ministry-ender. A past history of financial impropriety and padding a resume also fits that bill as the newly-selected pastor of the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach recently discovered. But there are other matters of personal character that should also be considered and guarded.
Often in ministry, one will hear the private lamentations that pastors and their families are required to live in “Goldfish Bowls.” This clichéd analogy that creates the suggestion that those in the ministry are subject to unusual and uncomfortable levels of scrutiny is not entirely without basis. Neither is it unique to the ministry. Politicians, celebrities, the wealthy, and a plethora of other leaders and high-profile individuals have faced the same fate. It’s what makes The National Enquirer “America’s Most-Read Weekly.”
Certainly this must have been part of Paul’s experience and why he stressed to young Timothy that he needed to be a constant example of the believer and that his youth was not adequate as an excuse to ignore it. So with these thoughts in mind, here’s some grist for your mental mill as it relates to the higher standard of character necessary in ministry.
1. It doesn’t have to be true to end or damage your ministry.
Several years ago, it was reported that Billy Graham had a long-standing policy that he would not even ride in an elevator along with a woman. He didn’t want there to be an opportunity for anyone to make accusation against his moral character. For all of the criticism he has received over the years, there has never been even a whiff of moral impropriety, and one must assume that such a policy played no small role in that. It is the foolish pastor who puts himself in a position where it would be possible for someone to make an accusation against his character. Over the years, the media has loudly printed the accusations of disgruntled former employees, students, or attention-seekers that were later discovered to be bogus or acts of spiteful revenge. Sadly, the recantation of the accuser is rarely given as much ink as is the accusation.
2. A good worth ethic is necessary.
Anyone who enters the ministry with the idea that this is a 40-hours-a-week, five-day-a-week assignment is either delusional, very misinformed, or a member of a non-evangelical or “mainstream” denominational organization. It would be wise for each of us to keep in mind that we are asking the members of our church to volunteer to sing in the choir, teach Sunday school, host fellowships, make visits, etc., in addition to their 40 to 60 hours per week of working and commuting. They have children also. Many of them have the same stresses on their lives that those in ministries do. For us to expect more from those who look to us for spiritual leadership than we are willing to offer ourselves is neither fair, nor is it that way to setting a high standard. Ministry is hard work. It requires long hours.
Several years ago, a young seminarian stopped by this author’s office for some counsel. During the course of the conversation, he said, “I can’t wait until I can get paid to sit around and study all day.” After this author stopped laughing, he wanted to jump across the desk and pummel him. If only that were true. But any busy pastor will tell you that large blocks of study time are often available only after 40 or more hours of administrative and service time have been invested each week.
3. We are called to excellence.
Excellence matters. Michelangelo was widely quoted as having said, “Trifles make perfection and perfection is no trifle.” From the way we handle ministry finances to the smoothness of the order of the service, to proofreading printed materials, to the condition of facilities, our level of commitment to excellence is on constant display and is a reflection of how we view our calling. Many folks in our church work in environments were excellence is a primary objective. Do you think IBM or even the U.S. Government tolerates missing reimbursement receipts and inaccurate quarterly reports? Do you want your doctor to dress like a slob? Would it matter to you to discover that your college professor hasn’t read a book in his area of discipline in five years? What if the U.S. Stock Exchange regularly opened 10 minutes late? So why do we tolerate similar demonstrations of sloppiness in the ministry? If God’s business is the most important business in the universe, then maybe we should show more attention to the details of excellence than does Wal-Mart, Red Lobster, or the supermarket.
4. Words matter.
Words are a currency this is vital in the Bank of Integrity. When we regularly exaggerate illustrations in the pulpit, make promises that we fail to keep, use coarse and base expressions, demean God’s holiness by misusing His name (saying things like “Gosh” or “Oh my God” or “Bless God” as expressions of surprise or emphasis), even demonstrate carelessness in matters of grammar, we diminish and damage our credibility. Scripture warns us to let our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no.” We are cautioned against the loose use of invectives (don’t call your brother a “fool”). We are reminded of the power and beauty of right words (apples of gold in pictures of silver). Words can either build or diminish our credibility.
5. We must learn to choose best over good and better.
Every day, people in ministry must make thousands of choices that impact their integrity and reputation. Not every single decision or choice is one which will change the course of one’s ministry, but over time wise choices will add a sheen and temper to one’s character which will be a blessing and a tool for ministry. Consider some of these choices: Devotion over duty. Substance over style. Expositional over topical. Punctuality over procrastination. Excellence without extravagance. Commitment over convenience. Servanthood over selfishness. Respect instead of ridicule. Principle over preference. Doctrine rather than tradition. Faith instead of fear. Holiness over happiness. Humility rather than aggressiveness. The list can go on and on. Not every option was negative, but in each case, there was clearly a “best” choice. In the end, our character is the result of a thousand choices that at the time may have seemed insignificant. And ironically, but assuredly, it requires only one significant wrong choice to forever disfigure what one has worked a lifetime to erect.
Certainly, there are many, many other facets of choosing the higher standard, and we should encourage discussion in those areas. In the meantime, we need to do away with the resentment we sometimes feel and communicate about the higher standard that is demanded of those in spiritual leadership. Is it not a privilege to spend one’s life doing that which will still matter in a millennium? If there is a higher calling, then we should all run to pursue it. If our calling is of God, then it should be no burden to us to perform it with care, joy, excellence, and devotion.
Satan will constantly seek ways to use the blessings of our calling to destroy us. He’ll introduce us to pride and arrogance. He’ll tempt us with power and a lack of accountability. He’ll entice us to think of ourselves as exceptional or infallible. He’ll whisper to us that we are under-appreciated, over-scrutinized, under-compensated and overworked. Like Eve before us, all it might require of us to fail is a second look, a few moments of contemplation, a sentence of rationalization, or a whiff of the forbidden, and we’ll throw this wonderful privilege away for a few seconds of foolishness.
May we each be on guard and may we love our fellow ministers enough to warn them of the dangers. In less than a century’s time, we’ll all be glad that we did.
Dan Burrell is senior pastor at Northside Baptist Church (Charlotte, NC). He’s also a commentator for the Evangelical Press News and blogs at Whirled Views with Dan Burrell.