When Pleasure Becomes Business: How To Maintain A Healthy Walk With The Lord In Full-Time Ministry
At the end of John’s gospel, Jesus commissions Peter to lead the fledgling church, and, as is so often the case when dealing with Jesus, his priorities are surprising. Before signing him up to any preaching training courses, before explaining the vision statement or growth strategy, he asks a question that would seem irrelevant to any of us who are just interested in getting things done. Three times he asks Peter: do you love me?
This is a question for all disciples, but there are particular struggles for those in full-time ministry. How do we maintain — no, grow in — our love for Jesus when pleasure has become business, and we’ve become a ‘professional Christian’? Professionalism is, after all, what we should be trying to avoid — not in our standards, we don’t want to be sloppy, but in our attitude. We want to be on guard against the attitude that quickly turns ministry from being people-focussed to task-focussed, and turns the gospel from God’s gracious means of drawing us to him into a product that we sell to fix a few problems in people’s lives while avoiding God altogether.
Here are two extremes that we can gravitate towards, and a middle way that I think strikes a healthier balance.
Approach #1 — The Private and Public are Totally Separate
The first way we might try to protect our private devotional life from being professionalised by our roles in ministry is to keep it totally separate from our public ministry. There is surely a right instinct in this: the desire to prevent ourselves from turning discipleship into a job is surely godly. This approach takes seriously the need to be with Jesus personally, and not to just read Scripture for the sake of other people. So far, so good.
But there are real dangers in this way of thinking: left to develop too far, it can cause something of an identity crisis. We stop seeing ourselves as one person, and start seeing ourselves with different roles and hats for different people and different times. In our zeal to avoid professionalising our private devotion, we end up professionalising our public ministry. Our work for the Lord becomes a separate thing to our walk with the Lord, and becomes compartmentalised into the 9–5.
Furthermore, it seems to be a distinction that isn’t made by Jesus or the apostles. Jesus’ question of whether Peter loves him is immediately followed by his call to feed Christ’s sheep. One leads naturally into the other, with no competition between the two. If we push the separation too far, then we end up losing sight of a large reason why Christ is changing us: in order that we may serve others in the church.
What may this extreme look like in practice? Symptoms may be as follows:
- a lack of prayer when preparing passages to teach, since we approach the text more as an exercise in comprehension and exegetical competence than devotion;
- being overly concerned with people in our care making what we deem to be sufficient progress in godliness, since our ‘job’ is to be making them grow;
- listening to sermons for other people, since we are on the clock and need to consider how to apply to the person sitting next to us;
- viewing the Sunday service as primarily work, and so making the church something that we exist outside of, not as part of.
Approach #2 — The Private and the Public are Totally the Same
The other end of the spectrum also has something to commend it. People tending towards this end have a distaste for professionalising the ministry and a resistance to separating our lives into different micro-identities— all should be part of one organic whole. Any division is seen as inauthentic. Again, there’s something to praise in this instinct.
Unfortunately, our best intentions are often twisted by sin. Someone on this end of the spectrum is likely to run the risk of mistaking their ministry for personal spirituality, a greater danger that grows if they appear successful. Private habits of prayer become unnecessary, there is enough praying to be done in Bible studies and one-to-ones, there is no need to go into our private rooms and talk to our Father who hears in secret as well.
If the risk of drawing a sharp distinction was professionalising the public, the risk of collapsing the two is professionalising the private. The irony is that many of the results can look very much the same. We listen to sermons for other people, not so much because we’re on the clock, but because we’re piggybacking off the spiritual growth of others, and so we become very concerned with ‘results’ again. We run the risk of viewing ourselves as some sort of conduit for God’s work — he speaks through us to others, but we manage to hold him at such a distance that he never troubles us.
Symptoms may include:
- struggling to spend time with the Lord on a day off, since it feels too much like work;
- depending on public meetings for prayer;
- as above, listening to sermons to apply them to others.
A Middle Path — The Private and the Public are Mutually Enriching
Far better is seeing the complementarity between the two. We distinguish between the public and the private on for the sake of joining them together again. As we do this, we find that the boundary between private and public is pretty porous, and that one enriches the other. We prepare Bible studies with warm-hearted devotion, desiring that every text leads us to Christ, and leads us to love him more. Our study for the sake of serving others makes us more like Christ, and our private prayer makes us better public servants. Our spiritual life is both private and public, and both sides grow up and flourish best together. It’s a win-win.
As we pay attention to both, we will find ourselves better able to serve others in a sustainable way. The question of whether Peter loves Jesus and his command to feed his sheep are not disconnected. It is only from of a a place deep love for Jesus and habits of personally feeding on him that we are able to feed others and lead them to love him more as well. I say this anecdotally, but I think it’s true — we are impacted more by people in leadership modelling repentance in their own lives than just telling us what to change in ours. We serve our congregations, small groups, and friends better by showing how Scripture changes us, not just how we think it should apply to the guy sitting next to us.
Holding the two together helps us overcome our anxiety over our performance in ministry as well. The deep and wonderful truth at the bottom of this is that God does not want slick professionals doing the work of the kingdom— he wants you. He will teach you things in private for the sake of you serving others better in public, and he’ll teach you things in public so that your prayer in secret may be more rich and affectionate.The Lord doesn’t want you to work out the best easy, functional, shortcut ways of serving, he wants to work in you to be a true servant. He doesn’t want you to divide your personality or identity in two, but to work through your personality as it is redeemed and sanctified in Christ.
Ways of Finding the Middle Path
Rest. If we consider God to be our boss, then we will try to avoid him on our days off. If we consider God to be our Father, from whom all blessings flow and in whom true rest is found, then we will look to him on our
Days off. In fact, perhaps the better word than day off is Sabbath. The employers of this world give you a day off so that you can just work harder next week. The God of Israel gives you a sabbath so that you would rest in him, and look forward to the day of resting from your labours in his presence forever. God is your Father who loves and will refresh you, not your boss who will wear you out. If you spend more time with him on your day off, you’ll be more refreshed than if you avoid him. I guarantee it.
Pray. It sounds too obvious to need saying, but say it we must, because we are so prone to neglect it. The type #1 may need to remember to keep all their ministry soaked in prayer, the type #2 may need to remember to pray for themselves and spend unhurried time with their Father who sees in secret.
Let grace kill guilt. It is easy to feel guilty if we feel we’re going wrong in either direction. Perhaps we feel we ought to be applying every bit of spiritual input we’re getting equally, and lingering over every passage. It just isn’t possible. It’s OK if your quiet times just involve going back over things you’ve heard on Sunday morning — that might even be better for you than trying to digest more.
Let Christ meet you everywhere. Whatever you’re doing, prepping, or praying for, let Christ meet you in every aspect of your work and life. In all the tasks of being an apprentice, there is some way in which we can imitate the example that Christ has given us, and grow more into his likeness. Expect that you will be most profoundly shaped by what you’re preparing to teach — if you aren’t being changed more by passages you prepare to teach, then your prep is almost certainly too shallow and my bet is your teaching will be totally anaemic to prove it.