Lessons I’ve learned in full-time ministry
‘Keep on keeping on’ is a phrase used by the Salvation Army which also found its way into songs by John Lennon and Bob Dylan. It is a good motto for serving the Lord long-term, and for surviving and thriving in the spiritually, physically and emotionally demanding marathon that is full-time Christian ministry. Living through lockdown has given me time to reflect on my 33 years serving the Lord in Britain, Vienna and Prague. Here are five things that I have learned over the years, and I trust they are helpful for you too.
God’s grace is sufficient
Full-time Christian ministry is both a privilege and a challenge, and I have no doubt that it is God’s grace that has enabled me to keep going and keep serving. I affirm from my own experience the words spoken by the Lord to the apostle Paul, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9).
The life of ministry has been a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. The older I have grown, the more I have realised how sinful and selfish I am, but also how wonderfully gracious and forgiving the Lord is. I know that I am loved by the Lord; there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and there is nothing I can do to make God love me less. He loves me because he loves me, just as he loves all his children as our father in Heaven. ‘See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!’ (1 John 3:1).
I have learned that the Lord can use me with my limitations and weaknesses, and in my failures because he is the Lord Almighty and our gracious father in Heaven. I have learned to accept who I am, who God has made me and who he is making me. I have found peace with myself so that I do not compare myself to others – a danger in ministry – when the only productive comparison is to measure ourselves against the Lord Jesus!
God’s Word is essential
I came to faith as a first-year student at Swansea University during a mission week and was blessed to have a Bible study leader who introduced me to the daily practice of the ‘quiet time’. She and others in the Christian Union encouraged me in the daily reading of God’s Word which grew into the practice of reading through the Bible each year, a habit I have maintained for 35 or more years, usually following the M’Cheyne plan. I am convinced that this has not only given me a passion to read, learn and share God’s Word, but also to develop strong foundations of resilience for challenging times.
The Lord’s work, not mine
As a minister, I am the Lord’s co-worker and servant, as Paul explains:
What, after all, is Apollos? What is Paul? Only servants… as the Lord has assigned to each his task… So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow… For we are co-workers in God’s service (1 Cor. 3:5-9).
Effective ministry depends on the Lord working by his Spirit in and through me so that my ‘success’ is measured not by numbers and results, but by my faithfulness. His promise is clear, ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). He is able to work and bear fruit in and through me!
As Paul writes, he is the one ‘who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us’ (Eph. 3:20-21). These truths don’t take away my responsibility to make every effort and serve to my utmost, but it does hand over the primary responsibility for the results and effectiveness of ministry to him!
Ministry is a team effort
I have always tried to foster good working relationships with my co-workers and fellow servants – generally volunteers – either working short-term with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) or in the church context. This helps to share the burden of ministry as well as developing the confidence and gifts of others. I am sure that this has kept me going in ministry all this time.
Seeking to accept and love people, as well as being available to them, has been important. Along the way I have learned to set boundaries! If it is not an emergency situation, the person who calls and wants to see me urgently (by which they mean immediately!) can be satisfied when a meeting is arranged for the next day or so.
I would not be where I am without the wonderful support in prayer and practical ways of my wife, parents, family and good friends. I treasure the few older colleagues who have acted as mentors, prayer partners and encouragers, especially during my time in Prague. Being able to rely on the trusted support of those not directly involved in my ministry, but who can give insight and encouragement, has enabled me to go through the most challenging times of ministry.
One of my joys in ministry has been investing in young Christians. As a team leader with IFES, I have had the privilege to work with 25 young graduates in student mission and ministry. In Prague too, in an international church where the congregation is constantly changing, this has been a priority. I discovered early on that some of our students – those studying medicine and dentistry – were often those who stayed longest! I have had the joy of investing in many of their lives through personal discipleship, small group Bible studies and by giving them opportunities to serve and take on leadership roles.
Be ready to learn
For me, ministry is primarily about relationships with the Lord and with people, but there are many other things that are vital to keep serving. Being ready to learn and grow is essential, as is seeking to be organized. Recognising (and practising!) the importance of taking time off and having holidays has helped me to keep serving. I am thankful to the Lord for the many joys and privileges I have experienced in serving him, and for the way he has enriched and blessed my life and enabled me to continue in ministry. May you too ‘keep on keeping on’.