There is much that is notional and fleeting in the approach of a New Year, and there is a great danger in setting in spin the toothless cogs of self improvement for another season with no meaningful change or true challenge gaining traction in our will. Our resolve to change can fizz and fade like fireworks, abandoning us to the same dark sky. Those realities notwithstanding, there is great benefit in regularly taking stock of ourselves, and the turn of a year allows us to see 12 months from a new summit, providing opportunity to reflect, to repent, and to resolve. If this is true for all Christians, it is particularly so for those who have accepted the charge to care for the flock of Christ. Given that ours is a stricter judgement finally, we would do well to apply sober judgement for ourselves temporally. In this post I want to reflect on some of the ways in which a pastor can repent, and some ways in which he can make resolutions for future ministry.
Of what can a pastor repent?
It is tempting to simply record the Apostle Paul’s words here, and move on – ‘much, in every way!’, but the health of our hearts demands more. Pastoral ministry can create its own mirage, leading those who observe us to perceive heat and hydration in our souls which may not necessarily be real. This is in some ways unavoidable, given the intensity and reality of the gospel we proclaim, but we must be careful to guard against seeing ourselves in this way. We are called by Christ as men, we labour for Christ as men, and as men our lives are punctuated and vitiated by failure and frailty. If we do not own this for ourselves, and if we do not confess this to others, we may unwittingly be in the process of developing our own messiah complex.
We can repent of our breathtaking coldness of heart towards the Saviour and towards sinners, a sin which is aggravated by our proximity and responsibility to both. We can own and accept that we have made ministerial survival our chief end, rather than the supremacy of Christ’s name. We can repent of our diffidence about our whole calling, our casual temptations to abjure the realm of Christian service, the looseness with which we have accepted the privilege of speaking the very word of God to the souls of men. We can repent of our casual capitulations to temporal remedies which do not have the glory of God at their centre, our desire for the palliation of ministry pain in any source other than the all sufficient Saviour. We can repent of our seasons of commodified trafficking in the souls of others, our frustrations at the intransigence of other Christians when our own hearts are so difficult to move. We can repent of our constant distraction, our swallowing of a lie that means we have to wage war in virtual realms which are merely projections of flesh and blood, where our battles do not truly lie. We can repent of our worst sermons, and we can repent of our best. We can repent of lost time and light truths. We can repent of familial neglect, of placing our time behind the paywall of ministry when better efficiency in our work would have allowed better engagement with our home. We can repent of ministerial daydreaming, of portraying our pasture in the palest of pastel shades, while painting those of others in oil of deepest green.
We can repent of these and a thousand other bespoke sins which we have tailored to ourselves, the silent transgressions and transactions which have dulled our love for the Lord, and made blunt the blessing that might have cut through the lives of those to whom we bear responsibility.
How might a pastor repent?
It is possible to allow the contemplation of repentance to replace the actual fact, and it is possible to plot the co-ordinates of our failures without charting where they lie in the true scheme of ministry, or how we might avoid that same downward curve in the future. The way we repent is at least as important as the fact that we repent.
We can engage in repentance by inviting silent reflection and facing ourselves. This might mean actually scheduling private time to search our hearts and seek the Lord. John Piper famously took a leave of absence from Bethlehem Baptist as he could trace the snare of pride strapping itself around his feet as a pastor. We may not need sabbatical time, but we do need substantial time to clear the decks of our service for Christ and to ask him to show us our own hearts. This might mean agreeing with family and with fellow elders that we are going to devote ourselves to seeking the Lord in this way. For some it might mean a season of prayer and fasting, for others absenting the office or the study and finding a space where we are not tempted to prepare a sermon or read another book. Our souls need deep exegesis, we need to trace their context and contours, we need to parse the grammar of our will, in order to truly turn from our sin.
We can engage in repentance by speaking with a trusted confidante. This should almost always follow after the first step above. It is possible to accidentally host a pity party if we too hastily confess our sins to another. We can present our conscience in such a way that we appear to be storm-tossed on the deck of our lives, rather being drunkenly asleep in the wheelhouse. We can apply to friends to reduce the penalty and gravity of our waywardness. If we approach a brother who has the capacity to deal with us openly and honestly, and if we speak with them only when we have done the hard arithmetic of our own hearts, there can be joy and help in hearing what others have to say about how we might progress.
We can engage in repentance by carefully selecting our reading material. The challenges of the Saviour to the seven churches, the treacherous landscape of the history of the kings of Judah, the scythe of the penitential Psalms, and a whole host of other sections of God’s Word, specifically chosen to stir our conscience, can be of tremendous benefit. We might also sample selected texts which will drive us to see our hearts more helpfully. I have recently been reading John Angell James’ masterful An Earnest Ministry, and have had occasion to see and feel more deeply my quiet declensions and ready dismissal of the cry of conscience.
What resolutions might a pastor make and how might he make them?
The answer to this question is as wide as the field of our repentance, and as personal as our own conscience. Where the Saviour shows us our sin we must not merely sorrow for it, but set ourselves against it. Where the effort of our ministry has been weak we must consult with others how we might better set ourselves to the work. Such a procedure could be extrapolated beyond measure.
Crucial to our resolutions, however, must be our resistance of applying to pragmatic measures or public reforms. It is all too easy to believe that our indulged discouragement or petty carnality is owing to some structural deficit in the church. We can get the scent of our sin and then hunt the fox of the faults of others, all the while remaining unchanged in our souls. The best resolutions are those which do not let us off the hook, which make demands of the heart, which lie with us and not with others, which would more readily change ourselves rather than change the world.
We might take time to lay out formally what resolutions we wish to make. We might lay beside them the measures we will put in place to more effectively address ourselves. We might speak with our wife or our most trusted colleague, asking them to measure the realism with which we are resolving. As men we have a propensity to opt for the heroic and short term, while missing the small steps that might yield better mileage over the long haul. We must resist every temptation to make our resolutions public, either to our congregation or (even worse) to social media.
This time of year affords us room to reflect, to repent, and to resolve. What difference might it make in our lives as Christian men, our love as Christian husbands and fathers, our capacity as Christian ministers if we availed of it with sobriety and sincerity on the threshold of another year?