I have preached from a place of emptiness and from a place of fullness, and the experience of the one makes me long for the other. A settled ministry in one congregation is a privilege beyond description, and a responsibility beyond the strength of any pastor. The weight and momentum of feeding hungry souls, preaching the gospel to dead souls, and applying balm to wounded souls is a work without comparison.
Empty and full
The contrast at the heart of this post is between periods of ministry where one’s reserves are low, and periods of ministry where the heart feels at capacity with the glory of God and the loveliness of Christ. They are starkly different experiences.
Emptiness comes through spending spiritual energy into deficit and overdraft; it is the logical and natural outcome of giving without receiving, speaking without seeking, wrestling without resting. Periods of emptiness in ministry are among the most dispiriting that a pastor can endure – they are forays along the perilous rim of despair, the enervating experience of finding that, dig as one might, wells of usefulness and fruitfulness will only open with toil and trouble. They are the sour manna of un-sabbathed labour.
Ministering from emptiness is not the same as ministering with undisclosed sin. The pastor’s heart might be tuned to the key of grace, they may be mortifying sin and seeking to see their graces vivified by the Holy Spirit, but still they come up short and dry and despairing. Ministering from emptiness leans into the adrenaline of deadline and public speaking, it becomes addicted to the stimulus of busyness and pressure and necessity. Like an ailing patient rallying when a long awaited visitor enters the ward, the empty preacher revives under the quickening influences of pulpit work, but they pay a heavy price when that pressure wanes.
Fullness, the enjoyment of God, the enrichment that flows from fellowship with him, and the issuing of that relationship with God into the life of ministry is among the most pure joys that a human being can experience. To find consonance with the sentiments of one’s heart and the contents of one’s preaching is heaven on earth. To know palpably and tangibly the perfections and presence of the Christ you are charged to preach, to feel the fear of God run like an electric current through your soul, and to speak within earshot of the thunder of heaven is a happy marriage of pleasure and duty. The full preacher apprehends the grace of the gospel to them first, and then to others afterwards. Sin becomes sinful once again, and the postcard of God’s grace experienced by the dry heart is replaced by the experience of walking gospel trails in the fresh air of the Holy Spirit.
I have preached from a place of emptiness and from a place of fullness, and the experience of one makes me long for the other. But how can a preacher cultivate fullness? Is such a question not in some way sacrilegious? Is it not to try to build a turbine to capture the energy of the Spirit blowing where he wills? Is it not a futile exercise?
Undoubtedly the breathings of God on the soul are not for us to conjure, but we can take steps that are conducive to fullness, that tilt our sails in the direction of divine help and grace and joy. I want to suggest two, and conclude with a beautiful ministry outcome that follows fullness.
Communion without commodity
Central to preaching from a place of fullness is private communion with God himself. This is so properly basic as to seem patronising – but it is a truth readily lost to us in the busyness of ministry. Ours is a commodified age, a performative culture where very few of our activities are genuinely private and inward facing. In addition to the normal output of weekly ministry, we can be tempted to make all of our experiences shared and shareable, a kind of signal of our output and input. Undoubtedly we can encourage others through sharing what we are learning from the Lord, but the secret place must be precisely that – a silo of one’s life completely isolated from the interests of others or the furtherance of our reputation.
Every pastor is different by temperament and context, but it is axiomatic that we cannot know fullness as described above without concerted, protected, private conversation with God in prayer and in his word. This is the Mary counterpart to our Martha ministry, it is sitting at Jesus’ feet without agenda, without hurry, without framing a text, or outlining a passage. It is taking our Christian lives at face value, taking God at his word, and taking time to rest in his presence as our Lord, as our Saviour, as our highest joy.
Such communion without commodity does not assert itself. This is time and space that we must crave and cultivate, and work hard to protect. It is the silent, unseen, lifting up of the soul that cannot be marked up by a time and motion study, it is the insistence that resting in the Lord’s presence and having our soul fed is a non-negotiable. This is not only to our own good, but for the blessing of the people whom God has placed under our care. When Jethro rebuked Moses for overworking his concern was not merely that his son-in-law would burn out but that the people of God would check-out: that his unbounded ministry would devastate the very people whom he was stretching himself to serve.
This will mean knowing ourselves (as Martyn Lloyd-Jones insisted) and providing ourselves with time and space to simply enjoy the God we proclaim. Pastor Albert Martin spoke at the Banner of Truth Ministers Conference on one occasion about having a chair that he never sat in to do preparation, only to commune with God. We may need to safeguard areas of our homes, areas of our studies, or specific outdoor spaces where work never comes, and where we simply seek to magnify God in the silent symphony of loving him and listening to him.
It takes a church to fill a pastor
An attendant danger with the steps outlined above is that it can feed the myth that the minister is Moses on the mountain who simply descends to impart what he has gleaned before disappearing to be at the Lord’s side again. This is a functional denial of a belief espoused by most pastors – the vital need for the local church. In The Pastors’ Soul Jim Savastio writes with devastating clarity about the need for preachers to be those who avail of the means of grace for their own spiritual welfare. This is so easily lost, not just on pastors but on the churches they serve.
As a minister of the gospel I need times when I am simply ministered to, where I am receiving among the fellowship of God’s people without giving. Such times shouldn’t be reserved for conferences, retreats, or sabbaticals, but should be part of the fabric of regular ministry. It might look heroic to be the lone figure who is always active in service, but it will lead to ministry from a place of emptiness.
If we want to address this, the best first step might be to read that chapter of The Pastor’s Soul. It is packed with advice and counsel gleaned from many years of ministry. A standout for me has been the need to communicate to the local church that the pastor must be fed, unfettered from the demand to produce anything in the gathering of God’s people. This might mean a culture change in the heart of the pastor, or in the hearts of the people, but thinking this through in recent days has been revolutionary for me.
Filled and fearless
Many benefits flow from preaching from a place of fullness, but for me a chief blessing is a reduction in fearfulness. When achievement and output are our primary metrics then one of our great fears is that we might ‘miss’ something, that we might default or fail in some way. Conscientiousness is crucial to ministry, but perfectionism isn’t. That kind of over-achieving mindset quickly burns up the fuel its soul needs to survive, and then enters a kind of terminal descent where guilt at not being alone with God makes the minister fear that not only might they draw the displeasure of the fellowship they serve, but that they might be living under God’s displeasure also. This is a crippling and self-contradictory experience, but there is every sign that it is common.
Being alone with God, listening to him, enjoying him, being rebuked and shaped by him, finding our hearts full of Christ, means that our ministry is a fountain rather than a shallow well. It means that the heart is re-centred again in God and such an experience is a great antidote to paranoid anxiety that some things, even the main things, are being missed.
I have preached from a place of emptiness and from a place of fullness, and the experience of one makes me long for the other. As this post goes out into the world it is accompanied by a prayer that God might help me to prioritise fullness of joy in him above hitting all of the beats or keeping everything spinning – it is also accompanied by prayer for you, dear fellow pastor, that God might draw near to you and that your ministry might once again be the sustained organic outflow of personal joy in Jesus.