Tips For RTS Students: For a Long and Fruitful Ministry

(Adapted from remarks to my students at Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson on April 19, 2016.)

I want for each of you a long and fruitful ministry. For that to happen, many things must take place. This afternoon I’ll focus on two.

First, for a long and fruitful ministry you must intercede for your congregation in your secret prayers.

Secret prayer – the time you spend alone with the Lord pouring out your heart for the congregation he has called you to serve and seeking those graces you must have if you’re to serve them well.

Without secret prayer there can be no real Christian ministry. That’s why Bishop Moule sought to impress upon his ministerial students that the “the heart of the minister’s life is the man’s Secret Communion with God.”[1]

Nothing will build stronger bonds of affection with your congregations than praying earnestly for them.

In prayer we come before the throne of grace, pleading with God to grant grace to the sick, comfort to the mourner, strength to the weak, certainty to the doubting, clarity to the confused, and hope for the despairing.

In prayer we also seek God’s sanctifying grace for our people. They must be holy as he is holy, for without holiness, no man shall see the Lord (1 Peter 1:16, Hebrews 12:14). “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Our congregations face many urgent temporal concerns, and we must intercede for them. But critically important is each member’s personal holiness, his Christlikeness. The name of Lord honored in the godly behavior and godly doctrine of his flock must be your principal concern.

And in our prayers for our congregations, we pray also for the graces that we need to be faithful in our ministerial calling. And of all the virtues we need to minister well, none is more important than gentleness. We mustn’t be harsh, overbearing, or intimidating.

Instead, we must approach the flock with “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:1). Gentleness is the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit that is present in every true believer, and must be especially evident in the pastor.

Here’s what you mustn’t forget. You can be angry with people, or you can effectively minister the gospel of God’s grace.  But you can’t do both. It’s one or the other.

You can be gentle with people, or you can harbor heart anger. It’s one or the other. Gentleness and sinful anger are mutually incompatible.

The frequency and intensity of our prayers for ourselves and for our congregations are known only to us and to God.  Yet I doubt there is any greater measure of ministerial godliness. If we attempt to carry on a ministry without earnestly praying for our congregations, then we will find ourselves on perilous ground.

Why is that? Why is a ministry without private prayer spiritually deadly? Because when we fail to pray, we reveal ourselves to be hypocrites. We minister in Christ’s name without personal communion with him.

Alexander Whyte raises this very point in Bunyan Characters. In his lecture on “Formalist and Hypocrisy.” He writes of the hypocritical minister

Sweating at his sermons and in his visiting, till you would almost think that he is the minister of whom Paul prophesied, who should spend and be spent for the salvation of men’s souls. But all the time, such is the hypocrisy that haunts the ministerial calling, he is really and at bottom animated with ambition for the praise of men only, and for the increase of his congregation.[2]

What exposes Hypocrite’s heart is the absence of secret prayer. That mustn’t be you!

Frequent and intense secret prayer for our flocks indicates a heart for God and a heart for the people of God. Without it, there is never long and fruitful ministry.

And that’s what I want for you – a long and fruitful ministry. For that to happen, you must intercede for your congregation in your secret prayers.

And, next, you must speak affectionately to your congregation and about your congregation.

Remember Paul’s experience in Thessalonica. After a ministry that lasted about a month, he was forced from the city, leaving behind a church full of new converts.

The pain of separation was real and the anguish of the troubled Thessalonians could not be ignored.

So, with moving words, Paul reassures them by letter of his abiding love and affection. He asks: “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming” (2:19)?

What a question! I can imagine the letter being read to the Thessalonians for the first time. The reader of the letter asks Paul’s question: “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming?” He pauses, and gives the congregation time to mull it over. Then comes Paul’s answer:  “Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy” (2:20).

Paul’s crown of boasting before the Lord is saved Thessalonian believers who he will present to the Lord at his coming. They are his glory and joy.

Paul spoke affectionately of believers he loved. So should we.

One of the finest elders I’ve ever known taught me a valuable lesson. He never did something that’s so common among Christian parents: we complain about our kids, even exaggerating their faults, in order to get sympathy or even a laugh. This elder never did that.

Without ever bragging, he talked about his children only with respect and pride and gratitude. And his children adored him. Affectionate words showed just how much he cared for them.

Listen to your speech. How do you talk to your congregation when you’re in the pulpit? How do your members feel while sharing conversation with you? Do they sense your deep affection for them?

And how do you talk about your congregation when they are absent? When your with your fellow ministers, or your wife, or alone with your own thoughts. Wherever you are speak of them with tenderness and warmth.

If you start to speak otherwise, then catch yourself, repent, and from the heart talk about them with deepest affection.

Then in your heart and speech they will be your glory and joy.  And you will be well down the road to a long and fruitful ministry.


[1] H.C.G. Moule, To My Younger Brethren: Chapters on Pastoral Life and Work (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902), 31.

[2] Alexander Whyte, Bunyan Characters, vol. 1. 1893 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), 138.


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