Staying on Track
As a young minister, I’ve noticed how many ministers seem to get off-track in some glaring way during the course of their ministries. I never want to do anything that dishonors God or become someone who brings reproach to the Gospel or misrepresents the Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve always heard the admonitions about “the gold, the girls, and the glory,” but can you share with me what you feel are the root areas of sin (or neglect, disobedience, attitude problems, etc.) that ultimately open up the door to these more obvious sins. I would love to hear from proven ministers how to stay on-track…how to avoid getting into prideful attitudes or wrong behavior. My heart’s desire is to serve God with honor and integrity over the course of my lifetime. What are the specific pitfalls and traps I need to watch out for?
Pastor John White—Decatur, AL
I think the number one thing that young ministers need to be aware of is that they are first of all servants to God, and secondly, that they are servants to people. What I have observed in my 32 years of ministry is that ministers have a tendency to get off track in this area. They begin to “think more highly of themselves than they ought.” They get to the point that they believe that the people are there to serve them. We were called to meet people’s needs—not vice versa.
What I have done as a pastor is to make sure that I always smell like sheep. A pastor that doesn’t smell like sheep is not much of a pastor. A pastor has to spend time with his flock. How can you diligently know the state of your flock, as Proverbs 27:23 states, if you are never around them? When we open ourselves to the congregation, we do stand the risk of being judged and accused unjustly but that’s just an occupational hazard that comes with the job. Our lives should be an open book to all who want to read it, but especially to our church members. After all we shouldn’t have anything to hide.
I have observed that when a minister gains a little success that their whole demeanor begins to change. All of a sudden they forget what got them to where they are and began to be untouchable to the ordinary class of people that make up most of their congregation and ministry associates. I have seen many ministers come crumbling to the ground that developed such an attitude.
Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. We should have that same testimony. Remember what got you to where you are and stay faithful to that calling. Love God and love people and you will never go wrong.
Pastor Dave Williams—Lansing, MI
I have a sign posted in my office that reads, “Stay on Target.”
There are enormous demands for a pastor’s time and focus. Anything that doesn’t fit through the grid of your God-given vision, regardless of how “good,” or even “great” it may look, must be ignored or disregarded.
It is just as much disobedience to do more than God has called us to do, as it is to not do what God has called us to do. “Being” precedes “doing.”
I met a pastor years ago at a ministerial breakfast. He told us that he had no more time to pray because of all the demands of “his” people. They were calling him in the early hours until the late hours and he “had to” meet their needs. (Remember, “being” precedes “doing”).
This pastor, rather than equipping the saints for the work of the ministry, was doing all the ministry while ignoring the most important need of being in God’s presence. Within just a couple of years he was divorced, became a drunkard, subsequently married and divorced multiple times, and now claims atheism as his philosophy. And he was once pastoring a Spirit-filled church.
You ask about the sins of neglect, disobedience and attitudinal issues. Personally, I believe that the mother of all sin is pride. It’s subtle and sneaks up on pastors.
The fear of the LORD is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy
Billy Graham reminded us, “The first, and worst, of the seven deadly sins is pride. It may be spiritual, intellectual, material, or social. The most repugnant of these four is spiritual pride. This pride of the spirit was the sin that caused Lucifer, the devil to fall (Isaiah 14:13-15). This is where sin actually began.” [Flint, Cort R. and others, editors, The Quotable Billy Graham. Anderson, NC: Droke House Publishers]
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen once wrote, “Pride is the king of vices…it is the first of the pallbearers of the soul…other vices destroy only their opposite virtues, as wantonness destroys chastity; greed destroys temperance; anger destroys gentleness; but PRIDE DESTROYS ALL VIRTUES”
Pride is a deadly virus that will eat away at us emotionally and spiritually. It is a great deceiver. Pride has destroyed more marriages and churches than any other thing. Pride gets us involved in all kinds of things NOT mandated by God.
Pride brings blindness to our souls. This means we cannot see our errors. We cannot see the pitfalls and traps laid by our enemy.
Psalm 36:2 NLT
In their blind conceit, they cannot see how wicked they really are.
Pride causes us to lose favor with God
James 4:6 (NLT)
“God opposes the proud but favors the humble.”
“All those who are arrogant are an abomination to the LORD
English clergyman Caleb C. Colton remarked, ‘Pride, like the magnet, constantly points to one object: self. Unlike the magnet, it has no attracting pole, but at all points it repels.’
When we think, “I’m more spiritual than you,” or “I know the Bible better than you do”, or “My little group is more right than yours,” we’ve probably crossed into pride. When we have moved into this mother of all sin, we find ourselves doing more, focusing less, and moving backwards because we have fallen into the pitfalls of all pitfalls.
Go back to 2 Chronicles and read about King Asa. He started well, but it appears that later in his leadership, pride crept in. He quit seeking the Lord, began rejecting the council of true men of God, and tried to work things out himself. It seems he didn’t finish well.
The antidote for this mother sin:
Philippians 2:5-7 (The Message)
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Thank you for this question. I hope this helps.
Pastor John B. Lowe—Warsaw, IN
As you know this is a huge subject with simple answers.
Matthew 22:37–40. Love God and Love People. This will keep you from sinning against either one. Really love them.
Here are 5 principles:
- 1 Thessalonians 5:22 – Abstain from every appearance of evil.
- Ephesians 4:27 – Give Satan no place.
- 1 Corinthians 15:33 – Evil companions corrupt good manners
- James 4:7,8 – Submit to God, resist the devil
- 2 Timothy 2:22 – Flee youthful lust. I call this one “Don’t take the stupid pill.”
Read good books of great men of God about personal holiness. Don’t violate these principles and also think. Never do anything you don’t want to read about in the paper or see your face on TV. If you thought it was wrong when you were young and naïve, it is and still is. Stay innocent in a corrupt generation. Pray in tongues and LOVE.
Pastor Ray Almaguer—Glendora, CA
What a great question. Just asking such a question shows me you have a heart for God and for people. I have a few suggestions you might consider, and these are not in any particular order.
A minister must keep his priorities straight. We all know this, but we don’t all practice this. I’ve known of ministers who preached this but didn’t live it, and then, when something broke down they wondered what went wrong. My relationship with God must come first, then my relationship with my wife, then my children, then the ministry. A minister must be ruthless when it comes to priorities because they have a way of getting out of place. If we let that happen, problems are sure to follow.
I made up my mind a long time ago that I would not mis-manage the pace of my life. The crazy thing is that ministry can make you unspiritual. You can go from being Mary to Martha if you let the work of the ministry rob you of your time with God.
Every minister needs someone who is speaking into their life. We need to be fed like everyone else. Also, every minister needs someone who can tell them “no” when they need to hear it. In my life, my wife has unqualified veto power, and when necessary she will use it. I also have long-time minister friends who I can trust to be honest with me.
It seems to me that most ministry failures are the result of an erosion that takes place over time; a compilation of little things that go unchecked. Moral failure, doctrinal error, financial indiscretion, integrity issues, etc., are usually the end result of a process that has been going on behind the scenes for some time.
Pastor Loren Hirschy—Dubuque, IA
One of the greatest traps to avoid is isolation—separating oneself from those with whom God has connected you in life. Even before the moment a person accepts Christ, God is at work in their life, drawing them to Himself, through a network of God-inspired relationships. Once born again, we’re so blessed to have people around us, placed there by God, to believe in us, watch out for us, teach and admonish us–pouring love and life into us. (I’ve always had more people caring about me than I realized; people whom God had inspired to proactively pray for me and help me forward. I think that’s God’s plan for everyone. For them we ought to be grateful.)
There is great peril in separating oneself from those people with whom God has connected you. From a positive perspective, the richness of life and ministry comes (and safety, also), by acknowledging those divine connections, appreciating them, and doing what’s called for to help those relationships mature and bear maximum fruit. It’s a foolish man who overlooks the value of the relationships he has with the people in his life. He “seeks his own desire; He rages against all wise judgment” (Pr 18:1). An unfriendly man pursues selfish ends; he defies all sound judgment” (NIV). “Unfriendly people care only about themselves; they lash out at common sense” (NLT). HE WHO willfully separates and estranges himself [from God and man] seeks his own desire and pretext to break out against all wise and sound judgment (AMP).
God admonished the priests in the days of Malachi, “take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously” (Mal 2:16). Though the context of this verse deals with divorcing one’s wife to marry a younger woman, it does no damage to the context or the principle to apply it in this way: value and take heed to your God-given relationships, whether it is with your spouse, the ministry the Lord used to grow you up spiritually, your God-given ministerial association, or your friends. You’ll find safety, longevity, and life made precious.
Pastor Tim Phillips—Harrison, AR
Every minister has the opportunity to get off track, but right choices along the way will make all the difference in serving God with honor and integrity. I believe it begins with being honest; being honest with God, yourself, and others.
First with God. As a person reads through the Psalms, David is very open with God. He expresses his doubts, his anger and his feelings. In Psalm 73, David declares his vulnerability to an attitude problem. He was living in a correct way but others seem to get away with anything that was wrong. In verse 15 he says, “If I had said ‘I speak this,’ behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of your children.” David then declares he went into the sanctuary of God and there he saw things, “the way they really are,” from God’s perspective.
When we humble ourselves, we open ourselves up for God’s perspective on ourselves and the situation. This is so healthy for the minister. In difficult times, I have chosen to quiet myself to be able to hear God. When he speaks into my life, then I have a renewed confidence and direction.
Second, you must be honest with yourself. This may be the hardest of all three categories.
Unless you are honest with yourself as to why you are jealous, angry, frustrated, your church is not growing, or your spouse is not happy with you, then you will tend to blame everyone else for the problem. When we blame others, the problems persist. You have to be real with yourself. It may take communicating with a trusted peer or counselor who will be unafraid to speak truth into your life. But you must also be willing to accept the truth and allow it to change your life.
I chose to visit with a trusted counselor. He was able to listen but also speak directly into my life. I also have other friends outside the church, people who care for my wife and me that I can speak frankly with and they do the same for me.
Thirdly, you must be honest with others. A tendency in the ministry, which is the business of people, is to manipulate. This may come from a need in our lives to be in control of people and situations. No one wants to be manipulated where they feel “used.”
You must check your motives. Are they pure? If your motives are pure, you are building a firm foundation for good relationships.
When a minister is honest with God, with himself, and with others, he can live with a clear conscience and sleep well at night. God’s peace rules in his heart.
Pastor Thom Fields—Kennewick, WA
There are a plethora of issues that can creep in and create havoc in the life of any believer. Anger, Guilt, Jealousy and Greed happen to be the biggest issues that I’ve seen and needed to deal with personally in 30 years of ministry. However, if I were to boil it all down and look at the common culprit—I think one of the most effective strategies of our enemy against ministry leaders is isolation.
Proverbs 18:1 states that “anyone” who willfully separates himself from God or man is seeking his own desires and void of sound judgment. (See The Amplified Bible) In other words—“if you isolate yourself from God or man…you’re an idiot!”
Improper relationships, financial discrepancies, and even just plain ignorant belief systems often seem to find their origin in the atmosphere of isolation. As a leader allows himself to develop wonderful excuses for “alone-time,” he positions himself in an area that can cause incredible access by his enemy. Through strong and open relationship with a just a few good men, a leader protects himself from those steps that lead him or her toward the slippery slope of destruction.
Locating the correct connections, building the right relationships, and continuing the communication that serves to protect us takes more time and effort than most of us want to admit. It just isn’t easy. But it really is that important! Isolation has taken out more of my ministry friends over the years than any other single issue. It eventually manifested in a multitude of circumstances, which almost always made it appear as different and separate issues, but the true root in each case was plain and simple isolation. Had these men and women not chosen to live “that part” of their lives in isolation, they would have never taken the steps that led to their demise.
Refuse to isolate! Hunt for a handful of confidants. Stay accountable and run every decision past those closest to you that have the least to gain. This will help keep you on track and safe from the pitfalls that seem to ensnare so many who just didn’t think it necessary to involve others.
Dr. Dan Beller—Tulsa, OK
In some of the moral failures of ministries, I have observed some of the problems which lead up to these tragedies. It often happens when a minister feels “successful” and believes that it is based on his personal ability. Also, the ministry may seem so big to him that “this one little sin won’t hurt anything,” and God will understand. It is thus very important to maintain humility and understand that God is giving the success. A good Scripture to help remember this principle is as follows: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” (1 Cor. 10:12 NIV)
There are some important factors to help prevent these kinds of failures. First, a minister must maintain a good marriage and be a proper husband and father to prevent certain temptations. It is important not to trust yourself and build in certain safety factors, some of which are as follows:
- Stay close to your spouse and continually show this publicly.
- Never hire a secretary who is physically attractive to you.
- In counseling sessions, have a window in your office door which connects to your secretary’s office or another staff member.
- If you counsel an attractive person of the opposite sex, it may be important to have your spouse present or a trusted staff member.
- If you counsel people of the opposite sex after hours, have them come to your home, where your spouse is present, instead of the church office where you would be alone. Even if you are innocent, you do not want to have to be on the defensive on such serious issues.
- Stay humble and always give God the praise for all accomplishments.
Pastor David Emigh—Sand Springs, OK
I do appreciate your heart. Your question shows a great desire to do right. I think that is a good start to living a life of holiness and integrity. The Bible speaks to us often of the fear of the Lord. I think that is one of the most important relationships to develop in your life. As we walk in the fear of the Lord we will always be conscious of pleasing him and that will keep us from sin.
The Bible also tells us to take heed to ourselves. That means we should always keep things in the right order in our lives. If I do not take care of myself spiritually, mentally, and physically, I cannot be a help to others. I think the healthiest thing you can do is seek God first thing every morning in prayer and then read the Bible for spiritual growth and fellowship. These two things will help you keep your focus and you will develop sensitivity to the things of God. If you are blessed with a spouse, then make that relationship the next priority in life followed by your children and then the ministry.
I think one of the greatest things we can do is always be full of the Word of God and the Holy Spirit and minister from the overflow. I personally believe if you will do this you will stay right on track and bring glory to God and have a rich, full life.
Pastor Mark Williams—Rockford, IL
I have been in the ministry since 1978. I was a young man when I accepted God’s call upon my life as a minister of His gospel. I was determined then, as well as now, to serve the Lord Jesus Christ without wavering. I can say that I have not been 100% successful in this endeavor. I have missed the mark of my goal by thoughts, words and deeds through the years. Each time that I missed the mark and sinned against the perfect standard of Jesus Christ, I have found forgiveness and cleansing after repenting and turning away from the error of my ways. With all of this said, there are seven areas which have been under careful consideration in my life and ministry through the years. The discipline (self-imposed) in my life has helped me to stay on track in life and ministry. These seven areas are:
- Time (Management of time is a very important process for my life.)
- Finances (Management of money and material things has kept me from a lot of serious pitfalls.)
- Physical Body (Proper nutrition, rest, exercise and hygiene have given needed margin in my life to balance the demands of ministry, relationships and society at large.)
- Marriage (I have declared my marriage as my first priority in ministry. This has given me a very safe compass for navigating through the maze of temptations which I have faced through the years in dealing with people in the course of ministry.)
- Evangelism (Keeping the message of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom first place in my ministry has kept me from drifting into the almost endless waves of doctrinal error that crashes against the body of Christ consistently.)
- Church Health (Loving the Body of Christ and seeking the health and welfare of the Lord’s Church keeps my life healthy and causes tremendous favor to pour into my life and ministry.)
- Kingdom (Recognition of the supreme authority of Jesus Christ as my Lord has caused me to focus on eternity and the fact that I will one day stand before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ and give account to Him for all of the deeds done in my mortal body. This causes me to endeavor to live a holy life before both God and men.)
I hope that this list of disciplines (which I endeavor to practice daily) will help to encourage others to live a balanced life to the glory of God. Young minister, may your life be blessed and fruitful.
Pastor Al Jennings—Ft. Wayne, IN
When it comes to avoiding sin, I focus primarily on what to do instead of what not to do. In other words, instead of trying not to sin, I focus on living a godly lifestyle. Maintain a consistent devotional life by seeking God through prayer and Bible reading. I think you hit it on the head when you said that your heart’s desire is to serve God with honor and integrity. I think it starts with that, a reverence for God; and you obviously have that. Keep that in the forefront of your thinking. Keep your devotional life fresh and you will avoid the pitfalls.
Pastor Doug Foutty—Parkersburg, WV
You will never find yourself doing something that you haven’t thought about. The best answer is to keep your mind renewed to the things of God. When the thoughts, the temptations, come to you—CAST THEM DOWN! Any temptation is obviously a vain imagination. You need to bring that thought into obedience to Jesus Christ. Neither give place to the devil. You should be able to recognize these thoughts that come from your enemy, the devil, and not give him any place. If you allow these thoughts to have a resting place in your mind they will wear you out. It is all a CHOICE. Choose ye this day whom you will serve. God sets before you Life and Death, Blessing and Cursing, therefore choose Life. Any wrong decision you make will affect many, many people. The temptations WILL come. Don’t get thrown off by that. Just make sure that you have prepared your heart and mind in advance. Now, thanks be to God who always causes us to triumph in Christ Jesus.
Pastor Brad Allen—San Mateo, CA
Staying humble and working hard to avoid being offended are probably the two biggest keys to staying on track that I’ve observed.
About 2 years ago, I went to a large meeting in another state and was blessed to sit behind an older ministry couple who were probably in their early 70s. They were very well dressed and were sitting on the 6th or 7th row (not VIP seating). They were a successful looking pair and really stood out as people of excellence, so I sort of kept an eye on them through the service. They listened attentively and took notes, gave in the offering, and looked like hungry young ministers filling up on the Word of God. It was inspiring to see. They looked like they had “heard it all and seen it all,” but they still came to hear and receive from the younger minister. For me, it was a perfect illustration of how to finish your course with joy by staying teachable, humble, and hungry all life long.
I made up my mind to look like them when I’m that age. I am going to still be hungry and teachable sitting with my wife taking notes to use in the pulpit next Sunday!
I want to be like this couple who didn’t need VIP seating and special treatment.
This is important to mention because many ministers get “off” because somewhere they get offended. Someone gets promoted ahead of them, gets to speak more often than them, or somehow gets more recognition and they get grumpy and pull back from fellowship, pull back from God in small but significant ways, and let pride keep them from God’s best.
Ministry is running the “Humility Marathon.” You have to constantly work at keeping free from offenses, forgiving quickly, serving with joy, and working patiently with the “difficult to work with.” When you harden your heart or give up on humility and patience, you’re heading for the ministry exit ramp.
Ministry is just that: ministering. It is serving as a servant, as another person’s minister. Jesus came to do the Father’s will and speak the Father’s Words. He said I did not come here to do My will; neither do we. When we’re successful, it’s because we merely did what we were told to do. So there’s no credit to receive, only glory to give to God.
Stay humble. Keep a servant’s heart always. Don’t get offended. Forgive quickly. Always believe the best about people. Never gossip. Never murmur. Leave it in God’s hands so that you finish your course with joy just like that beautiful older couple I sat behind.