Forty years ago today, I was ordained into the gospel ministry. As I look back over the past four decades, I say with the apostle Paul, “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry” (1 Timothy 1:12).
Aside from my salvation and my family, there has been no greater joy in life than to serve Christ as a preacher of the gospel.
Of course, I can’t look back at that day without thanking God for Terrie who stood at my side that evening…and still loves and supports me. A godly wife who serves as a partner and friend in life and ministry is an indescribably precious gift.
As I’ve been reflecting on these past forty years, I started jotting down things the Lord has taught me. Some I already knew and believed before starting in ministry but believe now with the added conviction of experience. Some I learned along the way.
I share this list here partly to testify of God’s faithfulness and largely to encourage anyone else in ministry who may be helped by reading through these truths. They are in no particular order.
- God is faithful and trustworthy. God has never failed to keep His promises. He has been faithful and true, and I have never regretted trusting Him.
- God’s Word is powerful and changes lives. Sometimes my grown sons look at my preaching outlines from thirty-five and forty years ago and shake their heads. Let’s just say I’ve grown as an expository preacher over the years. But even in those early days with sparse outlines and fewer cross references or in-depth study, I was preaching God’s Word. And God used it to change lives. I never want to preach less than the Spirit-inspired, life-changing Word of God. (See 2 Timothy 4:2 and Hebrews 4:12.)
- The church belongs to Christ, and He will build His church. I remember our first week in Lancaster when I had knocked on over 500 doors…and still had not seen anyone trust Christ. But it was that Saturday night that our daughter Danielle was saved. And she was the first person my first Sunday as pastor. I’ve learned over the years that if I will be diligent in obeying Christ’s command to witness, He will give the increase. (See Matthew 16:18 and 1 Corinthians 3:6–7.)
- Discipleship is part of the Great Commission. Every healthy church disciples new believers. It might not be in a specified one-on-one program, and they might not even call it “discipleship.” But helping new Christians grow in their faith is an essential element of the Great Commission. As our church became more intentional in a one-on-one discipleship program, we saw more new Christians flourish. (See John 8:31.)
- The church can get another pastor; you can’t get another wife. An older, wiser pastor made that statement to me when I was focused on the exploding growth of our church. It was a reminder of my God-given priorities as a husband and father first.
- Ministry and family do not need to be in competition. It’s possible to have a thriving family and growing ministry. Ideally this happens as you involve your family in serving together. Ultimately it happens as you rely on the Holy Spirit for wisdom on when and how to make adjustments in both areas.
- There is value to life experience. I graduated Bible college with a lot more confidence than I had a few years into the pastorate! The things you are sure you know when you are 20 aren’t necessarily wrong (especially when you are doing your best to apply Scripture), but they can be shallow or misguided. Time and listening to wise counsel is essential.
- Ministry philosophy takes time to develop. I have the same doctrine and convictions today that I had forty years ago when I was ordained. But I’ve learned more along the way about servant leadership and about the application of biblical principles within the DNA of a particular ministry. The growth in my life has made me want to be patient with young leaders who are developing their ministry philosophy. They need time and space to develop, and they need biblical mentors who will dialog with and encourage them.
- Not everything that grows is healthy. This is true of churches and of ministries within a church. It’s easy to look at churches that are growing and just mimic their methods. But if their methods are not saturated in New Testament principles, including conversion of the lost to the gospel, it may just be a short-term crowd—not a church.
- The Great Commission is still the main thing. There are a million and one things that pull at a pastor’s attention. There is one mission Christ has given His church, and that is the Great Commission. We must focus on sharing the gospel with the lost, leading people to Christ, following up with baptism, and intentionally discipling new converts. (See Matthew 28:19–20.)
- God does amazing works in desert places. As Tom Malone used to say, “When God is going to do something wonderful He starts with the difficult. When God is going to do something miraculous He starts with the impossible.” Throughout Scripture, and the past thirty-seven years in my life, I’ve watched God do miraculous works in a desert place.
- Christlike leadership is servant leadership. The Lord used a season of trial early in my pastoral ministry to teach me the shepherd-like leadership of Christ and the importance of grace-filled, servant leadership. The book Guided by Grace was one result of this season. (See 1 Peter 5:2.)
- Resting is not laziness. Every moment of our lives should be lived to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). But this doesn’t mean every moment needs to be filled with activity. Waiting time is not wasted time. Our souls need time to renew.
- God blesses faith. Whether it is in our giving, soulwinning, serving…when we step out in faith, God rewards. (See Hebrews 11:6.)
- A loving family is a great source of joy. For a Christian husband and father, family should never be thought of as an inconvenience but as a God-given role for service. But even beyond that, when family and ministry are in sync, our families can be a wonderful place of acceptance and joy.
- A sacrificial life will always be unfinished. Living to cross every item off a to-do list only works if you carefully guard your list. But living sacrificially for Christ and others will include interruptions and a vision of faith that is never complete. For these reasons, we need to learn to build rhythms of work and rest into our lives.
- Relationships are more important than accomplishments. Years ago, I committed that I would not use people to build my ministry or embitter my family or our staff to build our church. Some of the greatest gifts God has given me over the past 40 years are dear friends and co-laborers in ministry.
- Failure can be good when it drives me to Christ. I would prefer a life of unbroken success, but that has not been my experience. Failure, however, whether that be in a ministry idea that didn’t work out or the conviction of the Holy Spirit that I mishandled a situation, can be good when it renews my dependance on the Lord.
- I am accepted in Christ and do not need the approval of others for joy. I do not need to fear what others think but to simply live for the glory of God. (See Ephesians 1:6.)
- True preaching happens in the power of the cross and emptiness of self. In my early years of ministry, I was quicker to think a “great sermon” was a bombastic sermon. I’m increasingly appreciative of preachers who preach the text and point hearers to the cross, regardless of their preaching style. (See 1 Corinthians 1:18–25.)
- The ministry does not depend on me. It’s something of a paradox: God uses people to make a real difference, and our surrender and obedience matter for the cause of Christ. But at the same time, God is able to accomplish His work through whomever He chooses. No one is indispensable.
- Time invested in my children and grandchildren is of eternal value. Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me” (Mark 10:14). Children are not a nuisance; they are a blessing.
- Success is knowing and doing the will of God. Measuring “success” in either my personal life or ministry is impossible this side of Heaven—except for asking the question, “Am I being faithful to do the will of God?”
- An opportunity does not equal an obligation. To be involved in every possible ministry opportunity is to break the body and limit the ministry. Discernment is needed in order to do what God has called me to do.
- There is always time for the will of God. There is not always time for the will of Paul Chappell, but there is always time for the will of God. But doing the will of God requires saying “no” to distractions. (See John 9:4, 17:4.)
- It is only as we develop others around us that we permanently succeed. This goes back to the importance of discipleship, but it also includes leadership development. The example of Jesus, and of Paul as well, is that we not only teach and preach, but that we specifically develop leaders who are equipped to do the same. (See 2 Timothy 2:2.)
- Our willingness to give to the Lord is a tangible measure of our love for Him. I used to hesitate to preach about giving. I didn’t want to be “one of those preachers who only talks about money.” But the longer I have served as a pastor, the more I have seen the connection between our willingness to give to the Lord and our love for Him. (See Matthew 6:21.)
- God will supply every need. In 40 years of ministry, 37 in one church, God has met impossible needs in my life and for our church. He has enabled us to build a large campus and give generously to missions. None of it has been out of surplus. But God has met every need—financial or otherwise—for our ministry. (See Philippians 4:19.)
- My worry has been a lack of faith, and my faith has cancelled worry. Knowing God has met needs in the past and remembering He will today are two different things. When I forget God’s promises, I tend to worry, and that has always been detrimental to my faith. On the other hand, when I make the conscious choice to trust God, worry dissipates. (See Philippians 4:6–8 and 1 Peter 5:7.)
- The answer to overload is not trying harder. Some goals are reached by more effort. But when you have reached the end of your strength, the answer isn’t to just try harder. It is to gain a fresh understanding of Christ’s work on the cross and live in a more vital awareness of His grace. (See Galatians 2:20.)
- God’s grace is sufficient. There will never be a burden, trial, or strain for which God’s grace is not enough to meet my needs. It is always present and always sufficient. (See 2 Corinthians 12:9.)
- Satan never stops fighting. There is never a good time to let down your guard. Satan doesn’t play fair, and he doesn’t take breaks. (See 1 Peter 5:8.)
- The victory is already won. Although we remain in a daily spiritual battle, we do not fight for victory so much as we fight from victory. Christ has already defeated Satan, and we are confident of His power in us.
- Don’t pay more attention to critics than to friends. It is true that we can learn from our critics, but not all criticism is helpful or worth listening to. And when the voices of critics become louder in our hearts than the voices of our friends, we need to adjust.
- Friends don’t need explanations and enemies don’t care. My friend R. B. Ouellette has encouraged me with this thought over the years. I have found it to be true.
- The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. I read widely and learn from nearly everyone I meet. But true wisdom comes from God and begins with a proper fear of God. People who know and fear God are who I want as the greatest influencers in my life. (See Psalm 111:10.)
- Nothing enters my life accidentally. I serve a sovereign God who providentially intervenes in my life. He has promised and is able to make even the results of mine or others sinful choices work together for His glory and my good. (See Romans 8:28.)
- My mission is not my legacy; it is to fulfill His glory. Whatever the Lord allows me to accomplish in this life is not for my name but His. I want to leave my children and grandchildren with a good name. But I do not need to worry about building a legacy other than a testimony of faithfulness.
- God is able. There is no reason to dream or plan according to my limited resources when I serve a God who “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us” (Ephesians 3:20).
- My great desire is to end my race still in love with Christ, with Terrie, and with the local church. I don’t want to cross the finish line embittered, disgruntled, or disqualified. I want to be able to joyfully say, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).