Am I Not Called to (Ad)Minister?- John Piper on Avoiding Sacred Substitutes

April 27, 2009

Having just concluded my reading of John Piper’s excellent book on pastoral ministry, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, I thought that I would share one more thought from it that was very convicting to me.

In the chapter entitled, “Brothers, Beware of Sacred Substitutes,” Dr. Piper develops an idea of how the Christian minister is to allot his time based around the text of Acts 6.2-4, 

And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

The life of the Christian minister is full of starts and stops, interruptions and diversions away from the biblical calling to “preach the word” and to “shepherd the flock of God” that is among them (2 Timothy 4.2, 1 Peter 5.2).  Expanding on this, John Piper notes that “most of [the interruptions to our spiritual growth] and most of our busyness is ministry-related, not ‘worldly’.”  By this he means that most of the distraction comes not in the form of sinful diversion but disguised as good, seemingly essential, administerial and care related ministries.  Such was the case with the elders in Jerusalem who were being side-tracked by the dispersion of meals and other provisions to the widows in their fellowship.  This is undoubtedly a good thing, and yet its goodness does not make it superior to the elders call “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (v.4).  Looking to contemporary examples, Piper remarks,

And what opposes the pastor’s life of prayer [and thus his whole calling] more than anything?  The ministry.  It is not shopping or car repairs or sickness or yard work that squeezes our prayers into hurried corners of the day.  It is budget development and staff meetings and visitation and counseling and answering mail and writing reports and reading journals and answering the phone and preparing messages. (p.61)

Honestly, even though I am not yet officially “in the ministry,” I understand this difficulty quite well.  As a servant in the church and one who wants to contribute as much as I can currently within the scope of the ministry that I have, I often find that I simply spread myself too thin by assuming that every responsibility that comes up which seems remotely related to what I’m doing is a dire task that I personally need to respond to.  Thus I find myself committed to meeting people at 5 different locations and 4 different times, while simultaneously calling businesses trying to schedule events or place merchandise orders, which undoubtedly pushes my day out in both directions, shortening my mornings and my nights, making me feel more pressed to pray than I am comfortable with, and so I just short-change it and resolve to be in prayer “the way I should be” the following day.  I let my desire to be everything to everyone in my public ministry interfere with my devotion to God and reliance on him in my private ministry.  This is precisely what the psalmist is speaking to when he says, 

It is in vain that you rise up early
     and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
     for he gives to his beloved sleep
. (Psalm 127.2)

God bless John Piper and his wise insights into the trappings of the Christian pastorate; how I have benefited from them as much as any writer outside of God’s inspired word.  Again, if you are or plan to be involved in the pastoral ministry and you have not already read Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, you need to obtain a copy and immediately bump it up to the top of your reading list.