Having a ”successful ministry” can keep pastors from the hard work of character transformation.
This week I am attending the Midwest Regional Spiritual Formation Forum at Elmbrook Church near Milwaukee. The conference theme is “spiritual formation and the mission of the church.” Most interpret “mission” to mean a measurable impact in the world. Are people coming to Christ? Is the church making a difference? But the first plenary speaker, Dave Johnson—pastor of Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, Minnesota—says our desire for external impact should take a back seat to internal transformation.
Johnson spoke about the pressure that comes from being anointed for ministry. When God empowers us with the skills to powerfully carry out his purposes it is like a weight being put upon us, and it takes real interior strength to carry it for any amount of time. This interior strength is a character formed in the image of Christ.
Drawing from the life and downfall of Samson, he went on to tell the stories of men and women who were used powerfully by God to accomplish even miraculous things, but who eventually collapsed because their characters simply could not carry the weight of their anointing. These leaders had not made the transformation of their characters the first priority in their life and ministry.
The reason many of us ignore the formation of our character, says Johnson, is because it will slow us down. Many ministry leaders want success, a big church, or a crowd. But how many of us want a real life? How many of us want a life in God? We can have that, Johnson believes. We can have a character that produces love, peace, patience, kindness…but it will slow us down. It might mean the church won’t grow as big as quickly. It might mean the crowd will get smaller.
But the alternative is both devastating and all too common. The alternative is a ministry of high impact but shallow character. As only Johnson could say it, “In the bible it was a miracle when God spoke through an ass. Now it happens everyday.” Translation: God is speaking powerfully through many pastors, but their characters show nothing of God’s life. These leaders, along with their anger, pride, bitterness, and cynicism, are tolerated by many churches because they are able to “fill the room.” Their powerful spiritual gifts, like Samson’s, deflect the flaws of their characters.
Johnson believes that many of us opt to ignore the slow, hard work of character formation because we simply don’t want it. It is a matter of intention. We don’t want to be slowed down in our pursuit of ministry impact and tangible achievement. In order to have a life in God, a life full of his character, we have to want it more than anything else.
Johnson concluded with this simple but haunting question—What do you want?