Our national conference had been an enjoyable time with fellow pastors and missionaries. Denominational leaders warmly welcomed us.
Then it happened. An official told us about someone beginning a new ministry, who was leaving a "significant" work. We knew exactly what he meant: that pastor had left a large church. Suddenly the encouragement of the conference turned into a gut-churning moment.
Why did that innocuous statement bother me so? Was it jealousy, envy, or insecurity? Or did it strike a deep chord because I was already wondering if my ministry, much smaller and in windy Wyoming, was really significant?
Whatever the cause, it forced me to wrestle with the powerful word "significant."
If I left my present pastorate, would anyone say I was leaving a "significant" work? Would God?
Amid these stormy questions came a gentle breeze of perspective. At that meeting another leader was introduced: Dr. Bingham Hunter of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. What he shared has stuck with me like a close friend. It helped me get a grip on my significance. It still challenges my shallow thinking.
Dr. Hunter's thesis was simple—define your ministerial significance by ascertaining how God measures success. The ambitious question of the Twelve in Matthew 18:1, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" pleads for an answer. Dr. Hunter focused on this and two other passages in Matthew that answer that question.
Obedience is significant
The first time Jesus addresses greatness in his Kingdom surfaces in Matthew 5:19. He says that "anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."
The first measure of greatness, then, is obedience. With greatness typically linked to statistics, what a decidedly personal assessment! We can't quantify this measurement in the annual church report or list it on our resumes, yet Jesus commands us to anchor our ministries in personal obedience.
It is a measure of significance that is as accessible and demanding to the pastor of 50 as the pastor of 5,000.
I have discovered that the pastorate, with its temptation toward a righteous facade, nibbles away at my attention to personal obedience.
For example, I find it easier to preach on prayer than to pray. I can wax eloquent on loving my neighbor, but do I? Desiring to be effective, I attend seminars to gobble up the latest strategies, but I admit I am not as enthusiastic to deal obediently with my pride, my anger, or my priorities.
I am becoming more conscious that my personal obedience to God is not just nice, it is critical. I now experience great personal and professional satisfaction when, for example, I handle a difficult person in a biblically obedient manner. I also know that a significant work is resisting an inroad of moral compromise known only to me. Personal obedience is significant.
The second measure is "teaching these commands," and that touches the nerve of our pulpit and teaching ministries.
I confess, I do not relish preaching on some passages or topics. They are difficult to preach and probably as difficult to hear. I like "crowd-pleasing" sermons that elicit lots of praise and few furrowed brows. I can reason that these homiletic jewels fill the pews and lock the exits. Unfortunately, I can't escape my responsibility (and my joy) of preaching the "whole counsel of God," whether popular or not.