Monday, March 29, 2010

The Idol and Drug of Ministry

I just learned this morning that Pastor John Piper is taking an eight month leave of absence from pastoring Bethlehem Baptist church in Minneapolis. During this leave of absence he will be doing no preaching, writing no books or articles, and will not be doing any pastoring of any kind. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Piper, and much of my own theology has been informed by his own influential work. As I look to my bookshelf, I count 13 unique titles that bear his name as the author. In fact, one of the best, most influential books I have ever read was by John Piper: "Let the Nations Be Glad!" It's a fantastic work on missions and the church. I can't recommend it highly enough. I was therefore a bit stunned to hear that Piper was taking a leave of absence, and hoped that he had not fallen into the sin which ensnares so many in the ministry.

It turns out that the reason Piper is taking a leave of absence is that his ministry has turned into somewhat of an idol to him. Piper has previously blogged about the difficulties of being a "celebrity" preacher, and the dangers of dealing with the potential pride that such a status might bring. In the letter and sermon Piper presented to his congregation, he states that his ministry has tended to take priority over his family and marriage. Piper says that he not only needs to work on his marriage and family life, but that he needs a reality check - how will he handle himself if he's not involved in ministry? In other words, it sounds like a serious dose of self-examination. In his sermon, Piper explained it this way: “What will happen to John Piper when…there will be no prideful sipping from the poisonous cup of international fame and notoriety? I need to find that out.”

I have to say that I - and probably any other minister - knows what John Piper is dealing with, although not so much in what it feels like to be a celebrity preacher. Ministry isn't a profession - it's an all consuming passion. This is not to say that ministry is a more noble profession than any other, but that I believe ministers are so called to ministry in that they can never be satisfied in doing anything else but ministry. Personally, I cannot fathom not being a regular part of ministry. Even if, for whatever reason, I wasn't employed in full time ministry, I would have to do something in ministry, even if it was on a strictly volunteer basis. I love it too much. I desire it. I live in it. I breathe it. I sleep it. I love God's church, and I want nothing more than to serve it with the gifts he has given me. Piper said pretty much the same thing about his preaching ministry in his latest sermon: “I want to preach so bad I can hardly stand it. I love what I do…but that’s not what it’s about.”

Put bluntly, ministry is craziness. It's unscheduled, impromptu, and unpredictable. There's meetings, phone calls, rehearsals, events, emergencies, and a host of other things outside of the regular 9-5 work week. It can get out of control really quickly, and it can be difficult for families to live with ministers because of the demanding schedules and craziness that comes with the territory. So I can understand how Piper's ministry and family lives may have gotten mingled together. Ministry can definitely be an idol for some, and I can see how it could be for Piper, but for me it's more like a drug. It keeps me going and keeps me busy. It's my passion and my way of life. It's how I do things. The danger for me, then, becomes overdosing on that drug and losing focus - both on the purpose of my ministry at the church, and on the main ministry and mission field of my life: my family. It's also dangerous in that at times I can just be focused on being busy instead of the real work of ministry. Sometimes ministry is dangerous because the busyness of it becomes the end goal - how do we know something's being accomplished? Because we're working on it and we're busy! Not true. It's a dangerous and addictive way of doing things.

But if anything, the formation of my family in the past couple of years has only strengthened my dedication to my family. Although I have such a zeal for ministry, it is only eclipsed by my desire to be with and minister to my family. Several months ago I realized that my job schedule was pretty much taking me from my home and family 3-5 nights per week. It was tearing me up. I had to resign from a couple boards and committees to ensure that there was time for me to be with my wife and kids, and I don't regret it a bit. In fact, I think I might still be a bit too tied to my ministry and not enough to my family. I may need to even take further steps.

Praise God that I don't face the temptation of international notoriety. It must be unbearable at times. Praise God that he has so worked in John Piper as to expose his sin. As a man that many look up to, including myself, we need to keep him (and all ministers) in prayer.

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