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Pastoring by Grace, Section 1

By Mark D. Roberts | Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Part 2 of series: Grace in the Rearview Mirror: A Pastoral Retrospective
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I’m calling this series on my pastoring Grace in the Rearview Mirror. As I begin to reflect on my sixteen plus years as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, the idea of grace comes immediately to mind.

As this series progresses, I trust you’ll see why grace has been such a central part of my ministry as a pastor. But I didn’t invent the connection between ministry and grace. I got it from St. Paul, who associates the two concepts several times in his letters.

For example, in Ephesians 3:7-8 we read:

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ.

Paul is an apostle because of God’s grace, plain and simple. Grace, by the way, is God’s unmerited favor or kindness. It is God giving us goodness that we do not deserve. By definition, grace cannot be earned. It’s always a gift.

A chapter later in Ephesians, Paul explains that all Christians are recipients of the grace that enables them to be ministers: “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph 4:7). This grace becomes activated when Christians engage in ministry, “building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12).

Yet because we all minister by grace, this doesn’t mean we just sit there and let it happen magically through us. God’s grace is at work as we are working for God’s purposes. Notice what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them [the other apostles]—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me (1 Cor 15:10)

Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ, not by his own volition or effort, but by the grace of God. This grace wasn’t wasted on Paul, because it led him to work hard as a minister of Christ. Yet Paul saw even his strenuous labors as God’s grace active within and through him. Did Paul work hard as an apostle? Yes, indeed, harder than others like him. Yet it really wasn’t his effort, but God’s grace at work in him.

Christian ministry is like this, whether it’s done by apostles, pastors, or lay people. It takes lots of human effort. It can be downright tiresome. It’s hard work. Yet, from another perspective, ministry is not so much our effort as it is the flow of God’s grace through us.

Did I work hard as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church? As my Wisconsin friends would say, “You betcha!” I spent many late nights at church meetings and rose early on many mornings to teach my Bible study or to pray with my elders. I worked on both days of almost every weekend, preaching once at our Saturday evening service and three times on Sunday mornings. Though I managed to take most Mondays off, there were times when I’d work thirteen or fourteen hours a day for a stretch, especially when we were in the midst of a capital campaign. (The picture to the right is from one of the busiest weeks of my pastoral life, Vacation Bible School week. But, just because I worked hard, that doesn’t mean I didn’t have fun, along with a couple of my friends and fellow laborers.)

I’m not saying all of this to boast (or to confess my foolishness, for those of you who don’t see overworking as a cause for boasting!). I’m simply noting that, like Paul, I worked hard. (Paul, by the way, worked full-time as a tentmaker, and did his Christian ministry as a lay person.) Moreover, like Paul, I feel the need to qualify my statement of working hard by adding that it really wasn’t me, but God’s grace active through me.

I know this sounds like the kind of religious things that pastors are apt to say. But I really mean it. For one thing, I believe that all the talents and gifts that enabled me to be a pastor were gifts from God. Moreover, there were many times, hundreds upon hundreds, when I sensed God’s extra help as I did my pastoral work. I expect there were thousands of times when God was graciously assisting me even though I didn’t realize it or give Him the credit He was due.

In my next post in this series I’ll supply some examples of how I experienced God’s grace in my pastoral ministry.

Topics: Pastors and Churches |

5 Responses to “Pastoring by Grace, Section 1”

  1. ChrisK Says:
    September 18th, 2007 at 5:36 am

    re: “I feel the need to qualify my statement of working hard by adding that it really wasn’t me, but God’s grace active through me.”

    From my agnostic view of my Christian friends, one of the more interesting things I note is how they parcel out credit for their actions. When good is done, Christians claim God did it. When evil is done, they often claim they themselves—the Christian himself or herself—did it.

    It’s fascinating. In my view I think they’re wrong. Some of my most decent friends are Christians, and they often deny the goodness in themselves. Is it so odd that Christians have self-decency? To not be merely a conduit of goodness for a celestial supreme being?

    In a similar way, I think a person should take responsibility for the evil they commit.

    I don’t want to stretch Pastor Roberts’s remarks too much beyond the point he may be trying to make. But I note some of the same overtones about goodness and responsibility that I’ve noted in my friends. As an agnostic, I seem to have more faith in my Christian friends’ goodness than they have in themselves sometimes.

  2. Kurt Norlin Says:
    September 18th, 2007 at 9:34 am

    From the point of view of an agnostic, though, shoudln’t this just be considered attractive modesty? Like when an athlete who credits team effort for wins but takes personal blame for losses? Or an author preface that thanks everyone who helped with a book but says “any remaining errors are my responsibility”?

  3. Mark Roberts Says:
    September 18th, 2007 at 11:00 am

    ChrisK: Interesting comment. I’m not quite saying that “God did it” when good things happened in my ministry. It’s more like “We did it” or “God did it through me.” I’m plenty able to take responsibility for the evil I do. That’s clearly my part.

  4. Jennie Says:
    September 18th, 2007 at 11:28 am

    And, in the end, this series is a reflection of a ministry well lead … the good and the bad … so, though there are often blog series worth discussing and disputing, my opinion would be to let a reflection be personal and undisputed. I’m sure there will be many more teaching moments to come.

  5. ChrisK Says:
    September 18th, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    re: Kurt’s “…shoudln’t this just be considered attractive modesty?” It could be, I suppose. Though that sounds almost like you’re suggesting it’s like a polite fib? I’m less sure about that.

    re: Mark’s comment “It’s more like “We did it” or “God did it through me.” Maybe then this is something as an agnostic, I can’t get my mind around it. If God did it through you, I’m not sure what benefit and role you’re suggesting you have. I would think an all powerful God could do whatever He wished with or without you. For example, if God worked through you to build a more peaceful, loving community…why not just take a more direct route? (This may be just one where I’m not going to “get it” as an agnostic!) Thank you for your responses.


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