By Mark Dance
I’ll never forget the day in 2003 when Craig Miller and I drove all day through the hot Jordanian desert at 95 mph to deliver cash to embedded missionaries in Baghdad.
These heroic missionaries from the International Mission Board were working alongside the equally heroic U.S. military to replace water pumps in the aftermath of the Iraqi War.
Except the war wasn’t over. Not even close.
Craig had been a close friend since college. I took him on his first mission trip when we were still students, and he eventually became a missionary and founded the relief ministry Thirst No More.
The trip became considerably more dangerous than we anticipated. Craig and I only heard the part of President Bush’s speech we wanted to hear.
“In the battle of Iraq, the major phase of combat is over. The United States and our allies have prevailed,” President George W. Bush said while standing on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Bush landed on that battleship in an S-3 Viking jet, wearing a flight suit.
That was May 2, 2003. I think our country needed Bush’s Texas swagger at that time in our nation’s history.
There Was Still Difficult Work to Do.
If we’d listened carefully, we would’ve heard the president say there was still “difficult work to do. Parts of that country remain dangerous…there are still Iraqi leaders who must be brought to justice like Saddam Hussein. The al-Qaeda terrorist organization is wounded, not destroyed” (The Baltimore Sun, May 2003).
Once we arrived, it became obvious we were in a very active war zone. Craig and I saw firefights almost every day, and three of the brave missionaries we worked with were killed a few months after we left.
Our Battle is Real.
Pastors, missionaries, and other ministry leaders live and fight daily in an active war zone which is no less real or dangerous than that trip to Baghdad.
Instead of mortar shells exploding around us and enemy troops advancing against us, we deal with more insidious enemies. The world, Satan, and our flesh conspire against us in the daily battle for our walk with Jesus.
Although our victory is assured through Jesus’ work at Calvary, our wounded enemy is still fighting us to the bitter end.
For that matter, Satan is shrewdly aiming at the commissioned officers of the Church. Jesus warned history’s first pastors in the early church of these dangers. He said,
Tonight all of you will fall away because of me, for it is written: I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered. (Matthew 26:31)
No One Aims to Fail.
No right-minded pastor ever woke up thinking, “How can I blow up my ministry today?” Yet the epidemic of messy exits range from slow-fading burnouts to epic moral meltdowns.
I’ve served as a pastor for three decades and, in recent years, I’ve also had the privilege of pastoring church leaders as the Director of LifeWay Pastors. I love pastors and want to help them succeed at both church and home.
Sadly, in the four churches I served, I’ve yet to have an immediate predecessor or successor finish well.
That was as hard for me to write as it was for you to read.
If you’re in vocational ministry for any length of time, you’ll likely know someone or serve a church where a ministry life was cut short because of self-inflicted wounds or burnout.
Pastors Aren’t Quitters.
Don’t get me wrong—pastors aren’t quitters. Our tribe is tough.
You can ignore the scary stats like this: “1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month” (That myth originated in a California seminary straw poll which was taken back when Roger Staubach was still throwing tight spirals for the Dallas Cowboys).
In September 2015, in a groundbreaking study by LifeWay Research, their survey of 1,500 evangelical pastors found only 1% of pastors abandon the pulpit each year (250 a month).
Most of us will finish, but is that bar high enough? What if we intentionally set our hearts and the trajectory of our ministries to finish strong instead of merely limping across the finish line?
Fight the Good Fight.
The primary purpose of this post is to encourage pastors to fight hard so they can finish strong. I want you to complete your ministry one day with your families and ministries still intact, but that won’t happen in a war zone without intentionality and courage.
If we hope to finish strong tomorrow, we must fight with focus today. Fight for your family. Fight for your ministry. Fight from the strength given to you through Jesus’ victory.
Because the war isn’t over yet.
MARK DANCE (@markdance) serves as director of LifeWay Pastors. He speaks at churches, conferences, and retreats–often with his wife Janet. Mark has contributed to several books and offers weekly encouragement at MarkDance.net.