My latest column at Christian Week:
For a long time, I kept looking to new thinkers to teach me how to minister effectively in a post-Christian culture. New thinkers have their place, but I’ve also been learning from those who aren’t new. Some have been dead for centuries; others, like Jack Miller, have only been gone for just over a decade. But they, being dead, yet speak.
I forget who told be about Miller, but I bought this book The Heart of a Servant Leader just over a year ago. It’s a collection of letters he wrote on various topics: ministry, suffering, forgiveness, temptation, and spiritual warfare. The first time I read it, I marked almost every page. I keep returning to this book, reading a page or two, letting it sink in. It’s one of those books I can see reading dozens of times.
Miller was pastor of a small church in Pennsylvania, and taught practical theology at Westminster Seminary near Philadelphia. In the spring of 1970, after twenty years of vocational ministry, he was depressed and burned out. Neither the church members nor the seminary students were changing like he thought they should, and he didn’t know how to help them. he resigned from both positions and spent the next few weeks “too depressed to do anything except cry.”
Gradually, Miller began to realize that his motivation for ministry had been wrong. Instead of being motivated solely by God’s glory, he had been looking for personal glory and approval from those he served. He repented of his pride and his love of approval from people, and his joy in ministry returned. He too back his resignations from the church and the seminary. He realized that he had been relying on the wrong person to do ministry – himself. He began to rely a lot more on God’s vast promises and the Holy Spirit’s power.
This marked a turning point in his ministry. Miller helped found a new church and mission, and found himself and those around him renewed. But he never forgot how far he had drifted, and how it had affected him and his ministry.
There are some lessons you can only learn from someone who has been crushed in ministry. It’s especially valuable to learn from such a person who has found life on the other side of despair. There’s a depth in his letters you won’t find from someone who hasn’t been humbled. You get the sense that Miller has found the essence of something important, and can speak to those of us in ministry who need to be renewed in the middle of overwhelming needs and endlessly changing demands.
When I feel the need to validate myself through ministry, I need to be reminded: “You don’t have anything to prove to us or the world. The work is finished at Calvary, and that work has unlimited meaning and value. Keep your focus there.”
When I get too focused on activity and technique, Miller pulls me back to what matters most: “the old, old story of getting the gospel clear in your hearts and minds, making it clear to others, and doing it with only one motive – the glory of Christ.”
When I start to think too highly of myself, Miller brings me back down to earth. “A pastor really needs to be broken before God every day, or he will break up the church of God with his willfulness or let it slip into spiritual death through his sloth.” Elsewhere: “Frequently humble yourself…Let the team see you as the chief repenter.”
And so on, on issues of prayer, busyness, leadership, change, conflict, and suffering. The book includes letters he wrote to all kinds of people: new missionaries, a discouraged pastor, sick friends, and to people embroiled in conflict. Miller is brutally honest, even as he confronts his own weaknesses, and as he struggles with cancer. To borrow a phrase from Miller, this book is full of “the basics brought home with love, tenderness, and clarity.”
The Heart of a Servant Leader is not a how-to book, and it’s not specifically about ministry in post-Christian Canada. But no other book has prepared me for ministry in our context like this one.