This is part two of an article from the journal ChurchChina on what it means to be a pastor in China. In this article pastors share about their own past personal struggles, as well as encouragements they have received over the years. The first section was published last week. In this section pastors share personal stories of how God has worked in their lives and through their ministries.
This article has been edited for brevity and clarity.
We Are Pastors Together (Part 2)
Knowing and Understanding “Mystic Sweet Communion”
The above paragraphs are a brief overview of the shared problems and individual temptations that pastors face on their own. These problems and temptations cause the pastor to feel a deep loneliness. Pastor Fang Xiaojun laments:
For the pastor, it is impossible to avoid the tensions in pastoring. Over twenty-some years of pastoring, I’ve had no pastor to lead me, but have fumbled my way forward, failed, faced setbacks, sobbed, and retreated. . . I’ve experienced so many emotions and thoughts. Sometimes I just want to have a cry, or go get drunk. But God is so faithful and loving. To sum up all these years in a sentence: It is not that I have pastored the church, but that God has pastored me.
Although we are lonely, “we are pastors together” is not merely the comfort of fellow sufferers, but it is a reality in Christ. This reality was first apparent when we were called to be pastors, pastors who experience the love of Christ and are entrusted with his mission; it is also apparent in the Triune God, and the community of saints.
A Common Calling
Pastor Fang Xiaojun believes, “All the pressures of long-term pastoring are so very difficult for the pastor. Where does his motivation come from? It could only come from his commitment to the gospel and the sincerity of his loyalty to the calling.”
Pastor Jin Tianming from Beijing says,
In the past, many seminaries have invited me, as the pastor of a church, to come encourage seminary students during the year’s opening ceremony. My first point is always God’s calling. With this I encourage every student who has just entered seminary, after a few years of seminary studies, especially the in-depth study of God’s word, to once again affirm God’s calling to them. Because what leads us onto the path of ministry is God’s calling. What helps us persevere during long and arduous ministry, is also God’s calling. In facing the difficulties, challenges, and pains of ministry, what finally brings us victory is also God’s calling. It is not our own determination, faith, or passion. If God had used our faith or passion during this process, they still fundamentally originated from his calling. So we can say that the most important thing in our life of ministry is God’s calling. And this, too, is the grace I have experienced in 28 years of serving.
Teacher Fang who now serves in Shanghai has preached for thirty years. He deeply believes, “pastors must have the same calling from the throne, and must be truly devoted to Christ. If not for Christ and his kingdom, all our service and all our ministry, would be utterly pointless.”
1) With the First Love and Devotion Comes a "Pastor's Calling."
When I was in 12th grade, I had the opportunity of studying in Soviet Russia. At the time, Soviet Russia was no longer the ‘older brother,’ and during my first year of college, I saw for myself the social upheaval brought by the fall of the Soviet Union. But it was also because of this fierce upheaval that I first had an opportunity to hear the gospel, and to experience the great power of the gospel. The result was that this proud, confused, atheist college student found a purpose in life. My life was quickly renewed and driven by the gospel.
Pastor Wu Yiqi clearly recalls how this initial call overturned his life, and his initial passion for sharing the gospel. “And so I went around the dorm sharing the gospel with other students. It’s as if God wanted to prove himself to me—many of my Chinese neighbors became Christians and joined the church.”
“I was a prodigal son,” Pastor Fang Xiaojun says of his calling.
When I was fourteen, I started going to church because of my older brother’s miraculous recovery from bone cancer. But during high school, I started worshipping violence. I got into fights and made a name for myself. At age 21, I was arrested because of fighting and suspected robbery, and faced a potentially heavy sentence. While in jail, I remembered God, and for the first time after leaving the church for so many years, I prayed to God, “God, help me!” As a result, I was released because of insufficient evidence. I slowly started feeling empty and irritable, and began disliking the life I led. I started wondering what we lived for. Was it to spend our lives getting in fights? Finally, one day in May of 1989, there seemed to be a formless hand tugging on 23-year-old me, and it seemed like a voice was saying to me, “child, come home. Come home . . .” And so, a lost prodigal returned to the side of his heavenly father. From then on, I had one prayer to God, “My life is yours. I do not deserve that you lift me up so, and I offer myself entirely to you.” And so I was called in 1990, and having been in ministry to this day.
2) “A pastor’s calling” brings courage, blessing, freedom, and wisdom
Pastor Jin Tianming sums up his many years of ministry as “the triumph of the calling.” He said,
God’s calling caused me to resolutely step onto the path to ministry after graduating from college. God’s calling made a young college graduate into a pastor. Within two years, I built a church in my home, and started my lifelong ministry as a pastor. In the environment which I had grown up in before this, I did not know even one Christian, never mind a church. But God’s calling allowed me to start a church as a pastor, and shepherd my brothers and sisters in Christ. It is incredible when you think about it. But at the time, it was the most natural thing in light of God’s calling. For someone who has no work experience in society, who has no responsibilities at home, for him to become a pastor and take up the burden of leading the church, and to willingly do so with a great sense of mission and God’s love, I only know of one possible reason—God’s calling.
“God’s calling has also given me the gift of ministry,” Pastor Jin added.
This includes a heart that respects and loves life. His calling also brought fruit to the ministry. That God’s calling would use someone who had been a coward since he was young, one who was extremely afraid of death, and use him to worship God with the church in the midst of storms! When the church was being severely oppressed, and there seemed to be no way out, it was God’s calling that lifted me up, and helped me walk out of the valley of weakness, and helped me live seven years under house arrest full of his blessings. I believe that no one can stand in the way of God’s calling, and the triumph of his calling. During this time, I had a special hope: that one day, I may submit to God’s calling, and fully devote myself to mission work. Thinking back over 25 years of pastoring a church, I can witness: it is entirely God’s blessing, the blessing that comes with his calling, such is the blessing that God has used to hold me up and to lead me to this day. Thus, if I can use one sentence to summarize my experience of calling and ministry, I would say: a pastor’s life of ministry depends on being faithful to God’s calling!
Pastor Peng Qiang from Chengdu previously spent time working in a Christian organization, and he compares part-time and full-time ministry:
When you serve part-time, whether you do more or less, and to what extent you serve, is entirely up to your own decision. If you do well, your fellow workers, brothers and sisters, would say, “You’re so busy with work, and yet serve so much! How incredible!” If you don’t do well, you can get away with a simple, “Sorry, life’s been busy.” And there’s not much anyone can say. But when I started full-time ministry, I quickly discovered that things were different. It was expected that I do well. And if I didn’t, opinions started flying.”
How does one adapt to this? In Pastor Peng’s experience:
There are two important things to learn, and I am still in the process of learning them today. The first is to continually focus on God’s calling and God’s affirmation. The book When People Are Big and God Is Small says that we should learn freedom in reverence, so that we can put what different people say in their appropriate places. Secondly, we too need to humbly acknowledge that we need to continually grow in pastoring and management. Even though John Piper says, we need to be careful of our attitude, because we are not professionals; but whatever we do, there will be standards and patterns, including pastoring a church. We need to often reflect on how we can act according to the truth, in a way that benefits others, and not only act rightly, but act beautifully, and so continue on the way to maturity.
Finding Rest in Meeting with God
Pastors deeply desire rest. A pastor’s spirit can calm down and rest even amidst apparent busyness. This rest is a waiting for God, a fellowship with God, a returning to God.
A pastor’s quiet time, prayer, and meeting with God is of utmost importance. Through God's word, through fellowship, and through prayer, we can meet God in our lives. All things should point us towards abiding with God. Pastor Wang Yile said,
Not only do we nourish ourselves by gaining strength in God’s word, but it becomes a source from which to nourish others. . . . Personally, when I go through a difficult time, I know that inside me, my greatest desire is to hear God’s word. And so, when someone comes to seek my help in his distress, basically all I can do is encourage him to turn toward the cross and salvation, our eternal hope.
Pastors need to constantly abide in the Lord, rejoice in the Lord, and delight in the Lord. If they do not do so, ultimately they simply empty themselves. People are unable to be satisfied in the various things outside of this. Thus, a person’s fellowship with God is of utmost importance.
Sweet Communion with the Saints
1) Resting through community
“Pastors should be people who not only learn how to rest, but actively rest,” Pastor Wang Yile said.
This includes physical training and exercise, through which the body gains rest. Sleep is also very important. I remember Pastor Samuel Ling (Lin Cixin) once said, “it is spiritual for pastors to sleep, and to get enough sleep.” At the time I thought this a novel saying, but after some thought realized how right it is. We must live within our limits, and often times we need physical rest for our spirits to be strengthened.
In his most painful time, Pastor Fang Xiaojun experienced the companionship of the church community. He said,
I was once the father of three children, but the youngest was taken by the Lord 17 days after he was born. In 2007, my wife had a surprise pregnancy. In the routine checkup, the doctor told us that the child was deformed, and that we had to abort him. Even if he was born, he would not survive. It was as if the heavens had fallen! It is hard to explain our painful emotions at the time. Apart from some comfort offered by brothers and sisters in Christ, many friends and family urged us to abort the child. We chose to honor God’s sovereignty, and give birth to the child, whether healthy or deformed.
After nine difficult months, the child was born. As the doctors originally diagnosed, God had given us a deformed child—cleft lip and esophageal atresia. There were tears only, no joy. It was hard to give thanks, being filled with pain. After surgeries and treatments, it was as the doctor first warned, we spent all our savings, and the child still died. My wife and I do not regret it, but we are deeply, deeply pained. In our pain, our brothers at church brought us comfort. They said, “whether it is money or emotional burden, we stand with you.” Seventeen days and nights, and they remained beside us the whole time. God used them to greatly comfort my wife and me.”
2) Finding comfort in ministry
Pastor Peng Qiang shared,
I worked many years in a Christian ministry before serving full-time at church. One day, a friend of many years told me, “Peng Qiang, you’ve changed so much.” I asked him what changed. He said, “In the past, every time I saw you, you looked restless. You not only had too many things to do, but you also seemed tired in your heart. But now you are much more relaxed, and it is relaxing to be with you.” Only after he told me, did I realize that indeed there seemed to be this change. When working in a company, one is more focused on the results and evaluations. It is inevitable that there are countless to-do lists, deadlines, deliberations on how to merge resources, so one is inevitably task-oriented. I’m not saying that people who work in companies are not focused on the spiritual. It is just that a company is more focused on the need for efficiency. As for pastoring a church, there is no pressure, no evaluation. That’s not to say a day’s schedule is not busy, but the burden on the heart is different. We pay more attention to the spiritual condition of others. Once we pay attention to the spiritual condition of others, then we cannot help but pay attention to our own spiritual condition.
Pastors shepherd the congregation, and God specially uses some people in the congregation to shepherd the pastor. This has become my greatest joy in ministry. In these past years, there are two types of church members who give me particular joy, causing me to know what an honor and blessing it is to serve God and his church.
The first type are those who faithfully pray for the pastor. There are some members in our church who faithfully pray for me. A couple times when I was in particular difficulty, these members would say to me, “Pastor, we are praying for you.” Sometimes they would take the initiative to ask me if I had any prayer requests.
The other type are members who greatly desire the truth. There was an elderly man in church, who continued seeking the truth even after getting cancer. I visited him in the hospital the day before he died. He was hurting very badly, and we knew he wouldn’t be here long. One on one, I gave him more care, encouragement, and affirmation of faith towards the end of his life. Finally, he said, “Pastor, please read me something from the Bible.” So I read one of the Psalms to him. He said, “Explain it to me.” So I explained some of the passage to him. Before I left, I asked out of curiosity, “You are about to meet the Lord face to face, why do you still have such a desire to know the Bible?” His answer moved me, “Before meeting him, I hope to know a little more, a little more about him.”
After leaving, my heart was filled with the glory of the call to ministry: “Lord, it's such a privilege to be called to help others know you, and know you more deeply!”
The longer I serve, the more I realize how true the saying “the greed for speed brings no quick success” [yu suce bu da] is in church ministry. The more attention we pay to living out the gospel, to equipping the saints, the more stable the development of ministry tends to be. On the contrary, the more hastily the pastor promotes certain ministries, the more likely it is to get pastoring, ministry, and relationships into a real mess.
For example, Christian ministries are very much like restaurants: the more distinctive it is and the quicker the food is prepared, then the better its reputation would be and then results can be seen within a short time. Local churches, however, are like your mother’s kitchen: soups are simmered over a low fire, and it is important to pay attention to nutritional balance. [Switching metaphors,] whether the final product is gold, silver, and precious stones, or wood, hay, and straw, it takes a whole generation to tell.
3) From Watching Each Other to Meeting Together: The Living Community of Pastors
For pastors, it is a reality that we are pastors together in Christ. When pastors become aware of this reality, they are like allies in different units, smiling knowingly at some remembrance of a comrade serving together in ministry. But at the same time, pastors can connect themselves so that they may meet together as a living community. Pastor Wang Yile explains this as four concentric circles:
A living community is very important. When God made humans, He made them in the likeness of his own image, and he made them male and female; man and woman thus created became one flesh; and God said to them, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. In God’s eyes, humans are not individual, but are communal. So you need people you can share life with. Especially your own wife or husband, it is very important that you share with them your deepest human weaknesses.
If husbands and wives are the most inner concentric circle of a pastors living community, the second circle would be brothers to whom we can entrust our lives. This community shares your foundation in faith and in theology. For this group of people, you don’t need many. It is excellent if you have even three to five such friends. When you doubt and struggle with many of your temptations, you can share with them. They have a positive, serious attitude toward sin and weakness, but are not moralists or legalists. They know we are all sinners, and they long after God's grace.
The third ring is the broader community of co-workers in ministry. They support each other in ministry, and trust each other’s integrity.
The fourth ring are those people that you can serve. You are willing to actively stay in touch with them and serve them. Basically, I think it is pretty holistic if we can have these few concentric circles.
Original Article: 我们同为传道人 (ChurchChina)
Image credit: makzhou via Flickr.
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