Dear Pastor . . . You Need to Recognize Your Limits
This article is part of the Dear Pastor series.
It was a heart-revealing moment, more revealing than I wanted it to be. I was a bit embarrassed at the moment of exposure, but it was good for me to face what was in my heart. I was speaking at a large men’s conference and was asked that if I could choose a superpower, what would it be. Others had chosen the ability to fly or to be incredibly strong, but I immediately said, “I wish I had the power to create ten days in a week.” In so doing, I was once again confronted with the fact that I hate limits. I want more time so I can do more than time allows. I want more strength so I can accomplish more. I want more wisdom so I don’t have to invest so much time researching and learning. I want to be infinite and almighty. Yes, it is true; there are still moments in my life when I want to be God.
I wish I could say that I am free of the frustration of the limits God has set for me, but I can’t. I wish I could say that I never am tempted to work outside those limits, but I can’t. I wish I no longer had to pay the price for denying those limits, but I still do. In ministry it is tempting to try to do more than you can realistically and healthily do. It is tempting to write job descriptions for others that ask more of them than they can responsibly handle. And it is tempting to let a leader work way beyond his limits because his work seems essential to the success of the ministry enterprise.
If you’re a leader, you don’t know everything, you can’t do everything, you aren’t completely mature, and you don’t have inexhaustible energy. You are not just a package of strengths, gifts, and experiences; you are also a collection of weaknesses and susceptibilities. It is here that the gospel is such a sweet encouragement. We do not have to fear our limits because God doesn’t send us out on our own; where he sends us, he goes too. We do not have to curse our weaknesses because our weaknesses are a workroom for his grace. We do not have to hide or deny our places of immaturity because God is able. Our limits and weaknesses are not in the way of what God can do through us, but our denial of limits and our delusions of independent strength are.
Paul David Tripp
Best-selling author Paul David Tripp offers 12 gospel-centered leadership principles for both aspiring leaders and weathered pastors as they navigate the challenging waters of pastoral ministry. This resource shows the vital role that the leadership community plays in molding leaders.
So I want to consider with you four areas of limits that God in his Creator wisdom has set for us and how constant recognition and humble admission of these limits help a leadership community assess its plans, assign its work, and evaluate its health.
1. You Have Limited Gifts
Embedded in Paul’s teaching about gifts in the body of Christ is the clear understanding that gifts are limited (see Eph. 4:1–16 and 1 Cor. 12:4–31). Paul’s word picture of the human body argues this powerfully. The eye has been specifically designed for sight, and because it has, it has no ability to pick up objects. The design determines the limits. The same is true of every gift that has been given to members of the body of Christ and surely, therefore, is true of every leader gifted by God for ministry in his church.
No leader is designed to know or do everything. No leader is meant to do his work alone. It is dangerous for any leader to be so dominant that the gifts of others don’t get expression, leaving that leader to do things he wasn’t gifted by God to do. No leader, because he has powerful gifts, should view himself as the smartest person in the room. Smartness is a subset of giftedness. Every leader needs to rely on the contributions of other leaders who are smart in ways that he isn’t. Ministry must always be done in humble, respectful, and submissive community because the gifts God has given us come to us with built-in limits. By God’s grace I am an influential leader, but I get up every day and do the work that has been assigned to me by people who work with me and are smart in ways that I am not because they bring gifts to our work that I do not have. I would be silly and proud to dominate every discussion and make every decision and assign every task.
No one leader is gifted in every way, and every leader suffers because of the gifts he has been given. Recognizing the limits of God-given gifts and the responsibility and suffering that come with those gifts is an essential part of a ministry community establishing and maintaining not only its fruitfulness but also its ongoing spiritual health. A leadership community that humbly recognizes the limits of God-given gifts will establish a ministry culture of respectful, appreciative, and joyful cooperation.
2. You Have Limited Time
Time has been set for us; we didn’t have a vote, and we have zero ability to escape. The time structure that shapes the existence of all God’s creatures bursts off the page of Genesis 1. In one of his first and more significant acts as Creator, God lays down the structure of seven days, along with the structure of Sabbath rest. As a leader, you simply cannot ignore the limits placed on you by this plan and maintain spiritual and relational health and a life of long-term ministry effectiveness. It seems ridiculously obvious to say, but nonetheless important, that you will never get thirty hours in a day, and you will never grab nine days in a week. And you will always need Sabbath rest no matter how mature you become or how many leaders work alongside you.
Every limit that God has set for us has been set because God knows whom he’s created; he knows how we were designed to live and in love does not require more of us than we are capable of doing. Limits not only reveal his wisdom; they also express his love. Limits are not a prison; they are a grace. You cannot allow your leadership community to assign more work to a leader than can be done in the time allotted to him or her. You cannot ask a person to pile work upon work, day after day, without periodic Sabbaths of rest. There are few more important things for a spiritually healthy leadership community to consider than the time limits that God designed for his creation from the get-go.
The limits of time is yet another argument for ministry always being done in community, so that no single leader attempts or is assigned to do more than he can responsibly do while also giving proper focus to the other things that God has called him to. A spiritually healthy leadership community always does its work with God-designed limits of time in view.
3. You Have Limited Energy
Let me just say it from the start here: none of us is infinite, self-sustaining, self-sufficient, or self-rejuvenating. We all are a package of limited energies coupled with certain weaknesses and held together by divine grace. So a spiritually healthy leadership community that produces long-term ministry fruit is aware that every leader is created by God as a duality. We are not a community of disembodied souls. Everything you are and everything you do is shaped by the fact that you are both spiritual and physical. As I listen to the conversation of the church and ministry leadership community, I hear a lot about spiritual health but little about physical health. By God’s plan, you and I have limited energy, and not stewarding our physical selves will seriously sap whatever natural energies we do have.
Physical health must be part of the conversation and the shared responsibility of every member of the leadership community. Just as we care about one another’s spiritual health, we should have concern for and care for one another’s physical health. This should not be a taboo topic. It should not be viewed as intrusive. Leaders should not be resistant or defensive when this issue is put on the table. It is one of the ways we are called to love and pastor one another. This is where Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:24–27 are interesting, in that as part of his gospel calling he keeps his body under control. You may be thinking, Control to what, for what? The answer is, control to the Christ of the gospel for the sake of the spread of the gospel. What Paul is saying is that until the Lord returns, we will have colliding passions in our hearts. Perhaps it is my passion for food colliding with my passion to invest my energies in gospel ministry. Perhaps my passion to chill out collides with the fitness I need to get up and do spiritual battle every day.
In order to finish the race and not be disqualified, we all must say no to passions of the body so that we can run the ministry or leadership race we have been called to run. Bringing our body under subjection doesn’t begin with diet and exercise, but with searching for and confessing idols of the heart that interfere with the discipline to which we have been called and which grace makes possible. You see, the stewardship of our physical body is not an addition to our gospel ministry calling; it is a significant part of it. A spiritually healthy leadership community cares not only for the spiritual health of its leaders but for their physical well-being as well.
Every limit that God has set for us has been set because God knows whom he’s created; he knows how we were designed to live and in love does not require more of us than we are capable of doing.
4. You Have Limited Maturity
Limited spiritual maturity of every member of the leadership community needs to be the assumption of everyone in that community. What I mean by this is that every leader is a person in the middle of his own sanctification. No matter how long we’ve been in ministry leadership, no matter how well trained, no matter how theologically mature, we are all still in need of future spiritual development. We all have blind spots. We all have areas of susceptibility to temptation. Each of us has character weaknesses. We are all still in need of the rescuing, convicting, transforming power of the gospel.
So a leadership community must not make assumptions about its leaders that keep them from having gospel concern for one another and candid community conversations. Leadership communities need to commit to pastoring every member of that community. We cannot allow any member to live in spiritual isolation and separation. God has called us not just to the external work of gospel ministry but to leadership “one anothering” as well. It is my experience, as I have dealt with fallen or lapsed pastors, that around them was a weak or dysfunctional leadership community that failed, in pastoral love and care, to protect that leader from himself.
Every leader needs to be the object of ongoing discipleship, every leader needs at moments to be confronted, every leader needs the comforts of the gospel, every leader needs help to see what he would not see on his own, and every leader needs to be granted the love and encouragement to deal with the artifacts of the old self that are still within him. If this is so, then we cannot be so busy envisioning, designing, maintaining, evaluating, and reengineering ministry that we have little time to care for the souls of the ones who are leading this gospel work. A spiritually healthy leadership community participates in the ongoing personal spiritual growth of each one of its members.
Living with Limits
Until we are on the other side, we will minister, relate, and live with limits. Those limits are not in the way of what God intends to do through us, because they are all the product of his wise and loving choice. What he calls us to is possible to do inside the limits that God has set and that we will not successfully escape. So it is part of our gospel calling to have those limits before our eyes and in our leadership community conversations. We must resist the temptation to live outside those limits or to make the assumption that we are all dealing with our limits in ways that are humble and wise. God is not afraid to call limited people into gospel leadership, so we should not be afraid, with gospel humility and hope, to put those limits on the table, not just once, but again and again, knowing we will need to retain this commitment until God’s work in us is complete.
This article is adapted from Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church by Paul David Tripp.
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