This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
John MacArthur, author of Remaining Faithful in Ministry: 9 Essential Convictions for Every Pastor, digs into what it takes to persevere as a pastor. He explains why it seems like pastoral failure and burnout are more common than ever, why pastors should avoid “yes men” at all costs, how a car accident helped confirm his call to ministry, and what he’s learned from over 5 decades of ministry at a single church.
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Pastor MacArthur, thank you so much for joining me on The Crossway Podcast today.
It’s a pleasure to be with you. It’s been a wonderful partnership we’ve had through the years with the Crossway folks, and we certainly believe in your mission.
You first came to Grace Community Church in 1969—fifty years ago—and you still serve there today. Do you remember the first sermon that you preached from that pulpit and what text it was on?
Yeah, it’s a very vivid memory of mine. I’ve been reminded of it many, many times through the years. I preached on Matthew 7, from verse 13 to the end of the chapter. And it’s focused directly on the text that says, “Many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” I actually titled the message “Playing Church.” It was a little bit of over-the-top youth that drove me so hard at that issue.
I grew up in the church. I grew up with a grandfather who was a pastor, a father who was a pastor, and just about all their friends were in pastoral ministry. And it was pretty clear to me that churches were full of unconverted people, not unlike America prior to 1740, when the Great Awakening took place. Churches were packed with non-believing people, and this was a burden on my heart. So the first Sunday morning I was there, I just launched particularly into folks sitting on Matthew 7:21. And that set a tone for books that later came out: The Gospel according to Jesus, The Gospel according to the Apostles, The Gospel according to Paul, and Ashamed of the Gospel—all efforts to be crystal clear on the gospel so that we could actually do what Scripture says we should do: let judgment begin at the house of God.
So yes, I have very vivid memories. In fact, occasionally the church will pass out CDs of that ancient sermon, which I would rather they not do, but they do it anyway as a memorabilia item.
Do you remember a response or a sense of how people were feeling about that sermon at the time?
There was kind of stunned silence, because it’s just a very bold, forthright call to genuine salvation. We had people who obviously were not converted. Some of them were in the choir. Some of them were on the board. Some of them were involved in ministry. Some of them were just attending. It was sort of like throwing the gauntlet down on the first day. But the response among the people was really very positive because the true believers were encouraged by it, and the people who didn’t know the Lord, some of them did some serious self-examination and over time, people came to know the Lord in a genuine way.
I don’t remember any direct hostility as a response to it, because I don’t think people knew what to do with that kind of message. They hadn’t heard that kind from prior pastors. And it was directly out of the mouth of Jesus, so you really kind of don’t quite know what to do with that. You don’t want to attack the Lord. And it was his words that I was basically relating to them. So I think it set a tone for the rest of ministry there. The people were eager and ready and willing to submit to the word of God, and whatever the word of God said, they would submit to that. There was some time for them to adjust to that, but that has become the character of our church even to this day.
Discerning a Call to Pastoral Ministry
Can you describe the moment that you first felt called to vocational pastoral ministry? Was there a single moment or was it a period of time of God drawing you to it?
I don’t know that there was any kind of epiphany or any kind of single moment in which I felt called to ministry. Nobody put pressure on me. My dad didn’t put pressure on me, though he was a preacher his whole life. But I just sensed growing up that this is what I wanted to do. This is where my heart was. I never really considered anything else seriously. I went off to college, even as a freshman, taking basically ten units of Greek my first year in school because I wanted to tackle the New Testament, and I knew that from the get-go.
But there was an event that happened at the end of my freshman year. We were coming back home from California, and the car flipped, and I got thrown out of the car. It’s a story I’ve told in the past. But I slid down the highway about 110 or 120 yards. That’s what they said. Ended up in bed for months. And I think that sealed the reality of my calling in the sense that my life was not my own. I should not have survived. I had friction burns all over my back. I didn’t even have a broken bone in my body. And I knew the Lord brought me through that. So I just basically said, Look, whatever you want me to do, I give. If you’re gonna deal with me like this, I’m gonna submit. So I had three months in bed to deal with the issue of my own heart and submission to the Lord and being whatever he wanted me to be. So I think that sealed what seemed to me to be the natural direction that my life would take.
Discouragement in Ministry
So has there ever been a time in your life when you’ve felt deeply discouraged in your ministry and maybe even questioned your calling or thought about quitting? Has that ever happened? And if it has, how did you work through that?
I can’t honestly say there’s ever been a time when I was so deeply discouraged that I thought about quitting ministry. I tend to be a fighter. I’m not a quitter. I remember one of my football coaches saying to me, When the going gets tough, the tough get going. And that sort of defined my approach to life in ministry and everything. It takes a lot to get me to a point where I give up on something. Obviously there’s weariness with one’s own sin, and you’re always dealing with that in the ministry. You’re always preaching something better than you can live 24/7.
But there have been a lot of things that have happened that happen to all ministers. There have been mutinies by staff. There have been assaults and attacks by people who tell lies. That’s always been around. And the internet is now ubiquitous with the anti-MacArthur propaganda as it is against anybody. But none of that ever mattered to me. I was always prone to examine my own heart. Am I who I should be before the Lord? Am I called? Is this what he has given me to do? Then I need to be faithful. “It’s required that stewards be found faithful,” Paul said. And I always look at ministry as a stewardship. It isn’t a stewardship of my gifts. It’s isn’t a stewardship of my talents. It’s a stewardship of the people God gives me. So I’m their shepherd. And I can’t quit. I can’t fail because they need to be shepherded. Jesus looked at the people in his own generation and said they’re like sheep without a shepherd. And if you’re called to be the “under shepherd” of the great Shepherd, and he gives you a great flock of people, that stewardship better be compelling—so compelling that nothing can deter you from the exercise of that stewardship. So the responsibility to feed and lead, to provide and particularly to protect the flock that God has given me has always been what anchored me in whatever aspect of ministry I’ve been involved in. It’s always about the people that the Lord has given me to care for, to nurture, to feed, to lead, and to protect, and so I don’t give up—not because I overcome some personal angst but because I feel the weight of that responsibility for which I need to give the Lord an account.
Tenure at Grace Community
Would you say that’s part of the explanation for why you’ve remained at Grace Community Church for five decades and not pursued a pastorate somewhere else? That kind of a tenure, in our day and age, seems to be a pretty rare thing.
Yeah, and I think that’s exactly right. I think that’s wise on your part. The reason I’m there is because the Lord wanted me there, from the divine side. From my perspective, I have been given the perfecting of the saints for the work of the ministry as my calling—to teach the word, to protect the saints, to do the work of the ministry. Maturing the saints is a very long process. And Paul says to the Galatians that he’s in labor pains until Christ is fully formed in them. I think if our goal is to build the saints to do effective ministry and to mature them in the process of sanctification until they’re Christlike, how do you walk away from that? And I’m not saying that everybody needs to stay for good where they start. I know the Lord has different plans for different people. But for me, it was that stewardship of these lives and the goal not just of salvation or of getting a lot of people in a church and having a lot of activities, but to see the saints perfected for the work of the ministry, to see them becoming like Christ. I was completely committed to the dire need to train godly men. So from the very beginning, somebody had to produce them. Somebody had to raise up men who could preach and teach the word, and who could spread the gospel and train leaders around the world, and I knew thatwould be a long-term commitment, so all of those things from the very beginning were part of how I understood my stewardship.
Length of Ministry and Cultural Norms
So what do you think about the infrequency with which people serve in one church for an extended amount of time? Acknowledging what you said earlier about God having different callings for different people and not everyone is called to stay in their first church forever, it does seem like a pretty uncommon thing to even be there more than ten years. What do you think about that? Is there something going on in the culture surrounding pastoral ministry that needs to be recalibrated?
Yeah, there’s a lot that needs to be recalibrated. Some of it is on the part of the congregation to appreciate those who are over them in the Lord. And the other is for the people who are in pastoral ministry not to make the ministry about them, so that when they don’t like the way they’re being treated, they abandon that ministry.
Look, sanctification is a long-term process. Trying to tell this generation about sanctification is a great challenge because this generation is so busy trying to make the church feel comfortable for non-believers. It is a bait-and-switch to all of a sudden start calling them to holiness. If you try to design the church to look like the world and to be something like what they’re used to, and the forms of entertainment that they like and the styles that they like, if you adopt the worldly cultural identities and you do that in order to get them in, then when you call them to separate completely from the world and to live lives of holiness, it is a bait-and-switch.
So pragmatism has driven the church down a desperately dangerous road where everything that could be offensive is eliminated under the guise of reaching people when the truth of the matter is that God has chosen his elect before the foundation of the world, and faithfully preaching the gospel is what the Lord will use to redeem his own, and then sanctification follows. So the church has moved a long, long way from that. And with the demise of virtually all the denominations. All of the denominations, the traditional ones, even some of the newer, smaller, more evangelical groups are disintegrating, and nobody wants any kind of denominational name on their building. It’s like every church is kind of a one-off thing, and they find their identity in their uniqueness, and basically that uniqueness caters to the world. So it alters the message, it alters the worship, it alters everything, and how do you get from accommodating all of that to being serious about God and serious about sin and serious about worship? We’ve said a lot about this through the years, and Crossway’s been a great friend in publishing books that have addressed this, and it’s still with us because pragmatism is hard to kill.
Maybe there is somebody who hears all of that but would respond and say, Well, God uses practical means to reach people, and part of the job of a church or a Christian or a pastor is to meet people where they’re at and address the questions and concerns that they have as a starting point. How would you respond to someone like that?
I would say God uses means, but the means he uses are biblical means, which means he uses prayer, and he uses the preaching of the gospel, the preaching of the word. Faith comes by hearing the word concerning Christ. You’ve been begotten again by the word of truth. Preach the word, in season and out of season. The means that he uses are not musical means. The means that he uses are not stylized means, fashion, the style of the building, etc. At the end of the day, the Lord uses spiritual means, and that is essentially the prayer and the word and the power of the Holy Spirit and the testimony of godly lives. The most powerful of all evidences for the gospel are the transformed lives of the people in the church. So if you have a church of people who are genuinely sanctified, who have true conversion, and who are living Christ-honoring, godly lives, this undergirds the gospel.
A German philosopher said many years ago: “Show me your redeemed life, and I might believe in your redeemer.” I mean if you’re going to say that he’s going to change your life, then there ought to be a whole lot of people with transformed lives that are visible and manifest right in front of you. But if the church is full of superficial people who are there for all kinds of social reasons and entertainment reasons and relational reasons and all of that, but you don’t see the power of transformed lives, then why would you believe the message? Well, they’ve reduced the message to: God loves you the way you are, and he wants to make you everything you need to be. That is not why the gospel is given. The gospel is given because you’re on your way to hell, and God wants to rescue you from sin and death and hell, and he wants to make you the person who can give him glory. It’s not about him giving you something, it’s about you being capable of worshiping him, giving him the glory that is due his name. And in grace, as a result of that, he grants you eternal life. So the man-centeredness of all of this flies in the face of clearly understanding the whole of redemptive purpose.
Dealing with Criticism
As you alluded to earlier in our conversation, you’ve been the subject of your fair share of criticism over the years, and I wonder if you could speak to some of the things that you’ve been criticized for and how you have discerned when to heed that criticism, when to think about it, when to even change because of it, and when just to disregard it?
First of all, when criticism comes, the initial response should be to look at yourself and ask, Is that true? Is that an honest criticism? Is that something that I need to deal with and bring before the Lord? That’s just integrity. And of course you would do that, but those kinds of criticisms usually come in the circle where you are the most intimate with the believing community. Those are the things that your children might say to you, that your wife might say to you, that your closest friends might say to you, that your fellow elders that you’ve been with for decades would say to you. And those things are helpful and important and you respond to those.
The public shots by people who don’t really know you at all and decide to criticize you, you just can’t chase that. First of all, as a general rule, I refuse to defend myself. Somebody asked me that just yesterday: When somebody sends you a letter of a severe criticism and it may not actually be accurate or true, how do you respond? And I have a standard answer. I write them back, hopefully a gracious letter and say, Thank you for your concern. I want to honor the Lord. I don’t want to ever do anything that dishonors him. Please pray for me that the Lord will continue to use me. And that’s it. I’ll never defend myself. It’s pointless. But I will defend others. If you attack the people around me, then as a protector, I will step up, and I will protect them, and I will defend them. Because they’re defensible because I know them. But as far as I’m concerned, I can’t do that. It’s not helpful. It comes across as pride and self-seeking. But if you are faithful, others who know you will defend you. But you’re never going to be able to get away from that, especially today. It’s one thing to have people not like you. It’s something else for them to have the internet. So you have to take it for what it is and just continue to keep your head down and be faithful.
Criticism and Social Media
Yeah, we live in an era when the ability to direct criticism directly at somebody and then the ability to see all the criticism directed at you is so heightened. Do you go on Twitter and Facebook and blogs, or do you stay off of all that?
I don’t even know how to get on Twitter and Facebook. No. You know, I’m glad for the internet because the truth can go everywhere, but obviously there’s an equal downside to the upside. No, I don’t have anything to do with that. I don’t engage or argue with anybody on the internet. Look, if anybody wants to know what I really believe, it’s out there somewhere in the air. I’ve said enough through the years. If there’s something that I’ve said that’s wrong, and somebody wants to help me with that, clarify something, they usually will personally connect with me. But people who are just on the attack, there’s no sense in me fighting that because it’s not going to do any good. It’s just pouring gas on the fire. That’s what they want. So my response to all of that is just to completely ignore it.
Burnout and Moral Failure
Almost every week it seems like we hear another story of pastoral burnout or moral failure. Do you think this phenomenon is on the rise? Or are we just hearing about it more often, maybe because of the internet? And if it is on the rise, why do you think that is?
Well, it is on the rise, and it’s on the rise for a couple of reasons. This is a sex-saturated, self-saturated, lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, pride-of-life culture to the max. And so Satan has basically orchestrated the world around us in a way that this entire culture just comes firing consistently at the evil impulses in the human heart, the remaining flesh. That’s part of it. It’s just ubiquitous and relentless and available in your hand at any split second. So that’s part of the reason.
Another element of the reason is because ministry is open to anybody who wants it. You know, if you got up and preached a sermon in Calvin’s day, they’d throw you in prison, or maybe if your name was Servetus, they’d kill you. They had such a sacred view of the pulpit that people just couldn’t do that. One couldn’t just decide I'm going to be a pastor, and this is gonna be a church, and I’m gonna do my schtick, and I’m gonna get my torn jeans and my black t-shirt, and I’m gonna get rock-and-roll music, and we’re going to launch this thing based on natural skills and glib speaking ability. Because then you’re accountable to no one, no one ordained you, no one laid hands on you, no one saw your suitability for ministry, and no one speaks into your life. In fact, people nowadays who are pastors rarely surround themselves with people who would be honest with them. They surround themselves with people who will help them get to the goal. So you have guys in the ministry who are unqualified and guys in the ministry who are unaccountable, and they’re given so much power and so much notoriety that it feeds the flesh.
It was a lot simpler when there was a very, very carefully crafted ordination process for men when they went through seminary. People say, Do you need to go to seminary? You need to go to seminary for three or four or five years so that the people can validate your character, if nothing else, while they’re teaching you the word of God. And then you can be ordained by some wise, mature, godly men who lay their hands on you and say, This is a man suited for ministry. And then you have a sustained accountability to those men.
But that’s not how church happens today. Almost every church is kind of a one-off, independent entrepreneurship. At least that’s the trend. And even in churches that are still connected to some kind of a denomination, they are basically celebrating their uniqueness and independence. So I think this is difficult because it’s not a brotherhood. It’s not a holy fellowship like Wesley used to talk about. It is not a brotherhood of godly men. It is a business. It is entertainment. It is based upon natural skills. And spiritually unqualified people, narcissism, and even the love of money evident in it all, is a formula for moral failure.
The Problem with “Yes Men”
So you would say that a plethora of “yes men” is one of the things at the heart of this problem.
Yeah, there’s no question about that. And also I would go back to the need again for an intense, residential seminary education under godly men who are committed, not just to teaching something, but to shaping the men in their care. You go back to the early days of seminary in America. When the faculty of the seminary were the spiritual caretakers of the students, and they were the ones that preached to them every week and preached to them on Sunday. They were teaching them, and then they were preaching to them. They were shepherding them. They lived in the same environment with them. This was what seminary was intended to be. It wasn’t intended to be an online, distance-learning experience. It was intended to be high, intense relationships with godly men that built accountability. And then you would go into a church that was overseen by godly men who would approve you and affirm you and come alongside of you. And now the assumption is that the pastor rules the church, and the elders do what he wants, or whoever the church leaders are are under him. I see this all the time in the secular world. People assume when they speak of my role in the church that I’m like a president in a corporation and all of the elders answer to me when exactly the reverse is true. But that’s not how it comes off. So where you have personality-driven things, and you elevate a person, the potential of corruption, given the other elements, is going to be higher than it would be in a place where somebody is humbly serving other godly people, has high levels of accountability and has been vetted and tested with intense, personal contact.
Well, Pastor MacArthur, thank you so much for talking with me today and for your fifty years of faithful ministry to Christ and the example it is for pastors, seminarians, young men who are thinking about that everywhere. We are grateful for you.
Thank you so much, and I’m so thankful for the partnership we’ve had with Crossway.
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