For this reason also, since the day we heard this, we haven’t stopped praying for you. We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:9-10, HCSB)
The goal of the Christian life on this side of eternity is ongoing growth in godliness. Simply put, we have been saved in part so that we can become increasingly conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ as we proclaim his gospel in word and model it for the watching world in deed. We call this sanctification. Our strategies for sanctification are called spiritual formation. And the goal of spiritual formation is to cultivate godliness.
It’s often been said that a local church rarely advances beyond the spiritual maturity of its leadership. I think this is normally true. As ministry leaders, we have a double incentive for cultivating godliness. First, of course, we want to honor God in our own spiritual walks as we become more like our Savior. But second, and very important, is our need to model godliness for those to whom we minister and to spur them on in their own spiritual growth.
In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul gives instruction worth heeding by every pastor, associate pastor, student minister, worship leader, college minister, or other ministry leader: “Pay close attention to your life and your teaching; persevere in these things, for by doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers” (HCSB). Let me paraphrase the apostle: keep your head on straight doctrinally and keep your life in order morally. Or, to say it another way, keep growing in godliness.
So what are some ways that those of us who are ministry leaders can cultivate godliness in our own lives? Several ideas come to mind.
1. Regularly practice biblical spiritual disciplines such as personal Scripture reading, prayer, fasting, silence and solitude, and service to others. When pursued in a way that flows from our personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ, the spiritual disciplines are means of grace that the Lord uses to grow us in godliness. Don’t table your own spiritual walk in the busyness of ministering to the spiritual lives of others.
2. Work hard to worship joyfully. This might sound a bit weird at first—worship as work? We are used to speaking of worship experiences these days, but worship is something we are commanded to do. The experience of God flows from our practice of worship. We are to worship the Lord personally as we live for his glory, but we are also commanded to gather with the body to worship the Lord corporately. It is so easy for ministry leaders to spend so much time planning and leading in worship that they fail to joyfully worship the Lord themselves. Work hard to keep worshiping the Lord yourself. Soak up the preaching of the Word, sing joyfully to the Lord, pray with the body to your King, give cheerfully and sacrificially to the advance of his kingdom.
3. Find an accountability partner who is also in vocational ministry. You need a friend who is also a youth pastor or worship leader with whom you can periodically meet for encouragement, spiritual challenge, and burden-sharing. It needs to be someone in the trenches, whether in your church or (more likely) in another church in your community. Walk together and encourage each other as you cultivate godliness for your own sakes and for the sakes of the people whom the Lord has entrusted to you.
4. Take time to rest and recreate. It is so very easy for those of us in vocational ministry to spend all our time caring for the spiritual needs of others. We need to remember to unplug and recharge from time to time, lest we succumb to ministry burnout or even washout. Practice the spiritual discipline of Sabbath once a week by putting all but essential ministry concerns aside. Once a quarter, block out a couple of days for a spiritual retreat where you can spend time in extended prayer, immerse yourself in the Scriptures, and perhaps read an edifying book. When you take a vacation—and your need to take a vacation every year—be fully present with your family and friends. Leave the ministry behind for a week or two; trust me, it will still be waiting for you when you return. Talk to your pastor, elders, or personnel committee about instituting a sabbatical policy where church staff are allowed two or three months to be away from normal ministry responsibilities every five or six years for the sake of spiritual recharging and professional enrichment.
God has called us to serve him by ministering to his people through vocational ministry. Let’s be sure we are cultivating godliness in our own lives so that we can equip others to do the same.
Nathan A. Finn serves as director of the Center for Spiritual Formation and Evangelical Spirituality at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in church history and historical theology. He also serves as one of the pastors at First Baptist Church of Durham, North Carolina.