Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in . . . love. (1 Timothy 4:12)
Setting an example is a powerful and essential part of pastoral leadership. A strong line of reasoning in preaching, even a soundly biblical argument, might fail to persuade. But a personal example of Christlikeness, especially what Francis Schaeffer called “the beauty of human relationships,” is unanswerable (Two Contents, Two Realities, 141). Beauty can be martyred, but it cannot be denied, and it will rise again.
A young pastor can and must deeply resolve to love everyone in his church and outside his church with Christlike love. He can and must set the believers an example by his gracious, patient, gentle, forgiving, pain-tolerant love. But without the beauty of love, any pastor, however orthodox, becomes a living denial of Christ. To quote Schaeffer again, “There is nothing more ugly than an orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion” (The God Who Is There, 34). Schaeffer was even more blunt: “I’ll tell you something else, orthodoxy without compassion stinks to God” (Death in the City, 1968, 123).
Pastoral ministry is not a career track, not a job, not a gig. It is a sacred calling from above. And the pastoral calling is basically twofold: to preach Christ and to embody Christ. The former is a matter of declaring the truth, the latter of demonstrating the truth. And how can we truly declare the truth without also demonstrating it? If we pastors do not set an example in love, we unsay by our lives what we say by our doctrine. Such an anti-example betrays the gospel. And that horrible betrayal is not a remotely hypothetical possibility. That betrayal of the gospel is common.
We pastors need not be perfect. All of us have many shortcomings. But still, following God’s call, we pastors must accept, deeply accept, that we have signed up for sacrifice. It’s how we set an example of love.
Our Sacred Calling
The apostle John says, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). Jesus died that we would live. That is how love thinks, how love behaves — paying a price, that others might enter into the life that is truly life. So, Bonhoeffer was right: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship, 89).
Recently I was in conversation with a friend who serves in a church-planting network. He told me that one of the questions he hears, as men consider that call, is whether they might have to exceed a forty-hour workweek. I was astounded, as was my friend. Limit ourselves to a forty-hour week? Love doesn’t think that way. Love does whatever it takes for others to live. Should a pastor attend to his family at home too? Of course. But a self-protective minimalism is not love.
“Pastoral ministry is not a career track, not a job, not a gig. It is a sacred calling from above.”
When the apostle Paul was describing the great heart of God for us, he had to strain at the leash of language to say it. He speaks, for example, of “the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us” (Ephesians 1:7–8). If God loves us richly and lavishly, then his pastors cannot love with a guarded heart that holds back. We pastors have the privilege of hurling ourselves, by faith in God, into the depths of his love for people. Then we find out along the way what it will cost us. And we’re fine with that, because we will also see how wonderfully people will come alive — even through us, flawed as we are.
Beauty Through Sacrifice
I remember my final Sunday as pastor at Immanuel Church Nashville in 2019. Jani and I were sitting in the front row, waiting for the service to begin. The band was playing a pre-service number. I forget what it was, but it was a bluesy, rocky something, to the glory of Christ, and utterly delightful. Then my peripheral vision noticed movement off to my left. I looked. And there, about fifty feet away, was a young mom in the church, no longer sitting but standing and moving and even dancing. She wasn’t making a spectacle of herself. There was no hint of self-display. She was just too happy to sit still. And Jani and I knew that dear lady. We knew she didn’t live a charmed life. But there she was, her heart moved by the music and lifted up to the Lord, dancing.
The sight of her joy was so beautiful, I choked up. And in that moment, I knew and felt that all the pain and heartache and sheer hard work we went through to establish Immanuel Church as a gift to our city — it was all worth it. Why? Because it funneled down to one final moment in 2019 when a young mom was enjoying the felt presence of the living Christ so wonderfully she had to get up and dance. In that sacred moment, our sacrifices no longer felt sacrificial. We were too happy to care about all that.
Love and Its Opposite
I wish I could say I always feel that way. But I don’t. Many times, I have to grab myself by the scruff of the neck and say, “Ray Ortlund, you’re going to go do the right thing, and you’re going to like it!” I expect you understand. And here is a line of thought I use as a diagnostic, a way of helping myself realign with Jesus, even in the moment. It’s these two opposites: what a loving pastor is not, and what a loving pastor is.
What a loving pastor is not: He is not out for himself. He does not perceive other people through a lens of cost-benefit calculation. He does not treat others as props on the stage of his grandiose drama. He does not make people into stepping stones on his upward path to ministerial stardom, a big platform, epic book sales, and invitations to speak at big-deal events. He does not curve reality back in on himself, his own advantage, his own importance. He is not self-referential in how he navigates reality. In fact, a selfish mentality is repugnant to a loving pastor.
“If we pastors do not set an example in love, we unsay by our lives what we say by our doctrine.”
What a loving pastor is: He is a man for others. He sets a cheerful “for you” tone as the culture of his church. He feels a gentle fierceness that people will not walk out of church on a Sunday without feeling seen, understood, valued. He is willing to lose, but he is determined to protect others. He will explain himself, but he will not fight for himself. He gives his all, and he enjoys doing so, because the people he serves matter that much to him. If he feels successful, it’s because more and more people are coming alive to Jesus. And he marvels that the Lord has given him such a glorious privilege.
Love Has a Future
As you set the believers an example in love, sadly, some might not see the beauty of it. They might even dislike you for it. Your selfless love might stand as a living reproach to their own selfishness and worldliness. In their eyes, your love might be made into your crime. They might even throw you out. But it is better to fail by doing what is right than to succeed by doing what is wrong, better to fail in the Spirit than to succeed in the flesh. Such a failure still contributes to the great battle being fought in the heavenlies in your generation.
But most people who claim Christ are reasonable. They will rejoice to receive your ministry, and they will join you in your spirit of Christlike love. Even if it does end badly, “they will know that a prophet has been among them” (Ezekiel 33:33). And the resurrection of Jesus proves this promise: “There is a future for the man of peace” (Psalm 37:37).