By Tim Harlow
I qualified for my AARP card this year. I’ve heard this is the point in my ministry career when I will start to slack off and stagnate. The stats tell us at age 50 most ministers will stop taking risks and become complacent—especially if they’ve been at the same post for many years.
I was with Dr. John Walker of Blessing Ranch and a few other pastors recently and the discussion was about “finishing well.” The dialogue centered on being able to walk away from our ministry and say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
In Billy Graham’s latest book, Nearing Home, he quotes Psalm 71:18: “When I am old and grayheaded, O God, do not forsake me, Until I declare Your strength to this generation” (New King James Version). Billy is the epitome of finishing well.
A sad interchange ensued around stories we could all tell of those who didn’t finish well. Maybe they didn’t flame out in a blaze of shameful indecency—but they just didn’t finish with the kind of legacy we’d all like to have.
Walker told us to consider our trajectory . . . to think of ministry like a space mission to the moon. Scads of planning was needed to get to the moon, but getting home was just as important (maybe more). An explosion on Apollo 13 threatened the crew’s ability to get home. If the ship’s trajectory upon returning to Earth was too steep, it would hit the atmosphere and burn up. If too shallow, it would be stuck in orbit until Jesus came back. The crew of Apollo 13 carried out 500 different steps in space to make sure the ship could safely return to Earth. Trajectory was everything, but it didn’t happen by accident.
What’s Your Plan?
So what does your return trajectory look like? There is nothing wrong with a five-year plan, but I need a 20-year plan. You may need more.
What are the gauges? Well, if the current economy doesn’t have you checking your financial gauge, you’re living in a dream world. But there are so many other things to consider. What about my physical, spiritual, and emotional trajectories?
The way I care for my health will affect how God will be able to use me in 20 years. Managing food, exercise, stress, and sleep are critical now if we’re to finish well later. In Sabbath, Wayne Muller says, “Because we do not rest, we lose our way. . . . And for want of rest, our lives are in danger.”
Where’s Your Passion?
But there are deeper issues than oat bran or time away. It’s a smaller gauge that’s easy to miss. It’s a motivational gauge. What is the deep, abiding passion God has placed in you for his kingdom, and how hot does it burn? Ironically, a telling sign that King David’s trajectory was taking him to atmospheric burnout came just one verse before he saw Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11. “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war . . . David remained in Jerusalem” (2 Samuel 11:1).
Trouble started with the loss of motivation for his calling. The trajectory to failure starts with the slightest adjustment toward stagnation. Where did David lose it? Why do so many church leaders fall so hard and so far? Why do many guys my age start thinking about their golf handicap, or worse, instead of God’s “fire shut up in my bones” (Jeremiah 20:9)?
No amount of self-motivation will guarantee that I fix my trajectory now so I can land well in the end. There has to be a motivation from a deeper place in my soul—something of God that keeps me up at night wondering how to take the next hill.
I love what Caleb told Joshua. “So here I am today, eighty-five years old! I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then” (Joshua 14:10, 11).
That’s what I’m talking about!
What’s Your Answer?
I don’t have the answers, but I’d suggest we all start looking for them. I’m sorry, but the movie Elf comes to mind. When “Christmas spirit” wasn’t enough to power the sleigh, the characters had to do something to boost it. You can try artificial means, but everyone knows, “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is to sing loud for all to hear.”
I don’t know what your “Christian spirit” gauge looks like, but I’m going to start singing! Go take a mission trip to a place you’ve supported but never witnessed. Start a small group of “Joshuas” that you can train for service. Go to Blessing Ranch or find a counselor. Go hunting with your neighbor and ask God to open a door to talk about Jesus. Get some ministry friends around you who will push you to the next level. Don’t just sit there and let the Spirit seep out of your tank. The best way to spread Christian cheer is to get out of Jerusalem and back into battle.
Frankly, I’m more excited about the church than I’ve ever been. We’re taking ground! I’m just as vigorous to go to battle now as I was when I graduated from Bible college. Sure, I wear bifocals and have to get up at night to go to the bathroom—but I’ve got a lot left to give and I’m going to finish strong.
Tim Harlow is senior pastor at Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Illinois.