You’ve probably never heard the name Oswald Avery.
Not long after the influenza pandemic of 1918, he devoted himself to finding the cause of this horrific virus. Avery lived in a laboratory, hovering over petri dishes and test tubes. Unfortunately, each research experiment seemed to end in failure. He retired in 1943, with little to show for his years of labor. He finally published what he considered a significant discovery. It raised some eyebrows, but gained little traction. Eventually, his paper caught the attention of James Watson and Francis Crick. Without Avery’s work, their research into DNA would never have received a Nobel Prize. History remembers Watson and Crick as giants in the field of genetics. Make no mistake, the faithfulness of Oswald Avery made their success possible.
Pastors have the world’s most important job. They preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:2). They promote and protect sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). They fight “fierce wolves” who attack the church (Acts 20:29). Good pastors do this meekly and humbly. They labor week in and week out knowing an earthly reward is not guaranteed. No one saw more spiritual fruit than Paul, and yet he boasted only in his weakness (2 Cor. 11:29).
The twenty-first century needs more faithful pastors, brothers who don’t need the limelight, men who are willing stand front-and-center behind the pulpit while simultaneously working behind-the-scenes to shepherd their flock for the glory of God. It’s not easy.
There are so many ways a pastor can be visible. It may be by publishing books, posting on Twitter, or even writing short articles like this! This work can be good, important, and strategic for the spread of the gospel and the edification of the church.
But let’s not forget that just as a passing ship sees only the tip of an iceberg, the majority of a pastor’s ministry is below the water; invisible to most. His time in prayer. His labor in the Word. His visit to a shut-in. His counsel to young father who lost his job. It’s in these the small details of quiet, pastoral ministry that a shepherd’s character is most required.
Ignoring our character is both ugly and dangerous. If a pastor lacks love, he’ll be prone to use people for his own, selfish ends. If a pastor lacks meekness, he’ll tend to demand attention when he should be giving a listening ear. If a pastor lacks peace, he’ll always wish his ministry is bigger and better. If a pastor lacks self-control, he may, like Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:19–20), make a shipwreck of his faith.
Scripture is full of cautionary tales warning pastors against the folly of a self-centered ministry. We see it in King Saul whose heart shrank like the Grinch when he heard the women praise David, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7). We see it in King Uzziah whose heart grew proud when his kingdom grew strong, “proud, to his destruction” (2 Chron. 26:16). And we see it in Peter whose heart recoiled at the thought of following Christ to the death. Instead of embracing faithfulness, Peter denied the Lord three times (Matt. 26:75). Each of these men chose themselves over their ministry. In the face of temptation, their character proved wanting.
I don’t write these words as a stranger to vainglory. More than once I’ve felt in my bones the temptation to take pride in what I’ve done, to find contentment in my accomplishments, and to lament when I’ve failed. Thankfully, I know there is a better way. There is hope in the gospel. The Savior who purchased my salvation with His own blood is more than able to help me walk in godliness. Because of His death and resurrection, I can walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).
Maybe you are struggling as you read these words. These are hard days, especially as our churches have closed and we are doing best to “do” ministry online via livestreams, video chats, emails, texts, and phone calls. Now, more than ever, when the wheels of public ministry are grinding to a halt, it’s a good time to think about who we are in private.
What can you do? There is no silver bullet to sanctification, but consider these two exhortations:
Rest in the justification Christ accomplished. He’s the Savior. Not us. He redeems sinners. Not us.
Fight for the sanctification Christ promised. Those who are saved must do all they can to “put on . . . compassion, kindness, humility, meekness” and all the other wonderful pieces of the fruit of the Spirit (Col. 3:12).
Hardly anyone remembers Oswald Avery. Nonetheless, his work changed the world. When all is said and done, most pastors won’t be remembered either. That’s okay. The gospel we preach and, by God’s grace, the life we live will be used by God for His glory and our good.
Aaron Menikoff is the Senior Pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned an M.Div. and Ph.D. at Southern Seminary where he studied Christian social engagement during the Second Great Awakening. He is the author of multiple books including his latest Character Matters: Shepherding in the Fruit of the Spirit.