Although in some circles it is not the case, for the most part the idea that the ministry of Word is essential to pastoral ministry is a given. The heart and soul of a pastor’s ministry can be summarized in Paul exhortation to Timothy: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim 4:2-5).
But if asked, I’m not sure many pastors would identify prayer as an essential part of their ministry. They would certainly say they pray and that their ministry is supported by prayer, but I think far fewer would say as pastors they are to exercise a ministry of prayer. Yet that is what the Bible teaches. Pastors are to pattern their ministry on that of the apostles (Acts 20:17-28), and the apostles saw their primary focus as prayer and the Word. This is what we see in Acts 6 when the dispute about the distribution of food for the widows arises. The apostles say that though the issue is important, they cannot be deterred from the ministries of prayer and the Word (Acts 6:4). In fact, they say that they are “devoted” to these things. Are pastors devoted to prayer as much as Word ministry?
Pastors are to be the spiritual shepherds over the flock of God. If they are not living up to God’s calling on their lives, how can they lead the church to do so? God desires his church to be a house of prayer (Matt 21:13). But that will never happen as long as the pastor is not a man of prayer. So what does this ministry of prayer look like? What kind of things are pastors to be praying for? How should pastors be praying for those things?
Keeping a Close Watch
The pastor must first pray for himself. The one thing a pastor cannot afford to neglect is his own communion with God. A communion that is cultivated and sustained through his study of the Scriptures and prayer. Nothing will ever be more important than taking the time to fellowship with the living God, hearing his voice through his Word and responding in prayer. All other elements of the Christian life—ministry, evangelism, fellowship with God’s people—will only rightly come once we have first connected to the Source of spiritual power that enables these things.
All of this is true for any Christian, but all the more so for the pastor. The old military truism for earthly warfare is certainly true for spiritual warfare as well— ‘aim for the officers.’ It’s one thing for our ancient Enemy to target and pick off individuals believers. It’s quite another for him to target pastors. When a pastor falls morally, he often takes several believers with him. The sheep are scattered, depressed, disillusioned, and deterred in their walk with God. This is surely why some of Paul’s last words to Timothy include the instruction to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim 4:16). Likewise he instructed the Ephesian elders to “pay careful attention to yourselves” (Acts 20:28). Pastors must keep a prayerful watch over their own souls to ensure that they remain morally qualified and spiritually energized to lead God’s people.
After all the files were reviewed and interviews conducted, the 9/11 Commission concluded that the attacks on September 11, 2001 were so effective because our country was essentially asleep. Though we knew of Al-Qaeda, the commission said, the leaders of the various intelligence agencies did not “understand the gravity of the threat.” Paul wants us to have no question about the threat level facing us as Christian pastors. He tells the Christians in Ephesus, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). I think I would rather wrestle against flesh and blood! Think about the foes we have and the one who leads them. It’s not enough that our enemies are evil spiritual forces. No, they also have thousands of years of practice at what they do best: deceiving people to spiritual truth, leading people into sin, and getting godly believers to fall. They know all the tricks and are well-verses in all the best deceits. And they’ve taken down far more spiritual people than us. How are we to fight against an enemy like that?
Paul says we must “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (6:10). How do we do this? He says that in order to fight in the strength God provides we must “Put on the whole armor of God” so that we “may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (6:11). Entire sermons, even entire books, have been written on this passage of Scripture. Yet, what is often left out of discussions about this armor is Paul’s conclusion to the matter of spiritual warfare: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God . . . . praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (6:13, 18). William Gurnall wisely understood the connection between prayer and the strength that comes from putting on the armor of God when he observed, “Now because of ourselves, we are as children, and no better able to wield this Armour of God, then David the Armour of Saul, the apostle adds that heavenly exercise of prayer.” In the immediate context of passage it’s clear that prayer is the means by which we put on the armor and keep it on. It’s no wonder, then, that on the evening of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, our Savior exhorted his drowsy disciples by saying, “Watch and pray so that you may not enter into temptation” (Mark 14:38). On these verses, Arturo Azurdia says, “The implication inherent in His words is clear: To divorce themselves from the means of grace (in this case, vigilant prayer), either by outright disregard or passive neglect, would render these disciples more susceptible to the temptation of spiritual compromise, a fact borne out by their experience a short time later (cf. Mark 14:50).”
As pastors, we cannot afford to have dull armor and smooth knees. We need to understand the target that rests on our back and be in prayer for the strength of our own souls. We cannot enter in the spiritual fight against sin or the pressures of ministry without the divine empowering that God freely offers to those that would trust in him. Therefore, let us pray.