In his final address as part of the Rom Lecture Series, Ajith Fernando talked about what it takes to finish strong the race of ministry. “What will help us maintain our passion?” he asked. “Looking after ourselves. Fernando preached from I Cor. 9:24-27, which begins, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” The basic idea of this passage, Fernando says, is that many don’t finish well. But you must do it.
Fernando discussed a study on finishing well that looked at 800 leaders written about in Bible. Of those, the Bible provides information on how they finished for 50 of them. About 1/3 finished well. He said the researchers found a similar number finished well in a study of 1,500 contemporary church leaders.
How should we run if we are to finish well? Fernando asked. Verse 25 says it is through self control. We exercise self control like athletes. He quoted a tract that young people gave one another when he was getting started in Youth for Christ. It said, “Others may, you cannot.” If it hinders our people from becoming saints, he says, then we can have nothing to do with it.
For example, Fernando says, it is common for a male minister to become close partners with a female colleague. They have a good, healthy relationship. But some people suggest that they have become too friendly. There is the potential for problems. There are three deadly responses to such an accusation: 1) Would I do such a thing like that? 2) Only I can minister to her, and if I do not, who will? 3) Usually people shouldn’t do this, but this is an exception.
But Fernando warned, almost no minister started an affair intending to do so. They got unwise and little by little a relationship became something that destroyed a ministry.
How often we will destroy our ministry for a perishable wreath, Fernando says. Three are three common perishable wreaths that ministers pursue:
Fame: Some ministers succumb to prominence instead of a call. Sometimes they can go together, Fernando says. But often society tells us that prominence, fame, or the size of a church is due to the will of God. Do we accept invitations to pursue the call God has given us or for advancement in ministry? What are our priorities? It is our personal ministry that suffers when we pursue public prominence. If you stop your personal ministry, you lose your cutting edge. You lose depth in preaching, and it rings hollow.
Climbing by hurting another: It is so easy to put down someone in order to climb on them. These are the methods of Satan, Fernando says. Instead, we ought to look for God to help us, and we won’t break our principles.
Sexual temptation: How many people have ruined their lives for one experience of sexual conquest? Fernando asked. This thing comes to us, and we want the satisfaction. And for one experience, we are willing to destroy our ministry.
Instead of these types of wreaths, an imperishable wreath, Fernando says, depends on eternal principles. Ministers are ambitious to glorify God by being faithful to his call. There are souls to save; spiritual children to nurture to holiness; sermons to prepare; services to lead; families to keep happy. It is not easy to have so many goals while being faithful. And so we must be disciplined. The balanced life does not mean having everything in moderation, but it means obedience in every area. Because we seek a balanced life, we are tired, but God provides sources of renewal.
Fernando says he once heard a message preached by an elder statesman of the Sri Lankan church. He was the head of the largest denomination in the country. At age 79, he had difficulty getting out of chair. He hobbled up to the platform. But once he got to platform, he was on fire, Fernando says. He was speaking like a young man. “I have one foot in grave,” the old preacher told the audience, “and the other on a banana peel. We have to win this country for Jesus. While I have breath, I’ll do all I can to win this nation for Christ.” Fernando was impressed. “If I could be like this at 79, what a wonderful thing that would be.”
Sexual sin is a constant problem throughout life, Fernando said, and it must be continually battled. “Don’t let lethargy come so that your body will lead you to sin. People are careless, and this carelessness results in big scandals.” To fight this temptation, he says, be sure to make time for devotions. “Every night before I go to bed,” he said, “I have to tell myself what time I’ll get out of bed in the morning for devotions.” My theology of prayer tells me if I drop in this area, I’ll be finished. These daily battles keep us fresh in ministry.
It is possible to have a successful ministry while your life is a mess, Fernando says. Our culture makes this possible. There are certain rules for success in society. If you follow those rules, you’ll succeed. Marketing tells us that if you meet people’s needs, you be a success. You just need to find the needs and fashion programs to meet them. But, he warns, you may fail in your calling. Be careful, you can be fooled by your own success.
To prevent being fooled, we need people to knock sense into us. As a young man, John Wesley was asked if he wanted to go to heaven. He did, Wesley respond. And the elderly Christian responded, Find friends. In his ministry, Wesley often said that Christianity is not a solitary religion. No one goes to heaven alone. “I couldn’t survive a traveling ministry,” Fernando says, “if I didn’t have a wife and friends to check up on me.”
If the statistics are correct, Fernando warns, two-thirds of the people studying at Trinity won’t finish well. But that doesn’t have to be so. God is faithful, he says. He can keep us to the end. Fernando says, “Prove the statistic wrong and prove the Bible right.