Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. Rev. John Stone preaches a message entitled “A Leader’s Calling” on 1 Timothy 3 in chapel at RTS Orlando.

Well, good morning. It’s a privilege to be with you this morning. I want to thank Kevin and anyone else who was involved in asking me to come speak at chapel. Thank you for the privilege of being here and the opportunity to open up God’s Word for you again.

My name is John Stone, and I’m the vice president for RUF, and that entails a lot of things. I will tell you this: I was where you were once in the chapel, and I never expected to be a mid-level PCA bureaucrat, but here I am. I come at this task today as someone who was a campus minister, who has helped plant churches, who has done a lot of different things, and who spends a lot of his time now seeking out pastors. My job is to help find men and women who want to go to campus and tell students about Jesus, and so I’m thinking all the time about what it means to go to a campus and to seek students.

I come at this text with that sort of context. I’m in 1 Timothy 3 and I’m going to begin reading in verse one. I will say that had I known this would have been the text I was assigned, I would not have done it. It’s a beautiful text, it’s a wonderful text, and it’s 30 sermons, and I got 28 minutes now. First Timothy 3:1, familiar words:

The saying is trustworthy: if anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own household well. For those who serve as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

I hope to come to you soon, but I’m writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how you ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

Amen. The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of God stands forever.

It Is Disastrous When People Are Placed in the Wrong Positions

My junior year in high school—I grew up in South Carolina—I attended Lugoff-Elgin High School. If you’ve never heard of that, it just makes you normal. I played football. Let’s back up: I was a kicker on the football team. So when you’re a kicker, it’s sort of either feast or famine. But we had a great coach, Coach Tyler. We had been a playoff team, and he was so good he got hired away.

And in one of the great decisions of all time at Lugoff-Elgin High School, they decided to promote the track coach from head track coach to head football coach. Several of us players went to the school board in one of our boldest moves ever and pleaded for this not to happen. Now, the reason we wanted this not to happen is we knew he was a great track coach. He was a spectacular track coach. They had won four state championships in the last seven years. But we also knew he hated football. He took the job because he wanted the stipend. We knew that’s why he took it. He just wanted the raise. He wanted more money. I know what they pay high school teachers. I don’t blame him.

When people get placed in the wrong positions, it’s very painful.But what it meant for us as players is that over the next three years, we were 1 and 29. We won one game. Now we were in shape. In the middle distances and the discus, we were fantastic. The track team got better over those three years as he has persuaded football players that track was really a better sport. But as a football coach, it just didn’t work out.

When people get placed in the wrong positions, it’s very painful. When you try to do something that God hasn’t gifted you to do, it can hurt. Now, Coach Tyler, who was the coach who left, and then Coach McGee, who took over, he went on after us going 1 and 29 and won a bunch of state championships. His story went on as a track coach. Sumpter High hired him, and he’s in the Hall of Fame.

But I would like you, as we think about this text today, to think about what it is God calls us to as leaders, as men and women whom God has called to lead in his church in various ways: in academic settings, in church setting, in parachurch settings, in 501C3 settings, and all of these settings. As God has called us to ministry, I want to use this text to just briefly think about what it is he’s us called us to. My points are going to be simple: this call to being a leader, to being an elder or deacon is a call to be interested in people, to do ministry in groups, and to recognize it’s a marathon. It’s to be interested in people, to think about doing it in groups, and to recognize that it’s a marathon and not a sprint.

Elders and Deacons Are Primarily Interested in People

The first thing I would like you to see in this text—it’s actually here—Is that an elder and deacon are primarily interested in people. Certainly they’re interested in the gospel and in culture and in theology and in leadership and in service. But this text is dripping with this notion that those who would be elders and deacons are interested in people.

Now, if you can survive the trauma, as it were, of the text, as you read the text and realize, “OK, so all of my children must obey me or I’m out of a job.” And even as we say that, we kind of halfway laugh, you recognize something here about that. He’s not simply saying you have to get your children to act a certain way. That’s not at all his intent here. His intent is to say you must know your children. You must be interested in your children.

But notice that he doubles down on this interest in people, and this is a part of this passage that it’s tough to find people who write on it or talk about it. But he says that in verse 7—and this is the part of this I love—”Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders so he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” So you would think the devil warning would come over loving your wife and children, but he says if you’re going be a leader, those who are not directly impacted by you, but those in the general community around you must think well of you. And the only way people around you will ever think well of you is if you’re interested in them. If you care about who they are. If you’re busy figuring them out.

The act of incarnation is the infinite, eternal God moving from heaven to be with people.See this passage, this idea of being an elder or a deacon, means that we begin to move towards people: towards the people in our ministry, towards the people in our family, towards the people in our community. Think of the foundation of this text at the bottom where he says, “Great indeed, we confess is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh.” The act of incarnation is the infinite, eternal God moving from heaven to be with people. It’s an amazing movement. Think of what he had, and yet to carry out his ministry he moved toward those men and women, those disciples and those women in his train. He went toward them.

When I was a young pastor at the University of Tennessee doing RUF, I began to recognize intuitively and almost through painful experience that the women in my ministry were appropriately uncomfortable with me. It was not anything that was inappropriate, but I could tell that if I began to talk to them that there was this sort of barrier. So I asked three of my women on my leadership—and by the way, this is the dumbest, maybe the second dumbest, question I’ve ever asked my whole life—“Hey, can you tell me what the women in my ministry think about me?” A woman named Kelly said, “Sure, let’s meet for lunch on Monday.”

Your ministry is always going to be you moving toward people.So Kelly brought 25 women to lunch on Monday, and they mauled me. They loved me well. They were kind and considerate, but they just started listing all the ways that I did not understand them. It’s probably to this day one of the most effective moments in my ministry, because it made me stop asking one question, “What does this say, the Bible?” And it made me start asking a second question, “What are they like?” Jesus took on flesh to figure out what we were like. It made me move toward people.

Your ministry is always going to be you moving toward people. Are you willing to listen to how your people hear you? Especially if you’re doing like seventh grade boys. Are you still willing to listen to junior high boys? How do they hear you? Not what do you understand? That’s important; that’s why you’re here studying. Not do you have a passion about Scripture? That’s important. Not are you a great leader? That’s important. How do people hear you? How do your children hear you? This passage is saying he must be well thought of by outsiders. His children must respect him. I’ll tell you how your children respect you: it’s when you respect them. Do you listen to them?

This passage says quite clearly that part of being an elder and a deacon, part of being a leader, a man or a woman in any context, is becoming interested in people. People are the end of our ministry. We will build buildings. We will form groups. We will do a bunch of stuff. But what will be in our train are people. This deal is about going after people.

Just real quickly, somebody asks me all the time: What makes a great campus minister? What makes a great female staff worker? So we have men and women all over the US working on college campuses. This is how I hire people—you’re going to think this is crazy; you can still come work for RUF—but the number one characteristic of a great campus minister is they would pledge a sorority or fraternity again if they could go back to campus.

That’s what you’re called to in ministry, to understanding and being interested in people.Kevin Teasley was at Wake Forest for about 15 years, and people said, “Kevin Teasley is a genius. Students love him!” I’m like, “No, you don’t get it. Kevin Teasley is still a student.” Now, he’s married, he had children, he had mortgages, all of the disastrous things that come with adulthood. But at the heart, Kevin Teasley once canceled his own large group to go with the students to a concert that he realized would be better than his large group. In his heart, he understands students. That’s what you’re called to in ministry, to understanding and being interested in people.

Ministry Is Done in a Group

The second thing I want you to see here, and this is implied in this text, I’ll admit that it’s not saying it, but if this is the qualification for deacons and elders, there is an implication here that ministry is done in a group.

One of the things I deal with in my job because we create layers, so we have pastors who pastor our pastors, so we created a position in RUF called area coordinators for the purpose of pastoring the men and women working under us. We have men and women doing that. But we did that because we recognized that ministry cannot be done alone.

I think the thing that scares me most for pastors is how isolated they become and how alone they becomeI don’t know whether this is cool, but it’s certainly a privilege. I’ve been on 97 college campuses in the last 12 years. I’ve probably been in the offices of about 120 pastors. I get to work in a lot of presbyteries in a lot of parts of the country. I think the thing that scares me most for pastors is how isolated they become and how alone they become. So the number one thing said to me, when I get a pastor, we close the door in his study and I say, “Man, how are you?” The most likely thing for him to say to me is, “I feel alone.” The most likely thing when I talk to our women’s staff is, “I feel alone.”

But what’s interesting and what I want to encourage you toward is that the passage is teaching us the qualification of elders, plural, and deacons, plural. So what’s dripping out of this text? Certainly we see it in the ministry of Paul: wherever Paul went, he planted churches with multiple elders and multiple deacons. The impulse of the text is for us to move toward people and to create teams. This is a real dilemma, to be honest with you, because people often become the most painful part of ministry and the place where you need the most spiritual help. Prayer, fasting, Scripture, counseling is over those tough relationships that develop in every ministry context. When you go into ministry, you go there with people who you will spark with, who you will disagree with, who are gifted in huge ways and who you need. But the call of this text is for you to move toward them, for you to build a team wherever you to go, for you to learn to work with people.

The best thing I can tell you today and the thing I’ve seen in RUF the longest is: your ministry doesn’t need you. If the plane crashes on the way back to Knoxville tomorrow with me in it, I promise you that my girls—I have three wonderful daughters—will cry. They’ll be devastated and hurt, and they’re going to have to deal with Jesus. But RUF won’t miss me. God is at work in my life. I provide vital services. I love my job, and my job is important. But I promise you that what’s more important than me is the team we’ve built in RUF. We have nine people, nine elders, doing the ministry side. And then we have underneath that 130 campus ministers, and under that, another 20 staff workers. It is not me that makes this happen, and I really am thankful for that. It is “we” that makes that happen.

Do not be alone in the ministry.I want to really encourage you today as you think about the ministries you’re doing in seminary, and as you think about moving out into the church, you’ve got to go with an attitude of creating “we.” Of creating people in your life, mentors and friends, who will do it with you. Do not be alone in the ministry. Somebody smarter than me, more articulate than me, could say it: there is something intrinsic in ministry that isolates you and leave you alone and in many ways, resourceless.

I was driving home from Atlanta, Georgia, in December of 2012. I have to drive a good bit of my job, and normally I’m a morning person, so if I have to drive late at night, I often just stop and get a hotel and sleep and get in early. But I had promised somebody I’d meet him at 6:00 the next morning. I ended up behind an overturned tanker in Atlanta. Time began to build. Got late, late, late, late, late that night, trying to get back to Knoxville. And I realized I would get in at 12:30. I was really concerned. So I ended up with the windows open, it’s about 45 degrees, the air conditioner blowing. I’m sitting up off the seat, got music I hate going, trying to stay awake. I started hallucinating—I didn’t tell my wife this for about a year. I started seeing things on the road. I would pull over on the interstate and do circles, like run around the car to try to stay awake. It was it was dumb. Don’t do it. But it produced a great story.

So as I finally got home and I was relieved by being home, I pulled into my neighborhood. I turned right off a Kingston Pike onto Cheshire Drive. I’m pulling into Cheshire Drive. Now remember, it’s December 6. I’m a little bit of a Kris Kringle. I love Christmas lights, like I’ve already been messing with Christmas lights in my house, no lie. I’ve got them pre-staged, everything.

As I pull in, I think, “That guy’s Christmas tree is awesome. It looks like it’s on fire.” That’s because it was on fire. I dialed 911 at I think 12:21 or something like that. And I stood there outside his house with his house burning. There’s about a 12 foot-hole in his ceiling. Big oak tree was on fire. His entire house was engaged. I’m wondering, “Hey, is someone going to die?” I’ve heard the bells actually go off in the firehouse, and I’ve heard a police officer stomp the gas. It was dead silent that night. And at this point, his garage door opens up and he and his wife backed their car out, the dog came running out, so everybody was safe and sound. I know them. I knew them.

He gets out of the car and gives us an image. I’d like to give you this image as a gift for life on how to not do ministry. His house is fully engaged. It’s going to burn to the ground in the next 40 minutes. Probably when I got there, the firemen told me, it had been burning about 28 minutes, and the reason it took them so long to wake up is they were in a different part of the house. When he backs his cars out of the garage, his wife gets out of her car. He gets out his car. He dashes back into the garage. He grabs the garden hose. He comes back out. Fire is everywhere. Glass has broken. I got a little cut on my chin from the window breaking. I’m still standing there—insanity. He plugs the hose in, hands it to me, and says, “Put out the fire.”

Ministry is a call to you moving into places and finding partners to do it with you.And my dumb self started spraying the hose. I’m spraying the hose on the window and the fire was so hot it burned by the hose, like the water, it just burned right past it. He starts running up and down the sidewalk, blowing the fire out. Now, look, if you’re a preacher these moments—I mean, there’s 57 sermon illustrations in this story. But for our text and this call to be leaders, elders and deacons, I would like us not to be John Stone and his neighbor.

So I’ve got a hose putting out one gallon a minute on a fully engaged house and glass breaking and he’s running up and down the sidewalk. He’s in shock. Like, I still stop by and I start running up and down blowing. He thinks it’s the funniest thing ever. He’s in shock. He’s running up and down, blowing on the fire. That’s what pastors look like. Men or women pastors, that’s what they look like. They do. They think, “I’ve got to do all of it or it won’t happen.” Instead of creating a team, instead of being the leader that creates other leaders to work with him, instead of empowering the people around them, they just run up and down a sidewalk blowing on a fire. Man, I wish I could have pulled out my cell phone: the YouTube hits on that would have been spectacular.

Ministry is a call to you moving into places and finding partners to do it with you. Men and women, children, older folks, younger folks, hipsters, non-hipsters joining together to do ministry. You cannot do this alone. And I’m telling you, if you are not conscious of this, you will float into aloneness. Your pastor’s alone, I guarantee if you ask him this, if you can get him honest, he’ll admit it. This idea of being alone is powerful in the ministry. So we need to be interested in people. We need to move towards people.

Ministry Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

And then finally, I want you to see that this passage implies that this is a marathon and not a sprint. I have to hire a lot of 27- to 34-year-olds. I don’t have to. That’s just what happens. I love hiring 45-year-olds. I don’t get that privilege very often. Campus ministry has tended to be a younger person’s job. We’re trying to change that actually, and we’re being pretty successful at it. But when you hire a lot of 27- to 34-year-olds, what you realize is they really want to change the world, and that’s encouraging. But if you think about the language of being qualified as an elder and deacon here, you recognize in the passage that it’s thinking about a long haul.

So what do I mean by this? I keep referring to this. He says, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” So this image is an image of a video, not of a picture. We have to see someone working in their family, or we could go on, he must be well thought of by outsiders. We must see him interacting with the community over time.

It feels to me like, as I travel to seminaries and I’ll be on about 12 seminaries this year, it feels to me like everybody is in a rush to get there before they’re 35. And I’ll tell you that a ton of great stuff happens before 35, but all the good stuff happens after you’re 35. I promise you. Like when your children can snap themselves into the car by themselves, that’s when life starts again. Like all the good stuff happens after 35.

But there’s some impulse in us, I don’t know if it’s a legitimate gospel impulse, a deep concern for the poor and the lost. I don’t know if it’s living in a culture that does feel at times to be drifting and out of control. I don’t know if it’s something that’s an impulse, but we feel like dragsters, right? We feel like we’re in seminary and we’re souping up, and now we’re going pour that special stuff, they blow it in right before they go to the all those RPMs and go a quarter mile in five and a half seconds. And then we blow up at the end. Those cars’ engines have to be rebuilt after every run.

Gospel workers take years to develop.So here’s the deal: it’s telling you it takes a long time to grow into your ministry. I promise you, your first job won’t be your last. And I promise you that what you think you are today, you will not be later. I had no intention of being here. None. Zero. There’s a great reason to come to Orlando: it’s Disney, not RTS, right? I didn’t mean to be the assistant coordinator. I had no idea that I would be here. You don’t know what you don’t know, and that’s liberating because the image here is that ministry takes place over a long time. Gospel workers take years to develop.

So hear me say this to you in a good way, please slow down. You don’t have to be all you can be by 31. You’re 41-year-old self will not respect your 31-year-old self, by the way. I don’t respect my first self. I know God was at work. I know I lived in the grace of God. But give yourself some time. If you don’t plant a church in that neighborhood before you’re 30, you might do it well when you’re 45. I promise you. Breathe. Take a day off. Go find somewhere in your first job where people will teach you, where you can be a learner, where they’ll give you time to grow, where they’ll give you time to learn how to be a dad, to learn how to be an elder, to learn how to be a deacon, to learn how to be whatever it is God wants you to be. This is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. Make sure that you’re not in a rush to blow yourself up.

I have a friend, Dave Reynolds, in Knoxville, Tennessee. He runs marathons, and some of you who run marathons will understand the story. I didn’t believe it till he proved it to me. He’s gotten older and his times have deteriorated in a way he didn’t like. He probably runs three and a half, three hour, 15 minute marathons. But over the last four or five years, he’s really lost a ton of time and so went to a coach, and the coach trained him and watched him and the coach finally said, “Here’s the deal. At the 15-mile mark and the 21-mile mark, I want you to sit down for four minutes. I want you to go in the race. I want you to take off. At the 15-mile marker, I want you to stop running, I want you to walk over there, and I want you sit down for five minutes.”

So he’s telling me this. I’m like, “This is crazy.” “Then when you get to the 21-mile mark, I want you to stop and I want you to walk for three minutes.” So those of you who’ve trained know there’s some legitimacy to this. My friend doesn’t believe it. So he goes out, runs another marathon, time gets worse, and his coach is like, “You can do what I ask or you can keep getting slower.”

So this makes no sense. He gets in the next marathon and runs to mile 15. He stops, and he says it’s the longest five minutes of his life. He goes and he sits down on the side of the road, drinks water, and he does nothing. Gets up after five minutes, takes off, gets to the 21-mile marker, he walks three minutes, finishes, 21 minutes faster than he was last time. Twenty-one minutes. Dave Reynolds, Knoxville, Tennessee. Twenty-one minutes!

Now, his body, at his age, must recover at certain points. You can’t just stick the goo in him and all the stuff that the 27-year-olds can. You know what I mean, that stuff you do. But it’s just a beautiful picture that ministers, men and women pastors need to hear. This is a marathon, not a sprint. This is something that you need to be slow and deliberate about, and there’s even times to sit, and to wait. The Lord’s using you. The Lord wants to use you. He’s going to do it over a long time.

If Jesus didn’t plant his church until he was 30, maybe you should wait till you’re 32.Last thought as you leave: there’s nothing in the Bible that happens fast, is there? As you walk around campus, you think about it. God wanted them to walk 250 miles. He took 40 years. Jesus is the perfect discipler. There was never a better church planter than Jesus. He took three years and all the disciples failed at the end anyway and ran away. Waited 30 years, the incarnate God, to even reveal himself. Thirty years he just waited. If Jesus didn’t plant his church until he was 30, maybe you should wait till you’re 32. And he was perfect.

Hey guys, this is a marathon, and not a sprint. Let me pray for us today. Jesus, we thank you that in your incarnation you came and found us. You came to know us and you sought us, and we thank you that you actually chose a group to go with you, not just 12 disciples, but many men and women who walked with you and were trained by you. And we thank you for the preeminent patience you showed in your own life. So we pray that as we think about being elders and deacons, that you would give us that same patience. So we pray this Jesus in your name, Amen.