The First Step In Being a Great Pastor

I want to be a great pastor. I make no apology for that. It’s an ambition. I want to lead and shepherd well. I want to preach and communicate effectively. I want to develop leaders and cast vision and build a great staff. So where should I start?

Level zero.

One of my favorite lines from the original Kung Fu Panda is when Po shows up at the dojo to begin his training and tells Master Shifu, “Let’s just start at level zero.” Shifu explains that there is no such thing, but gives Po a chance to prove his most basic skill of punching one of those wobbly inflatable toys. It doesn’t go well, and after Po returns to Shifu’s feet, beaten, bruised, and burned by all the equipment he accidentally stumbled through Shifu pats him on the head and softly declares, “There is now a level zero.” Here’s the clip, in case you need a break from politics.

That’s me!! Sometimes, I just need to back to level zero. What’s level zero, for pastors and church leaders? What is it that we need to put into practice before we begin doing anything else? What is it that, regardless of our knowledge, our talent, and our charisma, we cannot or at least should not lead without?

The first step in being a great pastor is to walk with God. 

I’m not speaking of “walking with God” in mystical terms, like Eddie Murphy’s white-robed-guru character in Holy Man. And I’m also not in any way promoting the kind of atmosphere that appears in some circles where the clergy are revered as existing on some separate plane closer to God than everyone else.

What I’m saying is that we who lead must first be led. We need to come to God, like clueless children with wide-eyed wonder and spend time wandering through the heavenlies hearing from God in prayer, through his Word, as his Holy Spirit imparts life to us. As 1 Chronicles 16:11 instructs, “Search for the LORD and for his strength; continually seek him.” (NLT)

You can lead without depending on God. You can build great organizations all by yourself. People do it every day. But being a great pastor is more than being a great strategist or a great communicator or a great writer. Being a great pastor is a matter of shepherding people, caring deeply for their souls, drenching yourself with divine truth and wringing yourself out week after week with a word from the Lord for the broken.

In seasons where my quiet time has been neglected, I grow infatuated with all the wrong pictures of success while also growing colder in my feelings toward other people. My relationships suffer – starting with self and home and spreading to the flock.

But when I’ve sat at the feet of God, being humbled and shaped and encouraged by his truth… when I’ve laid my soul bare before him, owning my sin and submitting to suffering… when I’ve cast all my cares and anxieties upon him and have elevated him in my vision above all else, then I am ready to preach. Then I am ready to lead.

Level zero.

If you haven’t been training there lately, clear your calendar – at least the next hour – and open your Bible. Ask God to show you something. Tell him about all of your potential distractions and your recent failures and then lean into his presence and his grace.

Greatness lies ahead of you! But greatness may not look the way you expected, and it won’t arrive through the means you would devise on your own.


The After Effects of a Spirit-filled Prayer

Does prayer make any difference? Absolutely! And prayer makes a difference because the living God, the Holy Spirit, lives inside the one praying. Further, when God’s people get together and pray as a community, amazing things happen!

I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of those before-and-after photos advertising the latest weight loss and fitness program. The Bible gives us a pretty neat before-and-after picture of the early church. Before the Holy Spirit empowered the church at Pentecost, the apostles are waiting, hiding, and hoping. And they’re praying.

Then Pentecost occurs. The fire falls. The Spirit empowers. And things begin to happen. Thousands are saved and added to the church. Miracles occur. Healing takes place. The impact is so tangible that the church leaders start getting in trouble for bringing attention to the crime of the unfair crucifixion of Jesus. Peter and John heal a crippled man at one of the Temple gates and it lands them in jail where they take a beating and are sternly warned not to speak any more in the name of Jesus.

Upon their release, instead of cowering away in fear, the Bible says this…

As soon as they were freed, Peter and John returned to the other believers and told them what the leading priests and elders had said. When they heard the report, all the believers lifted their voices together in prayer to God: “O Sovereign Lord, Creator of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them – you spoke long ago by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant, saying, ‘Why were the nations so angry? Why did they waste their time with futile plans? The kings of the earth prepared for battle; the rulers gathered together against the LORD and against his Messiah.’ “In fact, this has happened here in this very city! For Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate the governor, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel were all united against Jesus, your holy servant, whom you anointed. But everything they did was determined beforehand according to your will. And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

Acts 4:23-35 NLT

So they ran back to the church and instead of figuring out a way to hide in the shadows, they pray. For boldness. Does it work? The Bible continues…

After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness. All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need.

Note that key phrase. After this prayer

And six things happen. I believe these same six things happen when God’s people pray in concert together before God. When we cry out for boldness, for courage, for empowerment… When we refuse to cower in fear but instead courageously carry the gospel to our culture…

  1. People get filled with the Holy Spirit. (v. 31)
  2. The Word gets preached with boldness. (v. 31)
  3. The church remains unified on mission together. (v. 32)
  4. The world hears about the hope of the resurrection. (v. 33)
  5. God’s blessing and favor is upon his people. (v. 33)
  6. The community is changed by infectious generosity. (v. 34)

So, before we pray Spirit-filled prayers, we wait. We wonder. We remain in a holding pattern. We might want great things to happen. We may dream of all that could occur. But it’s after we pray Spirit-filled prayers that God gets involved and begins to work in miraculous ways.

When we’re sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit and allow him to guide our petitions to the Father, God delightfully responds with amazing answers.

To put it simply… no prayer, no power. And the reverse is true as well… more prayer, more power.

This is God’s economy. He has chosen to do certain things in response to prayer. Movements gain momentum and miracles occur when we follow God’s prescribed method of really getting things done. I’m a big believer in having healthy systems and well-planned strategies. I love order and organization. But all of our planning is just wishful thinking without the breath of God infusing us with his power.

God the Holy Spirit, Help Us to Be Both Wild and Tame!

God, help me to be tame in the ways I’m prone to be wild. And help me to be wild in the ways I’m prone to be too tame.

That’s the prayer I’ve been repeating since Sunday. I started into a new sermon series called The Ghost. We’ll spend eight weeks diving into the depths of knowing God, the Holy Spirit, more intimately. Then on Sunday evening, our small group was over and we asked a powerful and provocative question.

What is the one thing you need most from the Holy Spirit right now?

If the Counselor and Advocate has come to intertwine himself intrinsically with your soul to draw you to Christ and form you into his image, to comfort you when you hurt and confirm you when you doubt, what is the biggest need with which you cry out to him for help?

Mine is two-fold. 

I need to stop rebelling. 

And I need to start rebelling. 

I believe that wildness is a trait placed into the hearts of men by the Creator. Or desire to explore, to conquer, and to survive is both a matter of nature and of nurture. We are wild by divine design, and we’re wild because we’ve been conditioned so by the harsh environment of a fallen world. 

But our wildness burns out of control because of the sin nature lurking within each of us. Since Adam, we’ve revolted against the authority of God in an effort to solidify our self-sufficiency and autonomy. We can make it without him, we presume. We’re better off, in fact. And so we run, wildly, to every expression of our innate wildness. 

The end of every pursuit of fulfillment apart from the pursuit of the Holy One will leave us in misery and isolation. Our reckless chase of power, pleasure, and prestige leads us to demise and destruction and death. 

When we trust in Christ, we proclaim him Lord. We declare him the owner, with full and sovereign rights, of everything about our lives. But inside us, in the shadows and the darkened corners of our hearts, the wildness remains within. 

God, Holy Spirit, I need you to tame me in the ways I’m prone to wander!

And then there are the ways in which God would have me to be bold – in prayer, in preaching, in proclaiming the goodness of God, in pursuing the Kingdom, in casting a vision to the flock. 

Because of my fear and insecurity, I often calculate these moments in an attempt to gauge the support I’ll receive if I go ahead. And that is the essence of approval addiction. 

Enough with frivolous praying – God calls men to storm his throneroom to take hold of him for mercy. He wants us to wildly pursue him, to wildly live on mission, to wildly chase holiness, and to wildly love unlovable people like ourselves in his name. 

It’s time to stop rebelling against the Lordship of Christ and start rebelling against oppression in our world. It’s time to overthrow the status quo and follow Jesus with a cross on our shoulders. 

It’s time to be tame in all the right ways, and wild in all the right ways, as so many heroes of our faith have been – especially the Author and Finisher of our faith, King Jesus! 

This stirring doesn’t happen in our own power. It happens in his. I desperately need the Holy Spirit to ignite in me a holy fire. What about you? What is the one thing you need most from the Holy Spirit right now?

5 Ways to Recover Your Passion for Pastoral Leadership


I’ve been there. I’ve been burned out and depressed, discouraged and defeated. I’ve led in atmospheres where every creative idea was smothered by questions rooted in fear. I’ve been distracted by secondary interests. I’ve given into my own emotions and have isolated myself from healthy, life-giving relationships.

And I’ve recovered. That doesn’t mean I’m where I need to be – I’m still on the journey and have a long way to go. But I’ve learned the hard way how to bounce back to passionate preaching and leadership in the local church. From my own past and my own painful experiences, let me shoot from the hip with five big ways you can bounce back from burnout and be a passionate leader once again.

  1. Repent of sin. Dig it out of the depths of your heart – the secret recesses where no one else sees but God and own your sin, especially the seven most life-stealing sins: pride, lust, laziness, envy, unholy anger, gluttony, and greed. If you’re hanging onto these, it’s no wonder you’re feeling defeated. You’re living as though victory isn’t already yours in Christ.
  2. Read the Word. Let’s be honest. Most of the time, when we’ve given into feelings of distance from God and others, we play the victim and pout in the corner, acting entirely uninterested in the things that matter most to our deepest relationships. But God has spoken and this blog post doesn’t even compare to the re-igniting power of the eternal word of God.
  3. Practice the discipline of prayer. Set aside thirty minutes to just pray. If you run out of things to say, sit silently and listen, but don’t cut the time short. It doesn’t always have to be thirty minutes, but start there. I know you don’t feel like it. You’re not even sure God is listening anymore, but deep down you know the truth. So re-join the conversation.
  4. Love people. Get in touch with friends, serve others, and pray for people in pain. Talk about your issues. Isolation is deadly. You have to fight to beat your desire to retreat. The best way to climb out of the misery of self-focus is to intentionally become others-focused. Spend some time praying for others, then see how you can serve them.
  5. Feast yourself on the lavish love and unfathomable depth of God’s grace. Stop living by performance, the to-do list, and the tyranny of the inbox. You can’t work hard enough to make God happy with you. You simply must rest in the assurance that He’s pleased with you in Christ. His grace is always, always, always sufficient!!

Here’s the thing. I like books, blogs, and seminars about leadership and church growth. They give us ideas, inspire us to lead better, and equip us with skills we couldn’t otherwise possess. But none of those things will bring healing like a deepening relationship with Jesus. And that comes through the humbling work of prayer, Bible-reading, repentance, reliance on God’s grace, and ministry to others through acts of love.

You know what to do. Let Jesus become bigger and more glorious in your eyes than ever before.

My Greatest Desire and Biggest Goal for the New Year


I need to lose weight, work out, and rest consistently. I want to be a better husband and Dad. I need to read more books, save and give more money, and share my faith more. But if you want to know the single most important goal I have for the coming year, it is this: to have a more consistent, continual and conversational prayer life with God.

I agree with John R. Rice who wrote in his book, Prayer: Asking and Receiving, that “all of our failures are prayer failures.” Why is this so? Because God is faithful to answer our prayers as we adjust our prayers to the desires of God’s heart. And we’re only capable of praying more powerful prayers as we spent more time practicing at it in His presence.

Think about it. If my prayer life were more consistent, I’d have the power, wisdom, and will to eat better and be healthy, improve my relationships with love and grace, read more, give more, and tell others about Jesus more. If you’re with me, let me offer some suggestions, some tools, and some challenges…

Study prayer.

Start with Jesus’ model prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. Then read the other prayers of Jesus and then the prayers of the saints in Scripture, particularly Paul’s example of praying for others to be brought closer to God. Then, read good books on prayer, such as:

Study the Bible as part of your praying.

Bible study and prayer aren’t really two separate things. They are one. Our prayers are fueled and informed by the Scriptures, and prayer is the way we really apply what we’ve learned and worship the Author of the Word. So, use The Bible App with its dozens of reading plans to stay on a steady diet of God’s Word as you pray.


No, don’t hum and clear your mind. Instead, fill your mind with truth and then focus your thinking on what you’ve studied at quiet moments during the day. This is biblical (see Joshua 1, Psalm 1, etc.).


Keep a daily journal.

This has always been a little too random for me, but in the upcoming year I hope to consistently write out a prayer every day as part of my time in God’s Word. I’m using the DayOne App, which works on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone and syncs across them all. It’s super simple to use. I keep it somewhat brief, but I write four elements each day, based on the SOAP acronym:

  • A Scripture.
  • My observations about the text, historical, grammatical, etc.
  • Some application(s) to live out from the text.
  • A prayer that includes praise, embracing God’s purposes, confession of sin, and a prayer for provision and protection.

Pray for others.

Then, I finish my prayer by switching over to a text file I keep. I use the Notesy App to keep a simple text file synced across my devices that includes a list of people I’m praying for. I’ve divided the list up into categories and I read through the names, picture the faces, and lift them before the Father. My categories are:

  • My family (wife, kids, and extended family).
  • My men (a group of guys for whom I pray daily about spiritual growth and leadership development).
  • Spiritual needs (people I know that need salvation, healing, recovery, etc.).
  • Physical needs (people I know that are suffering physically).
  • My church staff.
  • My small group.
  • My church’s small group leaders.
  • My “other” church (Saddleback’s staff, some friends, and my old small group).
  • My world (missionaries and church planters I pray for).
  • Influencers (government leaders, influential Pastors, etc.).

I don’t spend as much time on the list as it may seem. I just use it as a trigger to remind me of the people in my life that I need to be supporting with a ministry of prayer.

Move into conversational prayer.

What I’ve described so far is an organized, systematic approach to having a quiet time every day. But the way in which I’m really interested in growing this year is in moving from that appointment time with God into the all-day, everywhere-I-go conversational kind of prayer. That is, I want to be consciously aware of God’s presence throughout my day and make prayer my first go-to when I need help.

And lastly, don’t get legalistic. Prayer isn’t a duty that we check off a list to earn God’s favor. It’s a delight, a freedom, something we get to do rather than have to do. And it’s life-changing.

photo credit: jurvetson

Dream Bigger – Ask More

“You do not have, because you do not ask.” (James 4:2 ESV)

James the Apostle had the spiritual gift of bluntness. We’ve received the benefit of his brutally honest thoughts, such as when he answers a common question with such a common sense answer. Why don’t I have? Because I didn’t ask. And he goes on to point out that often when we ask, we’re doing so for selfish reasons.

I want to challenge you today to do some pretty important things.

Dream Bigger

Whatever it is you feel is God’s will for your life, think bigger. It’s a virtual guarantee that God is already thinking bigger. His vision trumps ours every time, so it’s a good challenge to try to keep up with Him.

Consider God’s Glory

As you dream, dream for His glory. The purest motive possible is the motive of the nations being made glad in the light of the glory of God. Why are you dreaming what you’re dreaming? For a nicer home? A bigger reputation? Or the glory of God?

Sometimes when our dreams don’t align with God’s will, we expect Him to adjust His will to our desires. We ought to be thinking just the opposite – how can we adjust our desires to His will?


The most common word for “pray” in the New Testament literally means “ask.” In fact, the word ask is a more literal translation, but pray came to us from old English and we’ve hung on to it as a religious word. So dream in a way that is aligned with God’s will, then ask Him to bring it to pass in your life.


Ever heard that phrase, “Plan your work, then work your plan?” I believe that we should join God in what He wants to do in, around, and through us. We have the privilege, by grace, of cooperating with the actions of God.

So get started.