Reality Check for Pastors

This is a fine set of reflections by Trevor Lee on youthful idealism, reality, and faith in a God who still is at work.

As a 25 year old seminary student I sat at a Perkins with our 60-something Senior Pastor and excitedly spewed out a litany of great ideas that would change our church and then the world.  We discussed a few things and then he took a very paternal voice and told me someday reality would catch up with me.  I was disappointed by his response and vowed to never lose my optimistic zeal.

Lately I fear I’m breaking my promise to myself.  The longer I’m a pastor the more reality catches up with me and I start to wonder if I’m headed toward pessimism and eternal discouragement.  Things haven’t broken the way I pictured them when I was 25.

Was I wrong to have that optimistic zeal or am I wrong for letting it fade?  I think the answer is yes to both.  Let me explain….

However, as the Spirit continues to do the good work of transformation in me I see more clearly when my thoughts and actions are borne of a godly optimistic zeal and when they are just my ego wearing a zeal mask.  As the Spirit helps me to progressively put the ego to death I find some of the things God gives me passion for are different than the things I was thinking.  Turns out God’s not as passionate about people knowing what I do as I am….

Her [Mary’s] song is one of praise to God for the great things he has done for her.  You mean like ruining her life?  But Mary didn’t see it that way.  Whatever difficulty God’s work would create in her life she understood that the story wasn’t about her, it was God’s story, and she had been given the chance to be the one woman in history who would carry the Son of God.  She knew God had been at work since the beginning of humanity and that his work would not finish with her death.  I never would have said it, but that day at Perkins I only thought about God’s work in the context of my life.  I’m learning to celebrate the fact that it’s his story, I just play whatever part he gives me.  Success isn’t me changing the world—it’s him changing it through all of his people….

My optimistic zeal needed to be reshaped by God, but we need to spend more time giving reality a reality check.  God is not done.  God is not boring.  God has given us his Spirit to work for redemption and reconciliation in our world until the return of Christ.  We should be optimistic if we rely on him.  We should have zeal—for prayer, for the poor, for salvation, for hope, for healing, for chains of bondage being broken, for a fully-functioning body with Christ as its head.  We have way too little optimistic zeal these days.  I pray that God strips away our egos and our desire to star in our own stories, but I also pray that he preserves the optimistic zeal we once had.


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  • Amy

    Great thoughts to read as a almost-25 year old. 🙂 thanks for sharing!

  • Ben

    Scot, thanks for posting this. I’m reminded of a quote from Hauerwas in a similar vein: “To be Christian does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has changed.”

    I think our task is live in such a way as to make this “change” visible. Something that Trevor has clearly discovered.


  • Very good. Very needful… for me. Thank you Trevor and thank you, Scot, for re-posting.

  • Just what I needed to hear. Thanks, Trevor Lee!

  • Ka

    It took me to lose all my life savings (almost my life) to learn this same lesson. Thanks for posting.

  • Alan K

    Amid all the money and time and energy invested in becoming a minister, there creeps in a sinister Pelegianism–one where our money and time and energy will hopefully be redeemed by us making some zealous offering back up to God. And thus what a horrible burden we carry around–fueling the gospel with the offering of our own zeal. Who will deliver us from praying as if everything depends upon God but then ministering as if every depends upon us?

  • When zeal is a product of youthful enthusiasm, it needs to fade. Energy, in and of itself, is not necessarily helpful. I can stick my finger in a light socket and find energy. But when zeal is a product of a godly burden and driven by an intimate relationship with Holy Spirit, it can take us to places we could never imagine – no matter what our age. I really do want to outgrow youthful enthusiasm without ever losing a godly burden.

  • T

    Great stuff, for young and old workers.

  • Robert A

    “Success isn’t me changing the world—it’s him changing it through all of his people….”

    Worth the time reading the piece. One of the best things ever done for me was a professor giving me a copy of Thieckle’s “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians” as I got ready to graduate from seminary.

  • John W Frye

    In my opinion a wiser senior pastor would not have taken a paternal voice and quenched the vision (which is not the same as directing beyond youthful zeal) of Trevor Lee. I am a 60 something pastor and I have discovered (and keep discovering) that keeping close to Jesus as revealed in the Gospels creates a zeal, a passion, an energy that is ageless. I hope I *never* outgrow it. Jesus was after all a 30 something idealist…

  • Richard

    @ 2

    I guess I’m missing how that Hauerwas quote supports Lee’s perspective. In my reading it seems to directly contradict the tempering of “idealism” and “zeal.”

    My predecessor (and several mentors) took that paternal tone with me pretty frequently and the internal response that has developed for me has been, ‘I’m a Christian, I’m supposed to be idealistic…”

    Do those ideals need nurtured and maintained through deep practices of drawing from Christ’s well – absolutely. But it’s still idealism and hope at the end of the day.

  • KLE

    I am turning 50 in a couple of months. I have a son in college who is filled with change-the-world enthusiasm, just like I was at his age. I still want to see the world change. My passion for Christ and doing his will has not diminished. But my perspective is changing.

    I guess what is changing is the realization that at 20 I had this secret dream that my impact in the kingdom would be such that I would be the next Spurgeon or Graham (or McKnight?!).

    I’ve come understand that I am simply me. I am deeply loved by Jesus and called to walk with him doing things that he prepared beforehand for me to do. I’ve come to realization that my greatest goal is not to change the world, but to hear the words “well done” from the Lord.

    I give my son books to stoke his passion. I challenge him to think deeply. I tell him that I love him. But most of all I tell my son that he should love Jesus deeply and should seek to be able to lay his head on his pillow at the end of the day and say “Lord, today I did your will.” If he can do that, he will have had a good day, no matter what happened.

    I am not 60 yet. But that is what I would have shared with that “idealistic” 25 year old.