May 16, 2023

Bishop Matt Whitehead

at the Ordination Service of the Free Methodist Church in Southern California, May 2021

II Timothy 4:5

Matt Whitehead is a candidate for Bishop.  See his introduction here.  Hear his interview here.

It’s wonderful to be with you. Obviously, with COVID, we’ve all been dealing with this reality of not being able to be together. It’s been an incredible learning curve, this new role that I’ve been in. My wife said recently, “It will be a shame to come to the end of your four years as a Bishop and never get out of our basement!” So, I’m glad to get out of the basement to be here with you and celebrate.

I’m going to take a few minutes to talk to the ordinands and the ministerial candidates. The rest of you are certainly welcome to listen, but I want to direct my thoughts to you, specifically today, who have taken this significant step of signing on and saying, God, use me! And some of you are coming to the point of ordination, and you’ve been on a journey, and boy, it is not easy to be ordained in the Free Methodist Church. We don’t want it to be frustrating, but it’s not easy. There’s a challenging road. And I know some of you, just hearing your stories, that this is a day of significant joy and rejoicing for you because of this journey.

I want to go to the apostle Paul, who is writing to his young son in the faith, we would say today, his “mentee”, Timothy, and he speaks these words, that I want to share with you today. Paul writes to Timothy, and he says, 2 Timothy 4:5 “But you keep your head in all situations, endure hardships, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

Let’s pray, Jesus, thank you for this really wonderful opportunity that you’ve given me in these moments to talk to these dear sisters and brothers about the journey that they are on. Thank you, Lord Jesus, that your word is so powerful, and it speaks to us and the reality of this moment, and it will speak to those folks who are here today at this point in their journey. We are so grateful. We are thankful that we get to do ministry, that we get to be here. It’s with that great sense of humility and incredible joy that we stop now for these moments to examine your word. We love you, Jesus. We pray this in your precious name, Amen.

The first thing that Paul says to his young son in the faith, Timothy, is, “Keep your head in all situations.”

We might say that a wee bit differently today. We might say, I don’t know about you, but for me, in terms of the reality of my journey as a disciple of Christ, I can tell when the margin is getting really thin because I’m not able to keep my head in some situations. I’ve learned about myself, that sometimes my anger relates to my lack of sleep, my lack of rest, my lack of Sabbath. But isn’t it interesting that the apostle Paul writing to his young friend, says, Timothy, you live by a different set of rules; you keep your head in all situations. You are called to behave differently than the world. You are called to behave like a disciple of Jesus Christ; more than that, you are called to behave like a servant of Christ. Keep your head.

As pastors and leaders in the church, we are called to bring a calming presence into a situation where there is tension, anger and strife. We’re called to be the ones who bring the presence of Jesus into places of high tension and misunderstanding. And there’s no way we can do that on our own strength. It requires a movement of the Holy Spirit within us to be able to say, “Jesus, you’ve got to help me. I have no idea how I’m going to walk into this situation, how I am going to navigate this. I want to be your son, I want to be your daughter, I want to be used of you in a powerful way.”

Somebody has written, “Ministry can be incredibly rewarding and ministry can be overwhelmingly discouraging.”

Sometimes that’s a matter of minutes or hours. Amazingly rewarding and incredibly discouraging. And so, what Paul says to Timothy is, my son, you are called to walk in a different way. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have our own personal challenges and issues that we’re dealing with. And, having the ability to live life with that sense of unworthiness and how desperately we need the help of God. But Paul says these words to Timothy as he’s describing this relationship of being a leader. He begins by saying to Timothy, Timothy, you keep your head in all situations.

As challenging as that can be. He goes on to say, and I wish this one wasn’t here, but it is, Paul says to Timothy, “Endure Hardships”

Oh, come on, really! But he says that, “endure hardships.”

And as I think back across the span of my time in ministry. My wife and I and our family have been blessed. We’ve had some challenges as I expect that you have. Some of you are walking in now, and some of you will walk in. But as I think of this call to endure hardships. And I think about the hardships of ministry, most of them, not all, most of them relate to relational pain. And again, if we had time, I know there are some veteran leaders in this room who could stand up and say that’s true, that’s true!

As leaders, we are called to endure the hardship of ministry. And one of those places relates to how we interact with the people we’re serving, people in our congregations, people in our ministries. And one of the things that have been helpful for me to understand over the years is that, at times, I am called to live in relational winter with someone. Maybe it’s someone I’m disciplining. Maybe it’s someone I’ve had to confront for a particular reason, but the challenge for some leaders, not everyone, is to try to rush ahead and try to make sure that somebody feels good about me. Versus letting the process work. Letting the holy spirit do the work in their own hearts and lives. Rather than me making sure that I’m OK, that they still like me, that I’m still highly thought of in their world.

It’s harder for some of us, not all of us, it’s harder for some of us to let the Holy Spirit do the work that the Holy Spirit needs to do, then rushing over to make sure they’re okay. I’m not saying that we ignore people. I’m not suggesting that in the pastoral role, you don’t reach out to people who are hurting. But I know for me, sometimes, when everything is stripped away, I want to make sure they’re okay and that they think I’m amazing, or marginal, whatever the case may be. Sometimes I think I’ve stunted the work of the Holy Spirit because I’ve tried to rush in and make sure they were okay too soon, before the holy spirit had completed the work, the work that the Holy Spirit wants to do.

We’re called to walk with people in their pain. Sometimes the hardships that we walk through are walking with people who are hurting and grieving. That’s really, really tough.

I recorded a message this morning that will be played during the Annual Conference in a couple of weeks, and one of the things that I referenced there was the admonition where the Lord says to Samuel in1 Samuel 16, “How long will you mourn for Saul?” Saul was a disappointment; Saul had not lived up to what God had hoped; Saul sinned. And Samuel had invested in Saul, and Saul was Samuel’s guy.

And you know the story from 1 Samuel 15 about the lies that Saul tells. Samuel grieves. The Lord has something else for Samuel to do. He wants him to beat feet it down to Bethlehem to see the new person He has as king, a guy by the name of David; you may have heard of him. But before Samuel could do that, take on that assignment of going down to Bethlehem to anoint David as the new King, the Lord had to say to Samuel, “Samuel, how long are you going to stay here and grieve for what might have been?”

Sometimes enduring hardships is the recognition that we have to get on to what God has called us to do in a new place in a new season, in a new reality that may be different than what we expected. Or perhaps, it’s simply, maybe, the realization that the person we thought we were investing in, the person that we thought we believed in, and they believed in us, for whatever reason, that has crumbled. Pastors and leaders who endure over the long haul are those who can readily and loosely hold on to hurts and let them go. So, when I talk about enduring relational winter, I’m suggesting that sometimes in ministry, were called to bear the pain that others inflict on us. I wish that were not the case. Like I said, I wish this verse wasn’t in the text. But it is here! The question is not if you will be hurt in ministry. The question is what you are going to do with it. And are you going to give it to Jesus, as a small, small, small part of His willingness to lay down His life for us. Or are you going to hold on to it and nurse it and review it over and over and over again? Or are you going to simply say Jesus, Jesus, I give this back to you? I don’t get it, I don’t understand, but I promise you, when that thought comes into my head, that person, that image of their face, by Your grace, I’m going to let my hands go, and I’m going to give that back.

There is no way to sustain in ministry, to be happy, or maybe I should say, to be fulfilled, if you can’t get over letting hurts go and giving them to Jesus. And so, when Paul suggests to Timothy to endure hardships, as I said, primarily, not for all of us, some of us are called to deal with some incredibly challenging things. There are the relational dynamics of working with people and the hurts that are directed towards us and sometimes we can hurt others. Sometimes because we haven’t thought it through, we haven’t processed, sometimes just because of not knowing the whole story, we can hurt other people. And again, the only way we can know those things is if we are in prayer, and we ask the Holy Spirit to reveal them to us, and we’re in fellowship with people who have the permission to tell us the truth.

Do you have people in your life who can tell you the truth? How many people in your life that have permission to say “Hey, you went too far there.” Maybe it’s someone on your church staff, maybe it’s with a spiritual director. but somebody that has the permission to say “Sister” or “Brother, you went too far there.”, or “what you said was misinterpreted. Here’s the way that the people you were speaking to heard it.”

So, I’m not just saying that we are the recipient of hurt; sometimes, we can hurt others. And we need to recognize the reality of God’s word that calls us the best that we’re able to live at peace with brothers and sisters.

The third thing that Paul says that I just love, is he says, “Do the work of doing an evangelist!”

“Do the work of an evangelist!” So here is the heart of your bishop. Do the work of an evangelist! I understand there are people who have the gift of evangelism. I don’t think Timothy was one of those people. I think that’s probably why Paul said “Timothy, do the work of an evangelist!” Timothy needed to hear that in his pastoral ministry, even though he may not have had the gift of evangelism, Paul wanted to remind him to be about bringing people, pointing people, and inviting people into a relationship with Jesus Christ! And that’s a word you need to hear; we need to hear; I need to hear.

We can be about so many great things in the church. So many incredible programs, emphasis, whatever you want to call it. But, if we’re not regularly presenting the claims of Jesus and inviting people to their next right step to make a decision to trust Jesus, to make a decision to follow Him at a newer and deeper level than I don’t believe we’re living up to our calling as pastors and leaders in God’s church.

Now I know with you there is a journey that you are on, that people are on. I recognize that, but sometimes there are a series of things that happen in the lives of people for them to say “Yes” to Jesus, but let’s not somehow conclude that lets us off the hook from presenting the claims of Christ and inviting people to come to know Jesus.

Somebody said, and I love this.  “In ministry, humility covers a multitude of sins.”

“Humility covers a multitude of sins.” You know we’re in the process of loving on our next-door neighbors. A young couple with a baby, really cool people. There’s been a series of people in this house over the years. We’ve lived in our house for over 22 years, and there have been a series of people who have lived in that house. Melanie, Melanie is my wife, I hope you get a chance to meet her on one of these trips, Melanie and I have taken on the role of loving these folks. And one of the people that lived in that house, actually they were an LDS family, a Mormon family. And so, we were just thinking about how do we love these people towards Jesus, so we just tried to be good neighbors. They showed up on our street six months ago, and the family was walking down the street; it’s been five, seven years since they’ve been in that house, and they came back to show their children the house that they had lived in, and so I said “Hey! great to see you guys! Where are you living now?” and they talked about the new place they were living in so, I said “Have you guys met the people who now live in your old house? They are just an amazing couple.” They said “No, but we want to meet them, we want to do that, and tell them what great neighbors you and Melanie are!” And it’d like, oh, wow! I don’t feel we were that great of neighbors, but for some reason, our willingness to try to love and encourage them and point them to Jesus somehow got through. And we have huge differences theologically, and we touched on some of those just in conversation literally across the fence and across the deck.

But whatever the context God has placed you in, both in the context of your ministry and in the context of your family and neighborhood, do the work of an evangelist. Point people to Jesus.

I had the privilege of interacting this last week with Shirley Hoekstra. I don’t know if any of you know that name. She’s the president of the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities. She spoke to the Seattle Pacific University Board this last week, and we just had a great conversation. If ever you are praying for colleges and universities, particularly Christian colleges, and universities, please be in prayer. Particularly for, in this region, Azusa Pacific University and the other great Christian colleges that are in this region. I feel like being the leaders at Christian higher education institutions is one of the most challenging realities right now. Some of you have been following the news, you know some of what has been happening at my campus and hearing what’s been going on at my campus, Seattle Pacific University. Shirley Hoekstra was talking to the Seattle Pacific University Board; she was talking about doing the work of an evangelist. She said the kind of dynamic I am encouraging for people in this season is what she describes as, “A firm center with soft edges.”

I had to think about that for a little bit. “A firm center with soft edges.” And it’s important as we think about “what does it means to live out that call, to be followers of Jesus, to do the work of evangelism?” It is to recognize that in this crazy pluralistic wild culture that we live in, our center is grounded in Jesus Christ and who Jesus is. And our historic understandings of faith and our historic understandings of marriage and sexuality. But yet, we recognize the call to be people who love one another and love in the reality of what it means to live in this culture and this current reality. She also said, “The number one skill for leaders today is living with differences.”

“The number one of leading today is living with differences.” Particularly as we relate as Christians in this culture and this society.

Finally, the last thing that Paul says to Timothy is, “Discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

“Discharge all the duties of your ministry.” There are a lot of ways that you could interpret that. A couple of things I would say:

Number one, in discharging all your duties of your ministry, that means caring for yourself and caring for your family in the context of the place that God has prepared for you.

It also means understanding and honoring Sabbath. Does anyone know what sabbath is for people in the ministry? I see two hands, three, thank you. As pastors and leaders of the church, we’ve got to figure out Sabbath. It’s the most oft violated of the 10 commandments by a lot of us. Taking our day off. Understanding how desperately we need to be in relationship with rest.

Taking Kingdom risks is another thing. When was the last time your church or ministry did something risky for the sake of people who don’t know Jesus, that are distanced from Jesus? I just heard some incredible examples of what churches have done, even in this COVID season, to reach out and love people for Jesus’ sake. That is so encouraging. I wish we had time for some of you to stand and talk about the ways that you are taking risks for the sake of the Kingdom.

In discharging all the duties of your ministry, I would also say that it also means the importance of being able to go deep with God.

I have a spiritual director that I have met with for almost the last decade. I keep a list on my phone, of things I want to talk to my spiritual director about. A spiritual director is just a soul friend, someone who is trained to help you go into things spiritually that you are experiencing. What I find for myself is that if I find that I overreact to something, I’ll make a note for Morris, my Spiritual Directors name is Morris, make a note to talk to Morris about my response here in this situation, because it was over the top. And I would say that in the last 10 years, along with my own personal times in the word and in hearing and sensing the spirit speaking to me, in spiritual direction, I’ve heard the voice of God more there than anywhere else. As a trained spiritual director just asks questions, “What you were thinking?” and “What do you think God is saying.” “What will you do as a result of what happened?” And I need that.

We all need trained spiritual friends to walk alongside us, to help us in this process of being like Jesus, and of living a life of faith. I hope you have that; I hope you have a small group. Unfortunately, we used to say that pastors and leaders can’t have friends in the church. Isn’t that crazy? I understand that I get some of that, that there could be some challenges around that. But man, pastors are so lonely! Men and women in ministry are so lonely! Because we haven’t been able to create safe places to talk about what is happening. And maybe you can do that on your church staff. I know that presents a bit more of a challenge. But my prayer is that you would be able to have context of being able to be with people where there can be authentic community and transparency and where you can experience the one another’s with one another. And by the power of the Spirit, you can see God working in you and you have the joy and privilege of seeing God work in the lives of others.

There’s a lot more I could say, but let me just again read these words from 2 Timothy 4, “But you keep your head in all situations, endure hardships, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

To view the video of this sermon click here.