17 January 2012

Play to your strengths, but challenge your weaknesses

by Dan Phillips

You may have heard that I wrote a book about Proverbs. True fact! Then in looking at my cred, you might notice that my M. Div. major was OT, and that I taught classes in Hebrew and OT Theology. More true facts!

So naturally you might assume that I did all that study, which resulted in all that teaching and writing, because I was naturally inclined to the OT and to Hebrew, and found those subjects easier and more congenial to study.

Untrue fact!

So why'd I do it?

I'll get there in a second.

I hope we can agree that it's a mistake, whether as a pastor or as any other Christian, not to play to your strengths. If a pastor is terrific in the pulpit but not so great at the one-on-one, he mustn't stop preaching/teaching so he can do vistation instead, just to address his failings. Equally, if a pastor is a terrific people-person but not so great in the pulpit, he can't simply cancel the sermon and hand out counseling numbers like tickets in a butcher's shop. ("Now being discipled... Number 1347!")

Paul tells the Ephesian elders, "I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house" (Acts 20:20). We must do both, though we are stronger in the one than in the other.

At the same time, an exceptional preacher or teacher may do a great deal of preaching and teaching, and an exceptional personal worker may do a great deal of personal work — while not neglecting the other. Meanwhile, we who are exceptional at neither simply work equally on both.


It is good for a pastor to give special effort to (A) get out of his comfort-zone, and (B) push himself in the areas of faithful service where he may be weak. In fact, if he is to grow, he must accept that he must push himself, or else he'll just naturally settle down in Comfy Rut Lane. Paul urges Timothy, "Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress may be evident to all" (1 Tim. 4:15 NAS). Do the hard work, let folks see you progress. Paul also presses Timothy to "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim. 4:5), perhaps suggesting that evangelism did not come easily to the timid apprentice (cf. 1 Cor. 16:10-11).

So why did I major in OT? Not because that is where I was strong, but because that's where I was weak. It was because I knew that around 2/3 of the Bible was, in fact, the OT, and I was called to preach the whole Bible, so it made sense to focus on the part I grasped less adeptly. So that led to focusing on the OT in my classes and thesis, which led in turn to teaching Hebrew and OT Theology and that little book-thingie I may have mentioned earlier.

Again, in an early pastorate I was challenged to teach Hebrews, and I did. Why? Partly because it was difficult. Because it didn't come easy to me. And because that meant that it would prod and challenge me to teach out of my comfort-zone, thus going into areas of God's counsel that I might otherwise bypass.

Don't misunderstand me. My point is nothing like "Behold Iron Dan Vs. Wild, as I eat grubs and leap off mountains to prove that I am mas macho!" I have many, many bitter regrets concerning areas where I failed to challenge myself and get out of my comfort-zone, and thus failed to be the faithful pastor I should have been.

My point is to share that challenge with you, pastor and non-pastor alike. Is prophecy hard for you? Then start preparing to teach a prophetic book, pastor; or get a good book and study, non-pastor. Is Proverbs hard? Well, maybe there's some good book that can help you so that you can get it, and dive in. The same applies in any area of theology or Christian practice.

If it's in God's Word, it's important.

And if it doesn't come easily to you, then it may be especially important for you and for those you serve.

Dan Phillips's signature


Kerry James Allen said...

Welcome back, Dan. Great thoughts. And for those who thought that speaking and writing came easy for Spurgeon and not for the rest of us: "I scarcely ever prepare for my pulpit with pleasure: study for the pulpit is for me the most irksome work in the world." I guess that's why it is called "labor" in the Word. 1 Timothy 5:17

donsands said...

Good challenge. Made me reflect on Ps. 119, which i was reading this morning.

"My soul clings to the dust;
give me life according to your word!"
(Psalm 119:25)
The Word itself makes us hungry for more of the Word.

Thanks for your word this morning.

Robert said...

Thanks for the encouragement and words of wisdom. May we all follow it well in the new year.

Lynda O said...

Well said, Dan, how important it is for all of us to grow rather than settle in a rut.

I'm reading your Proverbs book now (only in the second chapter so far), and it's very good and challenging.

Tom Chantry said...

When I was a pastoral intern an elder in the church who was also a business owner talked to me about the concept of turning your weaknesses into strengths. He said it was nothing but motivational nonsense, and that he didn't want his employees wasting time with it. Their weaknesses are weaknesses for a reason. While he needed them to bring their areas of weakness up to a level of competence, he hired them for their strengths and wanted them to put in their greatest effort in those areas.

I've thought about it a lot over the years, and I believe it does apply in ministry in just the way Dan wrote here. A preacher is expected to be competent in the Word, and that means stretching himself in every area of the word. At the same time, the preacher's strengths are actually gifts given him by God for the benefit of the church, and he ought to put maximum effort into utilizing them accordingly.

Two thoughts I had, neither by way of contradiction.

First, many pastors have multiple opportunities to preach, teach and study. It is possible to follow Dan's advice by studying diligently in a difficult area in order to teach a Bible study, or to preach at a midweek or evening service. In this way he is still stretching himself and increasing his range while playing to his strengths in whatever service (usually Sunday morning) at which there are likely to be visitors and even unconverted persons. Just an encouragement - you don't have to preach through Ezekiel on Sunday mornings to follow Dan's advice.

Secondly, a caution: remember that the pastor is operating in a rather different sphere than say the sales manager, and this comes into play when he evaluates strengths and weaknesses. The pastor's job description is written neither by himself nor by the church; it is found - largely - in Scripture. For instance, a man would be making a grave error were he to say, "My strength is in visiting the sick and needy so I'm going to spend the bulk of my time playing to my strength and just try to bring my preaching up to a level of bare competence." The problem with that is that those who preach must "devote [themselves] to the ministry of the word and to prayer." God has said what the priority is, and someone else can help with the rest. This is especially true for lone pastors in small churches. It doesn't override what Dan is saying here; we still ought to maximize our strengths - but to a degree the priorities of our work are passed down from heaven by the Spirit and we have no right to ignore them.

DJP said...

Thanks, Tom. As always, your comment is value-added, and I totally agree. I tried to be clear that I'm talking about tasks within the area of Divinely-mandated responsibilities, and I appreciate the stress and clarification.

For instance, as to the future for me: I've never preached through a Synoptic Gospel. Some find them easy, I find them harder. John was less so, and I preached through it. So what do you think I have on my list of Things to Do when and if I get a pastorate? Ditto prophetic books such as Isaiah or Jeremiah; ditto Proverbs.

Anonymous said...

This post...not just for pastors :)

DJP said...

Troo dat, sister.

F Whittenburg said...

And then you have pastors like Apollos that were eloquent, mighty in scriptures, feverant in spirit, and "instructed in the way of the Lord" and you still have to pull them to the side and show them the way of God more perfectly (Acts 18:24-28 KJV). Because with all their intense study of the scripture they just still are not getting it.

And like Paul who set at the feet of Gamielial and intensily studied the books of Moses, all the major and minor prophets, the Psalms and proverbs and still came to the conclusion that the Gospel was heresy and the Church must be destroyed. With all Paul's OT and Hebrew studies he still never saw Jesus as the Messiah until his spiritual conversion.

Studying of scripture is great and should be encouraged, but in these examples, both Apollos and Paul also studied diligently and still missed something. Could anything else have been added to their or our scriptural studies that would have helped them in their full and correct understanding of the gospel, or in these examples were Paul and Apollos just negligent in their studies of the scriptures and should have tried harder?

What if Jesus as the Messiah was divinly hidden from men in the Old Testament (Ephesians 3:1-9 KJV)? If left alone with OT scripture, could Paul's more intense and diligent study of the Old Testament cannon have eventually overcome this divine blockage and convinced him to embrace Jesus as the Messiah without the necessity of his spiritual conversion?

F Whittenburg

Jared T. Baergen said...


Good post! It is funny that you mentioned all of this because that is exactly what I have done with my blog. I decided to pick topics that will help me grow and step out of my comfort zone a little by digging in and studying, reading, listening to sermons, etc. until I have the topic so thoroughly grasped that I can then blog about it. It has been a wonderful help in my life recently. Good thinking!

Jehovah Mekoddishkem said...

well, God uses my son as my greatest theology lessons to show me my weaknesses that's for sure. he really keeps me challenged

our weaknesses are where Christ shines the most. Didn't Paul say God's power is made perfect in weakness. Takes that independence away so we depend on him.

I've worked with many people who could do better in life but no one ever really challenged them~~

Raine said...

Actually, Dan, I bought your book on Proverbs precisely because Proverbs was one of the least attractive books in the Bible to me. But I wholeheartedly confess that you have made the overall theme of the book crystal clear (Proverbs is Solomon's book on the fear of Yahweh that he wrote to instruct his child in obedience to Deut. 6), and as I grasped it, it became much more riveting to study.

So I can personally testify that challenging your weaknesses is rewarding! :)

DJP said...

Big grin here, Raine. Thanks very much.

So now — all sorts of people have been calling for books like what this aims at being. How do we get the "secret" out?

Robert said...

So now — all sorts of people have been calling for books like what this aims at being. How do we get the "secret" out?

I've started a study of your book with some people from my church. The review of the first chapter went really well and there was plenty of input from everybody (even our children who drew a couple of pictures of a dog returning to its vomit). Everybody likes the book so far and we'll be going over the second chapter this Friday. My hope is that everybody in the group will enjoy the book and gain much from this study, then pass it along to others that they know.

So, I'd say that people should try to organize studies like these and as people learn more from the book, they can pass it along and maybe spur on other group studies of the book. It helps that the author writes in a style that is easy to read for most everybody while still providing the necessary depth for the subject involved.

DJP said...