Iwill never forget the day Craig Miller and I drove through the Jordanian desert at 95 miles per hour to deliver cash and encouragement to embedded missionaries in Baghdad. These heroic Southern Baptist Convention missionaries were working alongside the equally heroic U.S. military to replace water pumps in the immediate aftermath of the Iraqi War.
Except the war wasn’t over. Not even close.
Craig and I only heard the part of President George W. Bush’s speech that we wanted to hear on May 2, 2003: “In the battle of Iraq, the major phase of combat is over. The United States and our allies have prevailed,” Bush said, while standing on the enormous flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.
If we had listened carefully to the rest of his speech, Craig and I would have heard Bush say there is still “difficult work to do. Parts of that country remain dangerous … The al-Qaida terrorist organization is wounded, not destroyed…”
Once we arrived two months later, it became obvious that Baghdad was still a very active war zone. We saw firefights almost every day—the most active one at the United Nations building, which was soon after destroyed by a suicide bomber. In a separate attack a few months after we left, three of the brave International Mission Board missionaries we worked with were ambushed in traffic and killed.
Pastors, missionaries, and other ministry leaders live and fight daily in an active war zone that is just as real as what we experienced in Baghdad. In some ways, pastors are dealing with even more insidious enemies because their battle is, for the most part, invisible. The world, Satan, and even our own flesh conspire against us every day, which makes it hard to win.
Sometimes our worst enemy is the person in the mirror. No right-minded minister ever woke up thinking, “How can I blow up my ministry today?” Yet the recent epidemic of messy ministry exits ranges from slow-fading burnouts to epic moral meltdowns.
God has a much better plan for our lives and ministries. He has called us to start well, serve well, and finish well. On the Apostle Paul’s last ministry lap, he shared his resolve with Timothy and his team: “My purpose is to finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:24). His follow-up letter to Timothy from death row was a legacy statement: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
Although our ultimate war has already been won through Jesus’ finished work on the cross, our wounded enemy is shrewdly taking aim at the commissioned officers of the church. Jesus warned us of our enemy’s schemes to strike the shepherd so that the sheep of the flock will be scattered (Matthew 26:31).
Our legacy will be determined more on how we finish our race than how we started it. When we win, others in our family and ministry win. When we lose, the collateral damage is often bigger than we will ever see in our lifetimes.