NEW ORLEANS (BP)–“You will be remembered more for how you leave and how you depart than how you arrive,” North American Mission Board President Kevin Ezell said in a chapel message at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Ezell preached from Acts 20, which recounts the Apostle Paul’s farewell to the church at Ephesus. Like Paul at the time of Acts 20, Ezell has faced a time of transition since last September when he left the pastorate of Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., to lead NAMB. In the months since, Ezell has faced the difficult task of retooling the mission board’s overall strategy and reducing the staff.
Ezell was open with NOBTS students about how difficult the transition from pastoral ministry to NAMB’s presidency has been.
“I’m a pastor at heart…. I’m actually in transition right now from being a pastor to not being a pastor, and it’s not going so well. I’m having a hard time adjusting to it, honestly,” Ezell said.
Saying goodbye and beginning a new chapter of life is difficult, especially in the life of a minister, Ezell said in pointing the NOBTS students to Paul’s ministry to the Ephesian Christians as an example of how to minister today in order to prepare a congregation for whatever the future holds.
Ezell first highlighted verse 19 of chapter 20 — “I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews” — which points to the posture and emotion of Paul’s service among the Ephesians.
“He served. He understood that he was a servant, and because of that, Paul had a sense of humility,” Ezell said. “He understood that every gift he had came from God.”
Likewise, ministers today must never lose sight of God’s gracious care, Ezell said in his Jan. 25 visit to NOBTS.
“Everything you have has come to you by His grace. Every opportunity you’ll be given will come to you by Him. It’s all from His hands,” Ezell said. “And if you never lose sight of that, you’ll remember that you have no right to ever be conceited. You have no right to ever think more highly of yourself than you ought because everything you have has comes from Him.
“Paul did that, and that’s why he served with a sense of humility.”
But beyond serving with humility, Paul also served “with tears,” Ezell said.
“Paul connected. All the way through this story, Paul connected.”
In ministry, connecting isn’t always easy, Ezell admitted. People can be disappointing and the slow pace of change can be frustrating, he said; thus, ministers can be tempted to separate emotionally from their congregation.
“That’s why you can go through ministry almost in a numb state of mind and emotion where you just don’t feel the pain,” Ezell said, calling the seminarians to follow Paul’s lead and connect deeply with their congregations, accepting the joys and pains of ministry alike.
Paul also was committed in the face of persecution, Ezell noted. Verse 19 concludes with “although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews.” And verse 20 continues with, “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.”
“You can be right in the center of where God wants you to be and it not be easy and it not be pretty,” Ezell said. “I just want to encourage you. If you feel discouraged and people come against you, [remember] Paul was exactly where he needed to be and people physically harmed him. He was exactly where he needed to be and people opposed him.”
In spite of that opposition, Paul remained steadfastly committed both to Jesus Christ and the preaching of the Word, Ezell said challenging NOBTS students to the same commitment.
“There will be a day when you’re tempted to dilute the message or decorate it in some way. I just want to encourage you to stay focused on the Gospel,” Ezell said. “People need help, but they need help with a sense of hope. And that’s the Gospel.”
Paul’s commitment even extended to going to Jerusalem, where he knew difficulty and persecution awaited him, Ezell pointed out, citing verses 22-23: “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.”
But Paul quickly turned the attention back on the Ephesian believers, warning them to be on guard against attacks both from outside the community and from within and commits them to God, Ezell said.
The chapter concludes with an emotion-filled farewell in verses 36-38: “When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.”
“They didn’t say ‘What we’re going to miss the most is your sermons,'” Ezell noted. “They said, ‘What we’re going to miss most is you.'”
Ezell then offered a word of caution for pastors today to avoid impersonal ministry. First, he warned against “pastoring in bulk.”
“Sometimes you get so distracted doing ministry that you forget why you’re in ministry. You start counting money and counting people. ‘How much did we collect? How many did we have?’ So often we begin pastoring in bulk.”
Avoiding “pastoring in bulk” comes back to simply knowing the congregation, Ezell said.
“It doesn’t matter how many [people] you have, you can know a lot of them if you invest in them,” he said.
Ezell also warned against developing a sense of superiority to those in the church.
“Sometimes we want to come in, because we’re so theologically trained, and we feel so theologically superior to them, that we talk down,” he said.
In the end, it all comes down to genuinely loving others, Ezell said.
“I just want to encourage you. Paul was so effective because he genuinely loved people. I pray that as you leave here you’re passionate about Jesus and you’re passionate about telling people about Jesus and that they see how much you love Jesus — but also how much you love them,” Ezell said. “Don’t forget to love people.”
Frank Michael McCormack writes for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.