The first thing I should admit is that this conference was two months ago- I’ve not been good at writing recently! However, I was reflecting recently that I needed to revisit some of the lessons from it so have decided to write it up.

The Pastoral Refreshment Conference is organized by Living Leadership. The aim of the conference is to refresh those in ministry by reflecting on God’s glory and grace. It’s probably the first conference I put in my diary each year because I have learnt that what I need in the long term is not additional skills and strategies primarily but a heart that is satisfied in and thrilled by the glory and grace of God. Only that will provide the motivation to fight sin and serve wholeheartedly.

The conference was somewhat different this year. Alongside a couple of expositions the main sessions had the feel of an extended testimony as Cassells and Hazel Morrell from Dublin shared their story of life and ministry during Cassells’ time working with UCCF, IFES and as a church pastor. What struck me was that much of what was said could apply equally to those not in full-time paid Christian service- hence why I am writing it up here.

Hazel spoke movingly of the years when her Christian life was plain miserable. She constantly laboured under the sense of being inadequate, inferior to those she met at Christian conferences whilst desperately trying to keep up the appearance of being a good Christian wife. There was no sense of joy there. She spoke of knowing the doctrine of God’s grace without truly appreciating it. I loved the way she put it: “I knew the words of grace but I didn’t know the music.” What was thrilling was how she described the way in which the Lord had transformed both of them through an appreciation of His grace- that His love was not conditional on their performance or ministry. Indeed it was delightful to see how this had actually set her free to be more useful and effective in serving the Lord. “Isn’t God amazing? And He wants to use me…!”  

It’s a path that a number of those at the conference had taken. Last year Gordon and Helen Dalzell (who came to us for a church weekend a while back) spoke movingly about their own experience. They likewise testified to many years of being driven by a need to perform and achieve before Gordon endured a breakdown. The result was an appreciation of God’s grace that wasn’t dependent on the amount of work done. Clearly this has led to a deep sense of joy in knowing and serving God. I happened to speak to another older pastor during the conference whose sense of joy in the Lord I had always appreciated. It was interesting to discover that he had been through a similar experience of coming to the end of his resources and learning to depend on God’s mercy rather than his own performance.

One phrase was used on a number of occasions that really struck me. Grace flows to those in need. In many ways that is obvious- we won’t look for God’s grace unless we realize that we need it. But the reality is that so often we want to deny our sense of need. There are two ways in which we can be tempted to do that- by relying on performance or pretence. We can be obsessed with our performance and think that in doing lots of good things that we are somehow earning our acceptance with God. However, when we realize how far short we fall in that way, we tend to revert to pretence. Deep down we know that we are struggling with life as a Christian but we pretend that all is well. Of course, the need is to acknowledge that we fall short, this side of glory always will fall short and we probably haven’t yet realized how far short we fall (“You think you’re bad? The reality is much worse”), and to realize that we always rest on the grace of God. But praise God- that grace available through the cross of Jesus, is always enough. That frees us from resting on our performance or pretence and enables us to serve God with great joy, liberty and wholeheartedness.

It also frees us to repent. One implication for leaders that was presented is that we should lead in repentance. If I am going to fall short and need God’s grace then the Christian life will revolve around repentance and faith- that will always be the case. It is why the biblical expectation of leaders is not perfection but progress. If I claim or pretend to be a perfect pastor then I am not modelling the real Christian life. That means that I need to be quicker to admit mistakes and not think that to do so disqualifies me from the Christian life or from ministry. It is pretending otherwise that is dangerous and oppressive.

Writing this has renewed a sense of joy within me. I am far from perfect- and yet praise God I am accepted and can be used.