Tim Elmore, Author of “Habitudes,” tells a story in his first volume of the Habitudes series about two lumberjacks who challenged each other to see who could cut down more trees in a day. They began early in the morning, and the first lumberjack began chopping down trees immediately. He worked furiously and by noon had chopped down sixteen trees. The other lumberjack, on the other hand, had only cut down four trees, since he had spent the first two hours of the day sharpening his axe. The first lumberjack laughed at his opponent as he jumped out to the quick lead. However, as the afternoon began to pass, the first lumberjack started to slow down. And the second lumberjack, the one that had spent the first hours of the day sharpening his axe, was catching up quickly. By late afternoon, the second lumberjack had easily surpassed the total of his opponent.
The difference wasn’t strength so much as the sharpness of the blade. And though it cost the second lumberjack a couple of hours at the beginning, a full days worth of chopping would require an adequately sharp axe blade. The first lumberjack started strong, but fizzled down the stretch. His axe simply wasn’t prepared for a full day’s worth of chopping.
There are probably a number of ways to relate this story to real life scenarios, but I would like to apply it to young men planning on entering into the ministry. I think this story is a magnificent picture for those who intend to give their lives to the service of Christ’s church.
If one wants to be a faithful minister of the gospel for a lifetime, his primary concern in his early years should be proper preparation and training. This should entail seminary and theological training for one. I have heard many disparage seminary education and complain that such preparation has little value for its recipients. I am concerned that these same people are so consumed with getting out and getting started, thinking that they can learn what they need along the way, that they walk out into ministry with a dull blade. A proper seminary education (note: not necessarily just any seminary education, but a good one; pick a quality school) and proper theological training is critical for a lifetime of faithfulness and fruitfulness in ministry. We need teachers. And ministers of the gospel need a solid theological, biblical, hermeneutical, and spiritual foundation. Those who spurn this risk fading out early.
Secondly, this should entail quality mentors and teachers within the local church. Find quality mentors to invest in you. These influences are invaluable. They will provide both theological as well as practical wisdom necessary for ministry. There is much to learn, and those who have gone before us have much to offer. This may mean passing up on ministry opportunities in order to go somewhere simply to sit under the right kind of leader and mentor for a period of time. Being around the right leaders and teachers is such an important thing for young ministers.
Thirdly, this should entail reading the right kind of books. There is a treasure trove of insight and knowledge to be found in quality Christian literature, both old and new. Learning how to value reading (and reading the right things) will play a critical role in the direction and power of one’s life in ministry. While there is much worth reading, there is also plenty of garbage out there as well. Learning who and what to read is a valuable skill.
And fourth, learn to value character. Character is nurtured with time. Laying a proper foundation for a lifetime committed to Christian character, work done often privately and away from sight, will prove worth it when it is time to emerge and come into the public light of ministry.
So many are eager to get going, and unfortunately “climb the ladder” of ministry success early. God may grant this to some, but even then, it is no guarantee of prolonged and enduring fruitfulness in ministry. I am thirty, and have seen many already in my life that found early success, but simply did not have a sharp enough blade to keep it up. They have already fizzled.
If you are young and going into ministry, stop worrying about getting to a big church and an influential ministry, and spend your twenties, and maybe even early thirties, in preparation. Get to seminary. Find good teachers both inside the church and without that will disciple you, mentor you, and teach you. Learn how to read the right kind of books. And develop your character.
You may feel like you are behind early on, but trust me, like the second lumberjack, you will pick up speed and pass the rest down the stretch.
To finish well, which is the goal, you will have to have an axe that can chop for a lifetime. Make sure it is adequately sharpened early. You’ll pay the price if it is not.