My grandfather, Julian Burt McGee, was a strong and resilient man. He was fully ambidextrous whether writing a letter or swinging an axe—the kind of man who could chew up a few pennies and spit out a barbed wire fence. At least that’s how I remember him. I remember watching him chop wood out back, swinging his axe with the left side of his body and then the right: one fluid motion with no hitch of hesitation between his two-handed rhythm. He enjoyed manual labor. It was refreshing for him. And meaningful.
As the wood pile dwindled that day, his swings got heavier and more forceful. Eventually the swings took more out of him than he was able to put back in.
Left. Right. Left… Right… Left… … Right… …
Then he stopped. The axe was dull.
He carried it to the shed and turned on his grinder. Sharpening the blade was something I believe he enjoyed as much as swinging the axe. He may have called it a labor of necessity, but he treated it like a work of art. He was precise. Careful. Steady. And the finished product was something to be admired. He headed back to the stack of wood and started swinging again. The rhythm was a little less forced this time. It seemed smooth. And calm.
Church leaders depend on tools of their trade as well. For pastors, among others, our “axes” are mostly intangible. But they can still be—must still be—regularly sharpened.
“If the axe is dull, and one does not sharpen its edge, then one must exert more strength; however, the advantage of wisdom is that it brings success.”Ecclesiastes 10:10 (CSB)
“If the axe is dull, and one does not sharpen its edge, then one must exert more strength; however, the advantage of wisdom is that it brings success.”Tweet
Pastor, there are many things in ministry beyond your control that often necessitate the exertion of more strength than normal. But if you are not regularly sharpening your axe, you may be exerting more strength than is necessary. I’m as guilty as you are, often swinging away with painful dutifulness when a quick trip to the shed would promise both a more fluid rhythm and a better cut. Sometimes you need to stop and create space to sharpen your axe. If it is success in your calling you desire, capture the advantage of wisdom by sharpening your axe.
1. Educational Attainment. Formal education like Bible college and/or seminary is not a requirement for the pastor, but it is a great benefit. Be diligent in pursuing the sharpest edge possible on your Bible knowledge and practical ministry. It can save you precious time and energy in sermon preparation and theological dialogue. Enroll in that seminary class. Read that theology book. Join a cohort. Go to the shed and find a sharpening instrument that works for you. Never stop learning and growing in your understanding of the Bible and practical ministry.
2. Effective Delivery. I have preached or taught the Bible for more than 20 years. I am better in my delivery today than I was yesterday, but I need to be better tomorrow than I am today. With the gift of technology, we can watch our own sermons and work on one or two things at a time to become more effective in our delivery. If you go to the shed for a little while each week, you can work to eliminate those filler words like “umb” or “right,” refine your stage usage, or cut down on superfluous, distracting gestures. Sharpen that blade. Pick one or two things to work on, master them, then pick a couple more.
3. Time Efficiency. One of the most common frustrations I hear from pastors is that there is just not enough time in the day. Sermon prep, team meetings, seminary, visitation, unexpected emergencies, and family life all stack on top of one another until the conglomerate log pile is more extensive than any one axe can hope to cut through. But the truth is, we all have the time we need for what God has entrusted to us. Talk to a trusted friend or a leadership coach about time management. Become a meticulous calenderer. Set and keep appointments. Build a regular rhythm into your day. If you keep swinging that dull axe, eventually it will take its toll on your body. Step away and get to the shed.
4. Leadership Acumen. Many pastors spend years of their lives studying theology, preaching, and practical ministry but never hone their skills in organizational leadership. In five years of state convention work, I can count on one hand the number of pastoral tenures I have watched end negatively because of theological issues. It is almost always a leadership (or a relationship) problem. Read leadership books. Work with a leadership coach. Pursue a business or leadership degree. Take time to map out the organizational structure of your church. Build teams. Empower people. Sharpen your leadership axe or you will not shepherd the flock or multiply the ministry to your greatest potential.
5. Relational Aptitude. For some pastors it comes naturally, and for others it takes work. That’s okay. We are all wired differently, and that is a gift from God. But no matter your skill set or your spiritual giftedness, you still must learn to love, work with, encourage, equip, and lead real live people. People are weird. Just like you. And it often takes some serious effort—intentional sharpening—for a pastor to raise his relational aptitude to the degree of effectiveness needed in ministry. Read books on relational skills, team-based leadership, and emotional intelligence. Take a personality test and pay attention to how you most naturally interact with others who are like you and others who are different from you. If you don’t sharpen your skills in this area, you will feel like you’re chopping at wood with the wrong end of the axe your whole life long, always swinging but never making a dent.
We all know guys who make pastoring look easy. It’s a smooth stroke from week to week—left, right, left, right. Their Sunday morning sermons are always on point. They have a team of capable leaders at their side whose coordinated synergy is something we have never known. When you see a pastor whose rhythm is good and whose cuts are precise, know two things: (1) he didn’t get there accidentally, and (2) he still has to work to stay sharp.
“When you see a pastor whose rhythm is good and whose cuts are precise, know two things: (1) he didn’t get there accidentally, and (2) he still has to work to stay sharp.”Tweet
Pastoring is rewarding work, but it is hard work. Don’t make it harder than it must be. When you’re feeling dull, get to the shed and sharpen your blade. Take care of your tools and learn your own rhythm. This is not a novel concept, and it’s really not all that complicated. This is simply the advantage of wisdom. It brings success.
Grace and Peace,