Death gives perspective to life. Preachers know that. Chances are you have preached that from your pulpit. But here is another one of those areas where it is important to use a mirror not simply a microphone. That is, having told others how to live, it is important that we have lived that way ourselves. Therefore I suggest there are six questions every pastor ought to ask himself now.
These six questions cannot be asked too soon, but tragically they can be asked too late. I originally thought to title this "Five Questions Every Pastor Ought to Ask Himself Before He Dies," but that can clearly be the point where it is tragically too late, at a time of too many missed opportunities to minister to others. The time to ask them of ourselves is now, not later.
Are you an example or simply an exhorter with your people in evangelism?
That question does not merely come from the heart of an evangelist. More importantly it comes from the heart of God. Paul the apostle said to his son in the faith, Timothy, a pastor teacher, “Do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5). Peter likewise says, be “examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). Christians who have surrendered their lives to be His disciples should be “fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19). We ought to be examples for them to follow.
The urgency for us to ask ourselves that question rises as you look at statistics. In one survey of an evangelical denomination, 96 percent of the church leadership said they believed their churches would grow faster if they were involved in evangelism themselves. But 89 percent of the same leadership said they did not give any time on a weekly basis to evangelizing the lost. The time to make a change is now. Otherwise we leave behind us people who did what we did—talked about the lost not to them. The problem is obvious. When we talk about the lost the lost stay lost. When we talk to the lost, it’s then that many meet the Savior.
Have you purposed before God that you will finish well?
The reason is simple and sober. Most of the people who fell in the Bible fell in the last half of their lives, not in the first half. David, Samson, Solomon, just to mention a few. The beginning of their lives was a much better example than the end. It was toward the end when they got tripped up. In traveling as an evangelist and working with hundreds of church leaders every year, I have noticed the same.
Those who began well don’t always finish well. If you do not purpose that before God now, chances are Satan will slip up on your blind side, and the end of your life will be more of a disappointment to others than a testimony. But purposing that before God may allow you to end as Paul did, saying “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
If you died today, would your spouse know where to find everything he or she needs to settle your estate?
Dr. Charles Ryrie shook me in seminary. Not physically, but emotionally and spiritually. I had already come to respect him highly. I guess that is what made his admonition so impactful. He said something you don’t always hear said to pastors and future church leaders. As we started class one day he asked, “If you died today, would your wife know what to do? Would she know where all the papers are and how to settle all the details of your will and estate? If you don’t, get that all in place tonight or don’t tell her that you love her!”
It was the words, “Don’t tell her that you love her” that shook me. After all, doesn’t 1 John 3:18 say, “My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth“? At that point I was not married, but as soon as I got married I started putting everything my wife would need in one organized file with everything noted carefully. She may need the help of a financial advisor, but she knows where everything is that she needs to talk through with him. I got what Dr. Ryrie was saying—If I loved her as I do, I needed to relieve the pressure not add to it in the event of my unexpected death. Whoever handles the financial matters, the other spouse needs to know what to do with the details of the estate.
When you depart, will the work you’ve led fold or flourish?
Unfortunately many pastors lead churches that will most likely die shortly after they do. The reason is, as the church grew it became built around a man, not a mission. If the church is built around a mission the work continues, grows and even flourishes long after his departure. I know of one pastor who was begged by concerned people at the church to answer that question, “What will happen when God is through with you?”
His answer was, “God will take care of that.” The problem? It ignores Paul’s admonition in II Timothy 2:2. There Paul said, “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit them to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Paul’s ministry flourished without him because he had those prepared to step in his place. If as a pastor your work has been built around a mission, it will be seen in the way the work flourishes, not in the memorial service that is held for it as it folds.
What do you want people to carve on your tombstone?
By that I mean, what do you want your legacy to be? The question is not original to me. It’s one my mentor, Dr. Haddon Robinson, proposed to a group of us many years ago. He then said, “Decide now and then live your life backwards from there.” I pondered that for months and decided I wanted it to be “Here lies a man of grace who loved sinners.”
That has affected everything I do. What will yours be? If we take the admonition of Psalm 90:12 seriously—to number our days—that is a most appropriate question to ask. I am convinced Paul the apostle did just that. For that reason he could say, “I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me” (Philippians 3:12). Whatever he decided he wanted as his epitaph, he pressed on so that he could be everything God wanted him to be according to his divine calling in Christ.
There are undoubtedly more questions you might want to ask yourself as a pastor before you die. But I assure you these five will help you finish your life experiencing reward, not regret. After all, doesn’t Paul’s admonition in I Corinthians 4:2 apply to these areas—moreover isn't it required in stewards that one be found faithful? What is even more exciting is the impact of their lives and ministries continue. There will be no regrets, neither on the behalf of the people to whom they ministered and the ones who led them in ministry.