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The Speaking Circuit

It is a common theme in the Christian world. A man is called to the ministry in the local church and over time proves to be a man who can build a church, a man who leads or preaches in such a way that a church grows up around him. His popularity results in book contracts and opportunities to speak at conferences and at other churches. Perhaps he establishes a parachurch ministry along the way. And then, one day, still in his prime years, he gives up the pulpit to focus on writing and speaking and other interests. He leaves that local church behind and leaves pastoral ministry with it.

It happens and it happens quite regularly. Having traveled widely and having spoken at many different churches and for many different conferences, I can understand the attraction (while granting, of course, that any success or accolades I’ve experienced pale in comparison to so many other men). I can understand why and how people could give up leading the local church in favor of the speaking circuit. I began to think about this as Rob Bell announced his resignation from Mars Hill just as I set out for 6 days of speaking engagements at a conference, a college and a church.

Of course I cannot judge any other man’s motives. Unless a man chooses to reveal his reasons, I do not know why he decides to leave the pastorate to pursue writing or speaking or a combination of the two. However, though I cannot judge another person’s motives, I know that to some extent I can judge my own. And if I were to leave the pastorate to be a speaker and author, I think I know why I would do so.

It would come down to my heart. There is something about the speaking circuit that calls. There is something about it that offers something better (or something that tries to insist that it’s better). The speaking circuit offers a kind of affirmation, a kind of ease, that does not and cannot exist in the local church.

Every time you speak at a conference you are given a kind introduction. You walk to the platform and return to your seat to the sound of applause. You look out at hundreds of people, or thousands. You are met with admirers who are eager to speak to you or to express gratitude for one of your books or articles. You are asked for an autograph. You are given a check as you leave, and often quite a generous one.

These are all good things. A kind introduction can establish reasons that the audience should listen to you and it can honor a person for his accomplishment. Applause is our culture’s way of expressing respect and appreciation. A large audience offers an opportunity to impact more souls. People want to express gratitude for the ways you may have helped them with your words and they want to give true, biblical encouragement. It is fine for a church to offer an honorarium (consider the first 5 letters of that word) to a person who speaks.

The problem is not in the conference but in the heart. In my heart. I’ve never felt it in full force but I’ve certainly felt twinges of it.

No one introduces me when I preach at Grace Fellowship Church (though sometimes I introduce myself when I lead the service). I’ve never heard applause at the end of a sermon. I don’t hear too much praise about my books or articles, especially months after they’ve been printed. No one quietly hands me a check on my way out the door.

Don’t think I’m bitter. Not at all. I know that I am loved at Grace Fellowship Church, but it’s a very different kind of love. It’s a more mature love, a more realistic and sustainable love. It’s a deeper love. It’s a love that is affirmed in other ways. Truly, it’s better this way. But it may not always feel like it.

I think it can compare it to the man who leaves his wife to run away with his secretary. The wife of his youth has a deeper love and a deeper appreciation for him, but the other woman, the one at the office rather than the home, is the one who says the nice things without the difficult things, the one who is attentive, the one who is seen in only glimpses and who always seeks to be at her best. He can have her on his terms and then leave her and walk away. There’s no real commitment, nothing long-term. 

When you’re out on the road, staying in a nice hotel (where they make the beds), eating at nice restaurants (where they do the dishes), having returned from hearing kind words (and applause) and with a generous honorarium in your hand, well, the conference circuit can look a bit like that secretary—all made-up and nicely-dressed and sexy and offering plenty of good things.

I remember R.C. Sproul proclaiming that he would leave the pulpit when someone pried the Bible out of his cold, dead hands. John MacArthur has said that he will stay there until he dies or until he stops making sense. I admire statements like these because it makes a proclamation that there is no higher calling and no better calling than pastoring a local church. Conference ministry and book writing and parachurch ministries have their place, but all pale in comparison to the ministry of the local church. This is true whether that church draws 1,000 people or 100 people.

So I don’t know why another man would give up pastoring the local church to move on to other interests. But if I were to do so, at least right now, I think this would be it—the desire for all the benefits of the speaking circuit without the long, hard kind of love and commitment that comes with pastoring a local church. But if I did so, I know I’d be leaving behind the best thing of all.