Joshua Swanson: Welcome to the Walk; a devotionals podcast led by worship leaders. In his episode, Stephen Fry, who in his 50 years in ministry, has literally worn almost every hat in church leadership, as well as played many creative roles, including songwriter, touring artist, author, and playwright, talks about a very important lesson he learned early on about ministering to God. Here we go.
Steven Fry: Hey everyone. It’s so good to be with you on this edition of The Walk and um, and just to, Uh, think about God and, you know, think about our relationship with God and, uh, and especially think about worshiping God. And um, you know, as I look back on, on my life, um, I, I’ve been in full-time Christian service for, you know, about 50 years. Um, but I learned something early on in an encounter I had with the Lord that was just life-changing for me.
I actually started this, this whole ministry thing, uh, right outta high school. You know, our church needed a youth pastor, and so they asked me if I would consider taking the junior high and high school group and I was going to San Jose State, you know, as a freshman and trying to do the youth pastor gig and um, and actually it just kind of blew up and kids starting to come to Christ and God just started doing all kinds of great things.
So it got really, really busy. Um, And over the next three years or so, we saw hundreds and hundreds of young people come to the Lord. And then, you know, uh, we, we trained them, we got ’em into small groups and all the stuff that you do, you know, when you’re doing that kind of stuff.
And, um, I think I’d probably been at it for maybe four years. I was about 21 at this point. And. Uh, I, got to a point where I was absolutely burnt to a crisp. I just was, I was fried, like really fried, and I just sensed that there was something really, really missing. I was tired. I was, I had no emotion. I was really burnt out. And I can remember going to the Lord one afternoon just praying and seeking him and saying, “God, why I, I am just completely burnt out here. I, I just have absolutely no motivation to do anything. I said, what is going on.”
And actually, I felt led to turn to a passage in the book of Ezekiel. Now, who reads Ezekiel? I mean, any of us. I mean, Ezekiel is like one of those books I, didn’t wanna avoid. Okay. Not a lot of good stuff in Ezekiel. A lot of judgment stuff, okay.
So I felt this nudging to turn to Ezekiel 44. I now understand it was like the still small voice of God. So I turned to Ezekiel 44 and I begin reading this account basically of where God is speaking to Israel. Or to Ezekiel about two different groups of priests, one group of Levitical priests and the other group that he calls the Sons of Zadok.
And I was reading this and I, I, I read the first part of it. In fact, I’m gonna read it here. Just part of what, of what God was saying to this first group of priests. Apparently this first group of Levitical priests, they, they were, um, being told by God that they could no longer come into the inner court to minister to him.
And I thought, wow, that’s crazy. Well, as I read this, I, I read these words, God saying to this group of priests, “the Levites who went far from me and they went astray from me after their idols, they will be ministers in my sanctuary. They shall have oversight at the gates of the temple. They shall slaughter the burn offering and sacrifice and all that stuff. They shall stand before the people to minister to them, to them. But they will no longer be able to come into my court, my inner court, and minister to me.”
Well, that struck me. I thought, okay, something’s going on here. Then I kept reading and the next thing that I read was about the Sons of Zadok in that same chapter. “But to these Levitical priests, I’m, I’m saying they can come near to me. They come near to me and they’ll, they will stand before me to minister to me, and when they enter the gates of the inner court, they’ll wear linen garments. They will not wear wool. They’ll have linen turbines on their heads because I don’t want them to wear anything that causes them to sweat.”
Now, I’m gonna come back to that in just a minute, but I, I’m using this passage to convey the story in that moment of time. Here I am, 21. Uh, just absolutely burnt to a crisp. Don’t wanna do anything. No emotion for anything. Feeling really guilty about it all. And I’m reading this passage like, God, what’s going on here?
And it was that moment that the whole idea, the whole truth of ministry to God exploded in me. I said, oh my goodness, you got this one group of priests who weren’t allowed to come into the inner court to minister to God, but they could minister to people. And then you have this other group of priests that were allowed.
God, what’s, what’s the deal here? And as I really sought God that afternoon and sought what was going on in my heart, I realized that there were idols in my heart I wasn’t aware of. You know, here I am just on the verge of, of burnout and getting this understanding About ministry to God.
Now, you know, to understand what’s, what’s going on here, I’ll make this real simple. You know, back in the day, you know, with the Israelites, like the Moses Tabernacle thing, you know, you had the outer court where the, the bronze altar was, and that’s where people would come and they would offer their sacrifices and you know, the priests would be out there helping people, uh, offer their sacrifices.
And they wore wool. They wore wool garments and, you know, out there in the outer court it was pretty messy stuff. You know, helping people offer their sacrifices and all that cool stuff. But when it was their turn to come into the inner court, you know, that was the place where the alter of incense was, which is like a type of our worship.
They would put on the linen and, and, and that was part of their joy, was to come and offer incense before God on the altar of incense. Well, that’s kind of like what our worship is. So I’m saying, God, look it, I’m 21. I’m dealing with young people. What does all this mean for me? And it got real simple to me that day. It’s like, I was so busy ministering to people and neglecting my worship to the Lord that I had a 21 just burnt myself out. I was on the verge of retirement, didn’t wanna do anything else, just burnt out. And for me, the reading that Ezekiel passage, it says, because of their idols, they were not allowed to come into the inner court to minister to God.
Well, gosh, I don’t, I don’t bow down to Gods of metal and stone. You know, like, how does this apply to me? God. Oh, oh, so ministry itself had become an idol.
Steven Fry: The stuff I would get from young people, the feeling of worth, the feeling of value, the feeling of significance as people would respond to my ministry, it was intoxicating. And I began to realize that I was feeding off of people’s responses. Rather than feeding off of the presence and nature of God in that intimate place with him, so that I had become almost addicted to ministry. I mean, we had all kind of things going on. You know, eight days a week, right? And we had up reaches and outreaches and down reaches, and in-reaches. Gosh, we just had so much stuff going on.
But at the end of the day, I felt like this, the work of ministry, the feeling of worth I got from my place of leadership, from how people responded to me had become an idol. So that day I felt like, wow, I gotta, I gotta change my clothes. You know? I’ve been out there in the, in the woolman, just wearing the wool, sweating, working with people, and that’s all good. I wanna make sure that we. It was good for the priests to be in the outer court helping people, you know, helping them with their sacrifices, serving people just like it’s good for you and me to be out there counseling people and encouraging people and praying with people and doing the hard stuff, the heavy lifting with people.
But you see, the joy we get is not there. The joy that lasts is the joy that we get in our time with the Lord. In our, what we might call our quiet times with God. In those unhurried times where we are, we are out of that linen. The linen robes. I’m, I’m gonna come to that in just a minute. What does that mean to us? But it’s that place of rest. It’s that see linen. That’s why God said, “Hey, I want them to wear linen in the inner court cause I don’t want ’em to sweat.” See, I was just sweating, man. I was sweating. Are we gonna grow? Uh, are we gonna be successful? Are we gonna reach people? Are people gonna like me? You know, that was causing me an inner sweat, inner anxiety, fear, all that stuff. And I, I had, I just had lost that, that anchor off joy that comes from his presence.
Looking at these two groups here, this kind of stark picture from Ezekiel 44 really spoke to me. And I did feel like the encouragement, I didn’t feel judged by the Lord at all. He’s our father and, and he doesn’t judge us, but he does, he does woo us and he does sometimes speak directly with us, and this is one of those times where he spoke directly to my heart. And, and, and he said, um, look, he said, son, I, I have given you your ministry. I’ve given you your gift. And you know, as the word says in the New Testament, God’s gifts and callings are without repentance. It means he doesn’t change his mind.
He gives us those gifts and callings. But I felt the Lord say to me that afternoon as a 21 year old leader, if you continue on this pathway, if you continue just hanging out in the outer court wearing the wool, and you don’t allow me to refresh you, put the line on and minister to me. If you continue your minister to people without ministering to me, then I will not take your anointing away. I will not take your gifting away, but I will over time allow you to be given over to your ministry. And I realized then as a young leader, what I had observed in my dad’s generation. I was around a lot of wonderful leaders, but sometimes I didn’t always sense that simple, sweet joy of the Lord in them.
I suddenly found them to be, you know, driven, uh, maybe preoccupied with success, you know, maybe a little harsh or kind of very performance-oriented, right? And I thought, yeah, I don’t wanna be like that when I grow in my leadership, but I was on the verge of just that kind of thing where I, I would be anointed because God’s not gonna take his anointing away from me, but, to ever think of myself being at a place where I was anointed to minister without the inner joy of the sense of his pleasure.
That actually, struck me hard that day. I, it, it was a sobering moment. There was a fear of God moment. I said, oh God, may that never happen. May that never happen to me. May I just come and allow you to nourish me in that still small place as I’m ministering to you.
Joshua Swanson: When we come back to Steve, he’ll unpack the Sons of Zadok and the robes of linen versus the robes of wool.
But first, I had a great conversation with Aaron Stewart, the Co-founder of the Planning Center and the sponsor of this episode.
Aaron Stewart: We started Planning Center to solve a need in our own church. And we wanted to keep focused on solving things we cared about and that we felt like we had solutions for and at the beginning it was worship teams. As time went on, we saw a lot more areas in the church that could use our help that we gained new passions for. And so we developed products to help people give, to connect the small groups, to register for events to maintain their entire church calendar. And now we’re an entire church management system that can make sure that all of that administration from your church happens in one central place.
Joshua Swanson: Since so many of us use Planning Center to plan out our worship services, I asked Aaron, what are some of the other features that our audience should know about?
Aaron Stewart: Our People Membership Database is especially helpful to make sure that none of the people fall through the cracks, and there are lots of features to make sure that you know what’s happening in your church so that you can prevent that and reach out to people.
The second part is our group’s product, which keeps anybody in small groups or other types of groups, not only connected with each other by being able to have like a chat app on their phone, but also to make sure that they’re connected with the church as well.
Joshua Swanson: And then, finally, I asked them about some of the great stories of people using Planning Center and, and being blessed by it.
Aaron Stewart: The types of stories that I especially love hearing are from people who are bi-vocational. They have a different job and are trying to help out their church in whatever ways they can and being able to use software that they can get on their phone or from their work or from, um, from home that helps them organize the church and helps make sure that they’re following up on the people that they care about at church, um, is one of the things that I love that Planning Center empowers anybody to be able to do.
Joshua Swanson: We’ll put the link in the show notes, but of course you can head over to www.planningcenter.com to check out more. And thanks again, Aaron, for your time.
Another quick note, Steven is also a guest teacher with our Worship Leader Institute. His upcoming course on intimacy with God through Worship is one of our best, and you can find out more about it at worshipleaderinstitute.com. That’s worshipleaderinstitute.com.
Okay, back to Steven.
Steven Fry: I sat there that, that afternoon and, and just felt so much in my heart. Oh, God, I, don’t feel judged by you in this moment. I feel so loved by you that you would point this out, that you would protect me from a path I’m taking that would lead to such a place of ministering just in your anointing without your joy and God, I don’t want that. And I just felt a real commitment to get back to that place of ministry, to the Lord in the private place of worship.
And so when I ask God, well, you know, what does this look like practically for. I went back to that second group, this was cool. You know the Word is really practical. Even when you read passages like this that kinda seem so like out there, like, oh my goodness, how do I relate reading about the Sons of Zadok when God says, but they, they will come and minister to me and, and look at the way they’re prepared.
So, like the first thing that, that he says to that group of priests is to take the wool off and put the linen on. Now, I’ll tell you how I apply that. You know, when I come before the Lord and have quiet time or devotional time, if you’re like me, I my mind is just rushed with all the stuff that I have to do, all the texts I have to respond to, the emails I’ve gotta respond to, the stuff I’ve gotta do.
I’m just, I just, my mind is crammed full of stuff I’ve gotta do. Well, that’s the wool, that’s the ministry part to people that’s important. But I’m sweating in that moment. I’m to take the wool off. How do I do that? Now, what I do is I will just take some moments and if I, if I need to write some things down, I’ll have a, a, a, you know, something to write on my device or, you know, even a pad and pen and I’ll just write, oh, I gotta call that person. Oh yeah. Okay. I gotta follow through there and I’ll sort of decompress for a few seconds. Sometimes it takes me 30 seconds, maybe it might take me a couple minutes, but I try to just get it all out. Uh, and then I will say, now, Lord. I am putting the linen on.
I’m, I’m, I’m taking the wool off, which is committing all this stuff to you, the people I have to take care of, the family members that I have to address all that for this moment, I am taking all of that off this moment that is yours. I’m committing my way to you, as proverb says in this moment. And I’ll get to a place where sometimes my mind keeps getting flooded with stuff.
Sometimes I just have to turn it off and say, okay, right now I’ve debriefed, I’ve, I’ve decompressed, I’ve written all this stuff down. Stuff’s still coming into my head. Okay. Lord, I’m gonna adopt the mindset. Let the world go hang. Let it go hang right now. Just I’m done. Uh, if something comes in my mind, I’m not gonna worry about it. That’s not my deal. My mind is now at this point, devoted to the Lord. I’ve taken the wool off.
You know, it says in Psalm 46 that we are to be still and know that he is God. And see the taking the wool off is that process of stealing our hearts in the moment. And so once I get to that place of stillness, now what? Okay, put the linen on. Well, the linen speaks of grace. I mean, you know, the linen in, in Revelation, I think it’s chapter 19, it is the righteousness of the saints. What is that righteousness? It’s not my righteousness, it’s Christ’s righteousness. He has given me his righteousness. It’s the grace thing. You know, I am secure in his grace, so I take the linen on, which means I am reminding myself of my position in Christ.
I am his beloved. I am his. And what I often do is I, one of the ways I practically put the linen on is I begin my quiet time, my ministry to God time, by calling on his nature. I don’t immediately rush. Asking him for stuff or praying for stuff, I start with, Lord, you are creator of the universe. You are lover of my soul. You are the rock on whom I stand. You are the high tower I run to when I am just frantic.
So I actually put the linen on by rehearsing the character of God. And I will tell you this, this is the most ancient form of prayer, by the way. So if you go back to Genesis, you know, remember that passage in Genesis chapter four, “and in that day, men began to call on the name of the Lord, calling on the name of the Lord.”
This is the first time prayers are mentioned. Calling on the name of the Lord is the most ancient form of prayer, and it was calling on the character of God. It was mentioning his character. I hardly ever now come to prayer without first coming before him and extolling his character in some way. That’s putting on the linen.
Now, when I’ve put on that linen, now what? Well, now I’m in a place of stillness to respond. To the Holy Spirit within me. Again, Jesus said that we worship the Father, what in spirit and in truth, right? There’s an application there. To worship God in truth means that my life needs to line up with my worship. I can’t be worshiping God with, “oh God, you’re faithful,” if I’m being disloyal to a brother. In other words, that’s, that’s how it connects. You know, I’m worshiping, in truth, my worship life is not separate from, you know, my character.
To worship in spirit, one of the ways to look at that is we lean into the Holy Spirit letting him lead us in the act of worship. I mean, the Spirit knows the mind of the Father, Paul said, and 1 Corinthians 2, knows the mind of the father even better than me. So I’m there just saying what, Holy Spirit, what please the Father?
And, and I just get these little impulses of just clap your hands or raise your hands to heaven. Or, or, or, or, or dance. Dance in the room. You know, just the father would be, would be pleased if you would respond to him in this way. I’m not, again, trying to be super spiritual when I do this. I’m just simply letting the Holy Spirit direct and guide me into the expressions of ministry to the Lord in worship that would please his heart in that moment.
And so in that way, suddenly taking off the wool, putting on the linen, getting still, and then reminding myself of God’s character and then worshiping him in creative ways in the moment as the Holy Spirit kind of prompts me to do; all these are ways that I get to minister to the Lord and I have found that when I minister to the Lord in that way regularly then my ministry to people maintains its joy, maintains its power. I maintain motivation to keep reaching people because it’s flowing out of that, that joy place in God. I went to really encourage you. Make this a lifestyle. Let all of your ministry flow out of your ministry to God, and then you’ll have the authority, the integrity, and the grace, big time grace, to touch people.
I trust that this has encouraged you. It’s been good to be with you. God bless.
Joshua Swanson: Steven listed several steps that I wanted to quickly review again, as they are so important for those seeking to minister from a place of joy and power and motivation, and not from a place of fear and burnout.
It was first taking off the wool and putting on the linen. Then getting still. Then reminding ourselves of the character of God when we pray, and then worshiping and praying to him in creative ways in the moment as the Spirit prompts. So good. Thank you, Steve, for your heart and dedication to serving our community of worshipers.
As I mentioned earlier, Stephen is an accomplished songwriter and artist and will be playing out this episode with a song he wrote and performed called To Live is Christ
As always, special thanks to Matt McCartie for producing and editing today’s episode. Jacob Fairclough produced our theme song. The Walk is brought to you by Worship Leader Magazine, which is an Authentic Media brand. I’m Joshua Swanson. Here’s To Live Is Christ.