By Luke Holmes
Have you ever tried to cut a watermelon with a hammer?
That’s the picture I envisioned as I listened to a friend discuss problems at his church. He didn’t know why they couldn’t get through the issues they were facing.
Problems at churches come in all shapes and sizes, but the key to getting through them is having the right tool.
When leaders try to solve all their problems with the same tool, it always ends up a mess, like opening a watermelon with a hammer. Sure it will get the job done, but at what cost?
Thankfully, the Bible shows us there’s a better way to approach problems.
Tools to defend vs. tools to build
We see this in the story of Nehemiah. As he began to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls, he quickly encountered opposition. Sanballat and Tobiah infamously opposed, harassed, and threatened Nehemiah and the people of Israel as they labored away.
Nehemiah organized the people to station guards around the city, and they built with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other. The sword was for protection from their enemies, while the trowel was for the building the walls.
The sword and the trowel are great examples for today of the tools needed for different parts of ministry. Both of these tools are useful for specific purposes.
The need for a sword
In just 53 days, the people of Nehemiah’s day rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, but they were on high alert the entire time. Their enemies could have struck at any moment. Thus, they needed to have swords ready.
Likewise, we pastors need to be on guard for the enemy around us as we build healthy churches and ministries.
The sword is necessary in the life of the church. You might find there are unhealthy or sinful ideas or philosophies attacking your church like racism, pride, hate, or apathy.
A pastor shouldn’t be afraid to stand on truth and attack such things that threaten the life of the church. The purpose of the leader’s sword is to defend the church from ideas, people, or philosophies that want to divide it.
These could be forces inside or outside the church, but when the work of building God’s kingdom is threatened, we can’t be afraid to fight.
The need for a trowel
What we should be afraid of is being too eager to fight. Don’t make the mistake of using the sword when only the trowel is needed.
The sword works quickly in dramatic fashion. Even if one doesn’t know how to use it well, they can do some real damage. In contrast, the trowel slowly builds the walls brick by brick.
The power of the trowel lies in the skill of the one using it. Knowing when to use a sword and when to use a trowel can make the difference in a healthy ministry.
Some churches do need a sword, but not as often as you might think. Many churches are just in need of a good trowel in the hands of a faithful, godly leader.
They need a pastor to come in and slowly and lovingly build up the people, ministries, and culture of a church. The thing is, it’s not nearly as exciting to build slowly as it is to make quick changes.
Building slowly feels, at times, like you aren’t getting anything done. Laying brick upon brick for decades at a church doesn’t feel as exciting as holding up a sword in defense of the truth.
The trowel builds slowly, but the results can last much longer. Nehemiah shows that, in the right hands, a trowel is no match for problems that have existed for decades.
Wisely choosing which tool to use
Upon arrival in a new church a pastor will find there are some things that need to change quickly.
Perhaps the church has a history of inward fighting, or of putting their needs ahead of the community. There might be a toxic culture that doesn’t allow the church to grow.
Even worse, a pastor might discover the church has compromised on issues of the gospel, the inerrancy of Scripture, or the divinity of Jesus. A pastor needs to be willing to draw the sword and stand firm on such issues of first importance.
But pastors will also discover issues of lesser importance: the new church might take the offering at a time that disrupts a preferred flow of service, or the new church might have a long-running ministry that needs revamping.
When pastors get out their swords to start hacking at things that are only personal preferences, they gain a reputation of being foolish, brash, or unwilling to listen.
Don’t use a sword when a trowel will get the job done.
There are seasons in a church when a pastor has to wield the sword. But the old saying is always true: “live by the sword, die by the sword.”
It’s telling that there’s no old saying about trowels. When leaders become too comfortable with the sword, they lose the chance to build something meaningful.
The trowel can do what the sword can’t do through discipleship, relationship, and time—slowly building the people of God into what He’s called them to be. Don’t always reach for the sword when trouble arises.
Figuring out a way to build together takes longer and probably means you don’t always get your way, but the end result will always be a stronger and God-honoring ministry.
The tools we use define us as leaders
The pastor who learns to use the trowel to build is one who’s learned to listen to others and not just teach.
It feels good to stand in the pulpit and declare the way things ought to be. But when we take the time to listen to others, we find it’s not as easy to swing a sword at them.
Listening is one of the most valuable skills a pastor has regardless of the size of their church.
A pastor who learns to use the trowel to build is one who builds future stability instead of a momentary win.
A church that’s slowly built on the solid foundation of Christ will be able to stand strong in the swirling winds of current events, church politics, and changing demographics.
Building for the moment often makes for beautiful but fragile edifices that fall at the first gust of wind. The stronger you want the building to be, the more time you should take to make sure you do it right.
Pastors have many tools at their disposal. Each moment and crisis in a church is an opportunity to bring out such tools and put them to use.
There’s a time for the sword, but there are more opportunities to use the trowel than we think. The tools we use to lead end up defining us as leaders.
It’s important to use tools that are meant to bring life, stability, and safety. Be careful of the tools you use, or they will end up using you.
LUKE HOLMES (@lukeholmes) is husband to Sara, father to three young girls, and pastor at First Baptist Church Tishomingo, Oklahoma since 2011. He’s a graduate of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and can be found online at LukeAHolmes.com.