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First Thoughts

Making It In Ministry: Lessons from the Life of John Sullivan

Longevity In Ministry

On Sunday, November 12, the members of First Baptist Church Jacksonville celebrated John Sullivan for his 68 years in ministry. 68 years is a long time to be alive—much less to be in ministry. For some perspective, I am 44 years old. That means that before I took my first breath of air in 1979, Dr Sullivan had been doing ministry for 24 years. That accomplishment is remarkable in its own right.

But it is remarkable for another reason.

I started in vocational ministry in the late 90s. If you made a list of the leading figures in evangelical Christian ministry at that time, you would discover that many of them didn’t make it. Far too many names on that list have disqualified and disgraced themselves through pride, abuse of power, sexual immorality, and financial scandal.

I observe a painful practice whenever a minister of the gospel fails. I gather the pastors of our church at our regular meeting, and we pay attention to the failure. We observe the mistakes and the sins and seek to learn from it. One of the hopes of such a practice is that it allows us to learn from the failures of others without making those same failures ourselves.

But it is crucial not only to learn from the failures of ministers who did not make it but also to learn from the successes of those who do. I want to celebrate John Sullivan’s 68 years in ministry by learning how he did what so many could not, namely, make it through decades of ministry with his integrity and faithfulness intact.

I have learned many lessons over the years of working closely with John Sullivan. Here are four that I think are the most helpful.

Be Faithful

To know John Sullivan is to know a man who is absolutely devoted to the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). He is marked by a real love for Jesus and a total commitment to the Bible. To know Dr. Sullivan is to know a man who would gladly lay down his life for the Lord Jesus Christ. These commitments were proven by Dr. Sullivan as he served with faithfulness and distinction through the conservative resurgence, to name just one of the battles in which he fought.

For Dr. Sullivan, ministry was no platform. It was not a means to fame or money. In fact, on numerous occasions, he rejected those things in favor of faithfulness to the Lord. And Jesus Christ has honored his faithful service with a lasting legacy of faithfulness.

Be Humble

To know Dr. Sullivan is to know a man who is marked by humility. I think everyone who is close to Dr. Sullivan has seen this, but I have seen it in a unique way as his boss.

Think about how hard it must be for someone like John Sullivan to have someone like me for a boss. He has pastored more churches, been involved in bigger denominational battles, and is far wiser than I. He has three times as much ministry experience as I do.

In spite of all those challenges, there has not been a single time when Dr. Sullivan has done anything other than support me. There was never a time that he had a question or a suggestion that he failed to bring it up to me, but always in private and always with respect. He always spoke highly of me to others and publicly supported my leadership—even when that leadership was controversial.

This support does not trace back to anything about my leadership but to his remarkable heart of humility. I have known plenty of ministers with a fraction of his experience and education who have none of his humility. I am confident that God’s promise to oppose the proud and give grace to the humble (James 4:6) is a tremendous reason behind Dr. Sullivan’s longevity in ministry.

Be Wise

Proverbs 4:5 extends the command to, “Get wisdom!” In the Bible, wisdom is not the same thing as knowledge or information. The command in Proverbs 4 is not the same thing as saying, “Get smart” or “Get education.” Wisdom, in the biblical sense, is something more akin to applied knowledge. In Scripture, a wise person is someone who certainly has information but who also knows what to do with it.

Over the years of working with him, I have found John Sullivan to be a man of profound wisdom. On countless occasions, I would meet with Dr. Sullivan and discuss incredibly complex situations we were facing at First Baptist. Dr. Sullivan always had a wise word or helpful insight.

I could tell many stories of Dr. Sullivan’s wisdom, but I’ll limit myself to one story of how Dr. Sullivan used humor in his display of wisdom. Dr. Sullivan is an expert at using humor to take the edge off a difficult situation. He demonstrated that several years ago in a meeting with several other pastors in our church. One of the men in the room had been asked a question and was responding nervously and talking far too long. As he rambled, all of us in the room were side-eyeing one another, wondering when this guy was going to get to the point and stop talking. Dr. Sullivan raised his finger, looked at the man, and asked if he could make a suggestion. When the man said he could, Dr. Sullivan said, “When someone asks what time it is, you don’t need to tell them how to build a watch.”

Everyone in the room—including the verbose pastor—began laughing hysterically. It was a masterclass in a wise use of humor. Everyone knew the guy was talking too much and getting nowhere fast. Everyone knew the situation was going to have to come to an end—and potentially a very awkward one. Dr. Sullivan knew how to turn it into a story that we all still remember with joy.

Be Devoted

If I know anything about Dr. Sullivan, I know he is devoted to two things. The first is Jesus’ bride, the church. Dr. Sullivan has given his life for the church of Jesus Christ. I have watched him pour out his life to his own hurt for the good of Christ’s bride. I have seen him give when others would have bailed. This devotion has been apparent to all of us who know him; it is why we love him, and it is a significant reason for how he has made it so long. For John Sullivan, the church wasn’t there to serve him; he was there to serve the church.

The second object of Dr. Sullivan’s devotion was his wife, Nancy. John and Nancy built a wonderful life together, serving the church and growing their family. It was a gift to see them together, loving one another, preferring one another, and pouring out their lives and marriage for ministry.

In 2020, when Nancy went to be with Jesus, those of us who were with him saw Dr. Sullivan walk through the greatest difficulty of his life. As hard as it was, it was also encouraging. His heart was broken, but he never gave up his faith. His life felt shattered, but he never fell apart. And now, in the years after her death, I have seen him honor her memory time and again. It is one of the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen of marital devotion. So many in ministry miss this as they indulge their lusts and waste the precious gift of marriage.

Not Dr. Sullivan. I am so thankful for the personal portrait of marital faithful I got to see in his life.

For years, I have said to Dr. Sullivan that I want to be just like him when I grow up. It is true. If I can make it into old age with half the faithfulness, wisdom, humility, and devotion I have seen from him, then the Lord will have been remarkably kind.

Click the link to hear Pastor Heath and Dr. Sullivan talk more about Faithful Ministry

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

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